Getting out. Most musicians I know hate finding their own gigs. It’s uncomfortable to sell oneself and to negotiate compensation. For musicians who are just getting started, it’s a Catch-22; venues want to know where you’re performing and what kind of crowds you can attract before they book you, and you have to start somewhere. A social media presence helps, but it’s not going to get you work. To book gigs, you’ve got to be where the music is!
Research venues. I started by Googling local jazz venues and went to them. When the musicians were on break, I would introduce myself and was often invited to sit in (more about that later). The more musicians you meet, the easier it gets over time. You may find that certain venues make you feel more at home than others, and that’s where you can meet musicians with whom you can collaborate on future gigs.
Be determined, and things will start to happen. Over the holidays, I read A Drummer's Story by Warren Benbow. The book really brought home to me the importance of being a part of the music scene. Warren started his musical career at The High School of Performing Arts in New York in the late 1960’s and early ‘70’s, so he had a leg up on most of us. But the harder we work, the luckier we get, and Warren is a great example of what opportunities determination can help you to create. Hanging out at the Apollo Theater, he describes meeting R&B musicians with whom he later recorded. After one such session at the Record Plant studio, Warren explains that the studio manager asked him to come by sometime. “So, I was there the next day. Ha! And the day after that, and the day after that, and the day after that…People didn’t know who I was, but I was just always there…I started hanging out, and before I knew it, I was recording there myself.”
Sitting in. Once you start getting out in the music scene, sooner or later – and hopefully sooner – you’ll be invited to sit in with the band. This is your chance to perform a song or two and have fun. Here are a few things I’ve learned about sitting in, sometimes that hard way:
Pick a song(s) that you know really, really well. Jazz is improvisation, and when you sit in, anything can happen, so you’ve got to expect and be able to handle surprises. That’s why I suggest choosing a song that you know so well that you can sing it on autopilot in case you get nervous or distracted by the unexpected. Ideally, it should be a song whose starting note you can hear in your head. That can be really helpful when you perform a song with a band you don’t know and who may play the music differently from how you’re used to performing it.
Figure out who is leading the band and communicate with him or her throughout the song. As per the last point, you need to be able to communicate in real time, as the band doesn’t know how you perform a particular song. Watch the band before you get onstage to see who is the one giving direction to the other musicians. S/he will help you know when it’s time for you to come in after the instrumental solos. You have to let the lead know if you’re coming back at the top or the bridge, and how you’re going to end the song. You’ll develop your own cues. For example, I top the top of my head or move my hand back and forth across my middle to signal top or bridge of a song, respectively. For endings, I typically hold up one, two or three fingers to indicate home many times I’ll repeat the last line.
Pay attention to each instrumentalist. Many instrumentalists don’t appreciate singers because they demand – and often get - all the attention. You want to please your audience, but the singer is a part of the team, and you can’t deliver without the musicians who are playing with you and creating the foundation for your song. Listen to what they’re doing. Play off of each other, have fun, and show them your appreciation. They’ll show it right back to you. One of them may even help you find your next gig!
Don’t get ahead of yourself. Recently, I sat in after a singer who chose Summertime and another pretty easy song, and I thought I would pick a more difficult song because (I thought) I could. I chose Dizzy Gillespie’s A Night in Tunisia, looking up my key from an old email on my phone. The problem is, I gave the piano player the wrong key, and I got lost. The key was too high, and my plan backfired. We only get one chance to make a first impression, so as tempting as it is to choose a complex song, it’s a much safer bet to choose one that you can keep singing confidently even if everything were to go wrong around you.
Don’t be a one-trick pony. It’s a small world, and once you start getting out, you’re bound to run into musicians, managers and customers who have heard you sing before. There’s a performer I’ve seen probably a dozen times who consistently sits in singing All of Me. Every time. You don’t ever want to be that predictable. Treat each opportunity as a potential job interview and show whoever’s listening that you have the range and repertoire to handle a three- or four-hour gig.
Get to know the musicians. If you’re shy, you may want to run off the stage and head home after you’ve sat in, but don’t. Hang around and talk to the musicians when they go on break. You can start by thanking them for letting you sit in and strike up a conversation if they are up for it. If nothing else, get their names and exchange business cards. If audience members come up to you, speak with them as well, and let them know yourname.
Networking is important in every career, and it is even more important in the gig economy. Music is no exception, so take a deep breath, get out, and sit in!