An earlier version of this article first appeared in Acoustic Guitar Magazine written by Susan Anders ~ vocal instructor
You’ve been singing for awhile now, you’ve developed a technique and style that works for you, your
confidence is high, and you just need one thing before you hit that jam session, stage or studio:
other musicians! Finding musicians to play with is like finding a combination of the perfect job and
the perfect mate. Finding someone you get along with can be hard enough, but to find someone (or
ones) who shares your artistic taste, your vision, your dedication, and your schedule can be a
daunting task. Luckily, the world is packed with musicians who are probably looking for you. If you
can put the time and thought into your search it’s probably just a matter of time until you find your
musical mate(s). Here are some steps that can help:
Before You Start Your Search
• Get prepared. What are you going to say to the bass player you meet at Borders who
asks you what you do? Can you describe the music you like and what your abilities are in
an easy soundbite? “I’m a belter and I want to put together an acoustic Nirvana cover
band.” Keep it simple. The bassist may not be right for you but a friend of hers might be,
so you want something easy to remember. No one likes to pigeonhole themselves (we’re
all originals, aren’t we?) but try to put yourself in a ballpark.
• What do you want? A guitarist at your level with whom you can jam? A band that is
dedicated to getting a record deal? A once-a-week casual jazz gig at the corner
coffeehouse? Get very clear about your goals. The clearer you are, the less chance
you’ll be sidetracked by musicians who aren’t right for you.
• What can you offer? Musicians will play with you for a variety of reasons. It’s pretty
easy to lure musicians to a jam session (many are known to follow the scent of free beer
and chips), but securing the level of committment required for starting and maintaining a
band is quite another matter. Some players have a “no pay, no play” rule. For many a
struggling artist this may be a deal breaker. But paying your musicians does have a
definite advantage: you get to be in charge. She or he who signs the checks calls the
tunes. If you want musicians to play for free, however, you may need to offer them
something else. If you write all the songs, are you willing to split future royalties with the
band? Do you have a lead on a paying gig? Great contacts? Don’t be discouraged if all
you have is talent, vision, and drive – a dream and a well thought out plan can be very
seductive. Be honest: I have voice students who have found musicians by saying
something like “I have no track record, I’ve never performed, but I’ve studied voice for
two years and my teacher says I’m great.”
• Get Organized. The first thing that’s said when two musicians get together to play is “So
what do you know, dude?” Make a list of the songs you do. Get sheet music or chord
charts in your key and gather them into a folder. Make copies.
If you’re doing original music, record a CD of it if you can. A CD is also handy if you sing
cover songs. Many musicians will want to hear your voice and/or your songs before
agreeing to play with you. Think of this CD as your calling card, and pass it out to any
potential musicians. Don’t spend too much money on this pre-demo CD; a guitar/vocal or
piano/vocal CD will get your voice and songs across sufficiently, and many
producer/engineer/musicians can help you record one for cheap. If your songs aren’t
finished, get your lyric scraps together in a notebook, so you have something to show
future collaborators. If you have the money and determination, another avenue is to
record a more elaborate demo that more clearly shows your musical vision and abilities.
You’ll have something splashier to show prospective musicians, and you can use it to
market yourself before you’ve found them. The world is filled with producer/engineers
who have their own studios, and they usually have a stable of musicians they can use for
their projects. Lastly, make a list of any relevant contacts you have: photographers,
booking agents, graphic artists, etc.
• Where will you compromise? Your dream band can readily be found. . . in your
dreams. The real world usually offers up something less. Will you join a band that loves
your singing but refuses to play your songs? What if you find the perfect band but they
want you to only sing back-up vocals? What if that great guitarist can only rehearse
Sundays from 3 to 4 o’clock? You want to be flexible without getting stuck in a situation
that’s worlds away from your goal. Know ahead of time what your limits are.
• Tell everyone you know. Everyone has a musician cousin, neighbor, friend, or
employee. Get the word out.
• Throw a party or jam session. Invite every musician you know and tell them to bring
every musician they know. If you are new to jam sessions, it wouldn’t hurt to hire an
experienced player (preferably a local name musician) to keep the ball rolling. Plus you’ll
attract more players if you can say “Yeah, and Joe Blow the Killer Bassist will be there.”
