How to get work as a professional musician in a new city (Part 2)

In Part 1, I gave some general advice about establishing yourself as a professional musician when you move to a new city. (It will also help you get work in your present location too!). I also told the story about how I myself got my first musical job in New York City. In this post, I’d like to follow-up by sharing a very specific strategy that I recently gave to one of my piano students, Mike.

Mike studies with me online through, and he recently moved from a small, remote town to a big city in the Midwestern United States. Mike is an extremely talented pianist and keyboard player who started improvising a few years ago. In his former town, he became a musical “big fish in a small pond” in the best sense of the term. He began using the improv skills I taught him at his weekend job as musical director and keyboard player for a local church, which was fairly big for the area. He would improvise preludes and postludes, and take solos during the choir selections. His community embraced his musical efforts, complimented him on his progress, and gave him plenty of opportunities to practice his new-found pianistic skills. He also took initiative by performing at his company’s annual holiday party and similar events.

As a jazz and pop pianist, Mike is about at the level that I was at during my first year in college, when I began playing professionally. He sounds smooth and professional with the church music, show tunes, and some pop music, and is working hard to bring his jazz playing up to the same level. But when he recently moved to the “big city,” I think he was a little surprised to see how difficult it can be to get established as a pianist in such a large local scene. Even though he is accomplished enough to work as a church musician, for example, his initial inquiries didn’t lead anywhere. And his city has so many jazz and blues pianists that all the club work is already taken.

I’ve thought long and hard about what Mike should do. My first idea was that he could volunteer his services to play piano at charitable functions. But then I had a “eureka” moment and came up with a mastermind plan. Here’s what Mike is going to do:

Since he is a wonderful vocalist, I’ve advised Mike to find a few “open mics,” where vocalists can go to a club and sing a song or two with a pianist or band. He’s going to find a jazz open mic and one that features Broadway tunes. But here’s the key: he’s not going to sing the first time, or tell anyone that he plays piano. When you go to an open mic or public jam session, don’t perform the first time you go. Just hang out and check out the scene. Become comfortable there and don’t put any performance pressure on yourself. Meet a few people and maybe give the pianist or bandleader a nice compliment at the end. “Nice playing! I liked how you played such-and-such song.” Don’t’ be phony, but keep in mind that everyone likes a compliment and they might remember your kind thoughts when you eventually come back and perform.

So if you can sing, go there again the next week and sing a song or two, but still don’t tell anyone you play piano unless it comes up naturally in conversation. (You’re not hiding the fact, but you’re not advertising it either.) Your goal is to become known as a good singer and to make some friends with the other vocalists. You’ll quickly become part of the vocal community, meet some supportive people, and have a good music and social experience on a weekly basis. This in itself will go a long way towards making you feel comfortable in your new home!

After a while, you can start mentioning that you play piano. Ask one of the vocalists if they would like to get together and jam at some time. Every vocalist needs an accompanist and they’ll probably jump at the chance to have someone play for them. If you play your cards right, you’ll soon have several rehearsals per week with various singers, where you can gain valuable playing experience in a no-pressure environment. It’s just for fun, but at the same time you’ll be improving as a pianist and making deep friendships and professional connections. After all, when one of these singers gets a gig, there’s a very good chance they’ll hire you to play for them, since you already know their music and are fun to work with!

For me, the most interesting part of this approach is that you’re not tackling the problem of finding pianistic work directly, but a little bit from the side. Just like my church organ experience in Part 1, you’re establishing a musical point of entry which can then branch out to include your eventual pianistic goals. It’s very different than loudly announcing that you’re a new pianist who’s looking for work. After all, the established players on the local scene are probably finding it difficult to get enough work for themselves. They may not exactly embrace the fact that one more “competitor” has moved into town. So if you make friends with a musical community that is looking for someone, it can be a lot easier to become an established musician. And once you’re established, you’ll then have a lot more options available to you. Think about how this can apply to your own situation. Take a close look at all of your musical skills and see who needs those skills in your new community.

In Part 3, I’ll share a slightly more “tongue-in-cheek” aspect of this, which is humorous and highly effective. Good luck with your musical pursuits!

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