7 Things All Musicians New to Chicago Should Know

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view from man on stage singing into a mic

Photo by Marcos Luiz Photography on Unsplash


The characteristics that make this city so great for musicians — it’s huge, multifarious, and full of opportunity– can also make it a tad overwhelming. That’s why we compiled this advice for musicians new to Chicago.

The recommendations come straight from our amazing teachers, many of whom started out as Chicago newbies themselves, and range in genre, including classical and opera.

We hope this advice helps guide you through a (Chicago) river of venues, jam sessions, and networking opportunities! With a little effort and open-mindedness, it won’t take long before you start to find your groove.

1. Go to jam sessions and/or open mics!

This is, hands-down, one the best ways to get seen, build up a reputation, and meet other musicians in the city.

Some musicians dislike jam sessions because of the unpredictable nature of who or what shows up. “But what they provide is a space to network, to hear a lot of different people, and to gauge where you are in the scene,” said former Piano Power teacher Andrew Lawrence.

Recommendations include:

Jazz

The Whistler Jam // Serbian Village Monday Jazz Jam // Moe’s Tavern Jazz Jam // Tuesday Night Fellowship at The Hungry Brain // The Andy’s Late Night Jazz Jam

The Whistler bar in Chicago

The Whistler

Blues

Buddy Guy’s Legends Blues Jam

Classical

Liederstube Song Salon hosted by Eugenia Cheng

Opera

Opera on Tap

Hip-hop

606 Open Mic Hip Hop Night at Subterranean

All genres

The Gallery Cabaret Open Mic // Bucktown Pub Open Mic // Uncommon Ground Open Mic // The Rock House (in Glenview and Wilmette) Open Mic Night & Open Jam Night

empty stage with stool and mic

The stage at Uncommon Ground

2. Be deliberate about meeting other musicians.

Besides the aforementioned jam sessions/open mics, here are some other ideas for meeting your fellow musicians.

  • Don’t be picky about gigs. The gig or the venue might not be great, but you never know where or when you’ll meet another musician you gel with.
  • Get gigs by subbing. “You get in someone’s phone, and if someone can’t make it they need you. It snowballs. The time between your first and second gig is hopefully going to be the longest time— as the snowball grows it gets faster,” said Lawrence.
  • Go to lots of shows. You’ll start to see repeat fans, and eventually the bands you’re interested in might start to recognize you, too. You can talk to them after their set and tap them for advice. Be adventurous– go to clubs you’ve never been before, even if you’ve heard negative things about them. Consider all sides and neighborhoods of the city.
  • Go to shows of people you want to meet and/or collaborate with. Introduce yourself, then call those people for your own gigs.
  • Be confident. Easier said than done, but think of it this way. When you walk into a room, know that you belong there. It’s true that people are more comfortable with people they already know, but if you stay calm, friendly, and interested, you’ll make acquaintances.
  • Split a bill with another local band. “I’ve met some of my best friends this way,” said Piano Power teacher Joe Meland. “We just happened to be playing the same gig and hit it off in the green room!”
  • Use that social media! Facebook and LinkedIn have many active forums for musicians in every genre.
  • Audition! In the classical community, auditions are great for meeting musicians. “You’ll start to get to know each other, because it is a pretty small community,” said Piano Power teacher Sarah Diller.
  • Host a jam session or open mic. Meeting musicians to fill those spots will be a requirement!
  • Play in the house band for a jam session or open mic. It’s like having a front-row view of all the players in town.
  • Finally, Piano Power teacher Candace Washburn says, “there’s always musicians at the bar at Lincoln Station!”
  • 3. Get to know the (endless!) venues. Favorites include:

    Constellation – jazz, improvisation and contemporary classical.

    Elastic Arts — creative, independent, and local music concerts, exhibitions, and multi-arts performances

    Slate Arts – New Media arts and music

    Martyr’s – various genres

    Wire (Berwyn) – various genres

    Uncommon Ground (two locations) – various genres; acoustic & intimate

    Mayne Stage – various genres

    Mayne Stage marquee

    Mayne Stage


    House of Blues (smaller stage) – rock and blues

    Chop Shop / 1st Ward – various genres

    Schuba’s and Lincoln Hall – various genres

    Empty Bottle – “music friendly dancing”

    Subterranean – various genres

    The Whistler – various genres

    aliveOne– various genres

    California Clipper – various genres

    Thalia Hall – various genres

    The Riviera – various genres

    The Metro – various genres

    The Green Mill – jazz (traditional, bebop, contemporary, improvisational)

    The Hideout – various genres

    Tonic Room – various genres

    Chicago Symphony Center – classical, opera, chamber, choral, jazz

    Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center in Chicago

    Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center, photo by Todd Rosenberg, courtesy of Chicago Symphony Orchestra


    Pritzker Pavilion – various genres

    Ravinia Festival – various genres

    Lyric Opera – opera

    Harris Theater for Music and Dance – classical, choral, world, jazz

    Winter’s Jazz Club – jazz

    4. See and support local music and bands!

    Chicago is bursting at the seams with incredible artists of all genres. Here are some of our teacher’s favorite local acts, divided by genre:

    Jazz

    Black Diamond // Twin Talk // Chris Shuttleworth Quartet // Sarah Marie Young // Frank Catalano // Nicole Mitchell // Bonzo Squad

    Jazz-infused hip-hop

    Dassit

    Soul-jazz-fusion

    Human Bloom

    Human Bloom photo by Brandon Jones, courtesy of the band’s Facebook page


    Gypsy-jazz alt-folk

    Le Percolateur

    Big band

    Big Band Boom!

    Rock/jam

    Mr. Blotto // Jaik Willis // Family Groove Company

    Funk

    Spare Parts

    Bluegrass

    Henhouse Prowlers

    Punk

    Voice of Addiction

    Metal

    Orinoco

    Choral / Chamber / Vocal Ensemble

    La Caccina // UNUM // Grant Park Chorus // Bella Voce // Music of the Baroque // William Ferris Chorale

    La Caccina photo courtesy of Voyage Chicago


    Indie-folk rock

    Liz and the Lovelies

    Pop / Experimental

    Iverson // Wei Zhongle // ONO // Fire-Toolz

    5. Don’t forget the suburbs, and the rest of Illinois!

    Consider playing the suburbs — Two Brothers in Aurora and Durty Nellie’s in Palatine — are popular spots. College towns provide good opportunities to build an audience and network. In Illinois consider Dekalb, Urbana, and Carbondale, and Davenport and Bloomington in Indiana.

    6. The most important thing you can do is work on your music.

    When you start to sound better at sessions and gigs week after week, people begin to notice. When you hole up and work on growing internally, you’ll start to grow externally, too.

    7. But…your reputation might be even more important than your music.

    “You can network all you want, but if you’re not polished enough in your professionalism, that’s an issue,” said Lawrence. “If people know you as someone who will run music ahead of time, come with gear, is on time and easy to hang with— and you have the skills— then people are going to want to call you.”

    It takes time to build a community. Be patient, take your time, and keep putting yourself out there.

    Chicago is huge, but it’s more livable than New York and Los Angeles. And, as Lawrence put it, “You don’t have to pay $1000 to live in a box.”

    Want more advice from our working-musician teachers? Check out our profiles on jazz drummer Lucas Gillan, multi-instrumentalist Andrew Lawrence, and indie-opera renegades Mallory Harding and Leah Rockweit.

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