It doesn’t have to be a music party, either: My husband and I used to have a monthly
salon where we invited people to meet and discuss political and social issues. When we
needed a bass player for our band we realized that we could choose from three bassists
who were regular salon attendees!
• Musician Classifieds. It’s tough dealing with strangers and you may meet with some
attitude, but there are some great musicians out there using ads.Treat these as you
would a personals ad: don’t give out your address, check each other out on the phone.
Consider placing your own ad. Read other classifieds to get an idea of what to include.
You want to describe yourself, what you want and your goals with a minimum of words.
For example, “Deadhead tenor seeks musicians/singers to jam with for fun only.” “Pro
level female singer wants to join deal-minded bluegrass band. Dedication a must.”
Musician-wanted ads are found in free local weeklies more often than in major daily
newspapers (musicians are not the most affluent of people). Look for alternative weeklies
in coffeeshops and libraries. Also look in guitar and music stores for periodicals geared
towards local musicians. Don’t bother with ads in national magazines unless you are a
well-funded touring band.
• Bulletin Boards. These can be hard to find in larger cities but it’s worth looking. They
can be valuable, especially for finding musicians in your neighborhood. Look in
instrument and sheet music stores, but also check out boards at your local coffee shop
or grocery store.
• The Internet: Chock-full of sites where you can connect with other musicians, plus you
can mp3 your demo to possible musicians for free. Just be careful since you don’t know
who you are connecting with. Don’t give out your address or phone number until you
have a good feeling about whomever you meet online.
• Musician Contact Services: These cost money, but they can have listings you won’t
find elsewhere. You’ll find ads for them in the back of music-oriented periodicals. Use
them after you’ve exhausted other methods.
• Get out into the world: This is critical. It’s time consuming but fun, and can be the best
way to meet people. Go to:
• Clubs and coffeehouses: Preferably ones that play your style of music. When you find
one you like, try to go fairly often, even if a band you don’t know is playing. You’ll feel
more at home and be braver about meeting people when you’re a regular. If you like a
band or artist, approach them (but not when they are hurriedly clearing their stuff from
the stage). Most musicians appreciate the attention, and you never know if they might be
looking for new singers.
• Open Mics: Go whether you perform or not. Lots of solo artists are looking to be more
than solo. I’ve also seen performers at open mics say things like “I just met this guy out
back and he’s going to sit in on this next song.” If you’re looking for other singers, you’ll
find loads of them at piano bars. If you are past the beginner stage, some clubs have full
bands with which you can sit in: look for “Jam Night” listings in the paper. Some of these
are open, some are invitation only. Often you can wrangle an invitation if you go and
hang out several times. Open mics change continually: check your local weekly for club
and coffeehouse listings.
• Professional Organizations: ASCAP, BMI, SESAC (all performing rights societies) and
NSAI (Nashville Songwriters Association Intl) often have industry showcases and classes
that are loaded with musicians. All of the above have regional chapters throughout the
country. Taxi is also a great organization full of networking musicians, as is Just Plain
• Music Festivals: Festival campgrounds are crammed with soon-to-jam or jamming
musicians. Use common sense and good manners about joining an ongoing jam
session, but in general you’ll find loads of friendly players. Many musicians go to the
Kerrville Folk Festival simply to hang out with fellow musicians and end up skipping the
scheduled concerts. Not all festivals are conducive to campground jamming; I camped at
the Telluride Bluegrass Festival one freezing June: people disappeared into tents at night
and thawed out by day watching the performers. Staffers will know if their festival is jamfriendly;
• Guitar Camps and Music Classes: Guitar and music camps are incredibly fun as well
as a great place to find musicians. If you’re shy about singing with other musicians, this
is the place to start; guitar camp staffers and teachers are notorious for their ability to
painlessly ease you into jam sessions. If you’re more advanced, you’ll find loads of likeminded
players who would like nothing more than to jam until sunrise. The camps are
filled with smart, funny, nice people aged eighteen to eighty I’ve taught and been a
student/camper at several camps and it’s often the most fun I have all year. Go to one
even if you aren’t looking for musicians, you’ll have a blast.
I’ve taken several classes where the people I met were the highlight of the class. You’ll
find musicians in theory, songwriting, and music business classes. Your local music store
may offer classes, and also check out your nearest community college. Class listings can
also be found in the back of your local weekly. If you’re feeling brave, you can even call
private music teachers to ask if they have any great students who are looking for singers.
One of the best things about going out is that you’ll meet and befriend other singers. They may not
all share your exact musical goals or abilities, but there’s nothing like being part of a community of
singers to keep you happy and on track throughout your musical search and beyond.
A final inspirational story: when I moved to LA years ago I knew exactly three people in town. I
immediately sent my demo CD to the local music paper’s demo review columnist, then waited eight
months for the review to appear. During that time I went to every open mic and club I could find. (By
the way, you’ll meet more people if you go by yourself.) I met my future bass player at an open mic
and my future co-producer at a club. My demo was finally reviewed the following summer and I
subsequently received a call from a producer/engineer/guitarist who’d read the review and liked my
material enough to offer me spec studio time to record my first album. While recording the album we
formed a band, started dating, and later got married. So get motivated, get organized, get out there
written by Susan Anders ~ vocal instructor
Why should a songwriter consider the added time and expense of taking singing lessons? Of course, I’m biased: I’m a singing teacher. But I’m
also a songwriter, and over the years I’ve seen the many benefits of vocal study. Even if you are
convinced that you sound like a frog with strep throat and you will never sing in public, there are
reasons to take a few classes. They include:
• Vocal Health–Why leave a writing session hoarse when a few warm up exercises done
while driving to the session could prevent you from straining your voice?
• Ability to Think Like a Singer–This is invaluable if you are trying to get your songs cut.
I once wrote with a guitarist who came up with a line that sounded great on guitar but
was very awkward and uncomfortable to sing. When I said that the line “didn’t sing well”
he looked at me as if I were nuts. But I would bet my car that the difficulty of singing that
melody made the song less pitchable-I certainly didn’t want to sing it! Some lyrics also
look great on paper but feel awkward to sing-once you learn about singer’s diction in
voice class you’ll understand why. As you learn about your voice in singing lessons you
develop an instinctive feel for which melodies and lyrics flow vocally, and which don’t.
The more singable the song, the more pitchable it is.
• Better Work Tapes and Communication With Co-Writers–Even the aforementioned
frog-voiced writer has to sing for co-writers and make work tapes for demo producers,
demo singers, etc. Developing your range and pitch accuracy will make it much easier
for you to communicate to the world what you hear in your head. One writer I know was
only writing lyrics though she had definite melodic ideas in her head– after she took
some lessons she gained the confidence to also contribute musically.
• Singing is Fun!–Singing well is even more fun. When you sing correctly it feels good
and endorphins kick in. Singers often experience a “singer’s high” akin to a runner’s high.
I have on occasion been in a funk, forced myself to do some vocal practicing, and sung
myself into a good mood. And when I’m having fun I have a better creative flow, so I
write more and better songs.
The above points pertain to all songwriters. The following points are for songwriters who perform at
writer’s nights, song circles, and other gigs.
• The Better You Sing, the More People Listen–Rivers Rutherford, Gretchen Peters,
Leslie Satcher and Jeffrey Steele are all hit songwriters as well as wonderful singers. At
live shows their singing ability draws you in, then they deliver the songwriting goods.
Developing your voice helps promote your songs. A while back I heard a successful
writer squeak out his recent George Strait hit at the Bluebird Cafe–it was barely
recognizable from the version I’d heard on the radio. We in Nashville pride ourselves on
being able to distinguish a great song regardless of the singer, but had I heard the
writer’s version first I honestly don’t think I would have recognized just how good the
song was. I’m not saying that a writer needs to study singing for years and try to develop
a star quality voice–I’m saying that some voice study can and should improve tone,
range, pitch accuracy, sustenance, and overall delivery of a song.
• The Nerves Thing–Playing out is part of the job. It’s how we try our new songs out on
people and how we network. The more you learn your voice and what it can do, the
easier it is to perform. I’ve had episodes of world class stage fright but I knew my voice
would stay solid, which ultimately eased my nerves. Because I’m fairly comfortable with
my voice, stage fright never prevents me from getting my songs out to the world.
If you decide to try some voice classes, make sure to let your teacher know that you are a writer.
Better yet, spell out your goals in the first conversation: do you want to sing your own demos, knock
everyone out at live performances, get rid of the sore throats you get during writing sessions, simply
get more comfortable with your voice, or what? Being clear about your goals will help your teacher
develop a sensible study path for you.