Living and Working in New York City
by Jared Schonig
New York City. My favorite city in the world, and a beautiful place where I am fortunate enough to make a living playing music.
It hasn’t always been easy (and it’s certainly very odd right now!) but personally I’ve always enjoyed the challenge. I’ve heard a few things along the way that have informed how I’ve thought about New York City and the idea of “making it”.
Something I heard when I was at the Eastman School of Music from a very well respected musician who I ended up playing with ten years later. When you move to New York, you’ll immediately get pigeon-holed as a certain type of player, whether that be a “jazz guy”, “rock-guy”, “free-jazz player”, etc. When I moved to NYC, I only wanted to be a jazz musician, but I quickly realized that if I actually wanted to make a decent living, I would have to do it all.
Do every gig you get offered. Do not discriminate. I was hearing this advice from one of the most amazing jazz guitarists who has ever lived. He was telling me all about the crazy and hilarious gigs he did when he was first starting out. I thought to myself that this was right up my alley. I was proficient in all of the contemporary styles of music - rock, funk, Afro-beat, latin, country, acoustic singer-songwriter - so I did all kinds of gigs for many years.
Most people I know who make a living as a musician in NYC do something other than just play. Sure, you can survive playing your instrument every night for $50-$150 playing at a restaurant or jazz club if you are lucky, but other lucrative work exists that can potentially allow you to start saving some money! Teaching, composing/arranging, jingles, and theatre work are all parts of that puzzle. I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in all of these scenes.
A piece of advice that I remember hearing early on. It takes ten years to make it as a musician in NYC. Ten years. That’s a long time. A lot of people can’t wait that long. I certainly didn’t want my career to take ten years, and luckily I heard this statement (which all my friends seemed to know already!) after about 5 years of being here, so you could say that I was already committed. Many folks, regardless of career path, opt to eventually land where the weather is better or the scene is smaller. It’s about quality of life. I get it. It took me two years of having a day job, teaching drum lessons at a private school and doing gigs at night to feel like I had just enough of a cushion financially to quit my non-music-related day job.
Being a successful musician and especially being a Broadway/theatre drummer in New York City has some unique requirements.
The moment I was finally able to be “music only” was when I got into Broadway/theatre.
Many folks are curious about how to get into Broadway. I would say it’s as simple as getting someone who is established or has “made it” to give you a shot or recommending you for an opportunity. Once you get that shot and succeed, it’s on you to make the most of it. Theatre is a really special scene of the music industry, especially in New York City. It’s one of the most lucrative areas because it’s union: it pays well, you qualify for health insurance, and you are playing with some of the very best musicians in the city. It’s probably the last scene in NYC where you can have all those things exclusively from one gig.
Being a successful musician and especially being a Broadway/theatre drummer in New York City has some unique requirements. You’ve got to be a great player, but also a prepared player who is adaptable, smart, and respectful. There will always be someone right behind you who is just as technically good as you are and is hungry for your gig. My advice is to set yourself apart from the rest of the crowd with these other attributes. Being socially aware and able to “fit in” both musically as well as personally is crucial in any close-knit working environment.
The last thing I’ll talk about a little is New York City, the city. It’s amazing here, but it also sucks. Dragging your drums on the subway on a cart in the midst of a sweltering summer or freezing winter in order to avoid paying $50 for parking is not fun.
But I certainly don’t want to downplay how critical mastery of your instrument is to success. Fitting in musically requires both knowing a wide range of musical styles as well as honing your instinct to know what musical approach is right for any situation. Broadway isn’t just one flavor. I consider the kind of instruments or kit I’ll play based on the style or era of music that is being evoked and always stay in close communication with the creative leadership on a project to ensure that my choices support and elevate what the music team is looking to achieve. Sometimes I’ll have more leeway to make musical choices in line with my personal aesthetic, and at other times I’ll be asked to closely emulate something else stylistically. But I’ll always try to find a way to inject my personality or sound as much as possible so that my performance feels authentic & soulful.
The last thing I’ll talk about a little is New York City, the city. It’s amazing here, but it also sucks. Dragging your drums on the subway on a cart in the midst of a sweltering summer or freezing winter in order to avoid paying $50 for parking is not fun. Moving your car for street cleaning four times a week is not fun. Playing your fourth gig of the day at midnight after your first started at 8am is not fun. When you are trying to save money, you’ll do everything you can to err on the frugal side of things. And when you “make it" that’s when you can start affording all the kinds of things people take for granted in other areas of the country. Owning property, owning a car, saving money, having groceries and good food at home, paying for internet instead of stealing it, these are just some of the things I’m talking about!
We are facing unique times right now. I’m not sure what the music business in New York City or even the world will look like a year from today. I’m hoping Broadway returns at some point and thrives once again. As someone who lives in an apartment where playing acoustic drums isn’t possible, I am adapting by delving more into audio production and a new set of Roland V-Drums.
As always, with the right attitude and work ethic we’ll all be able to figure this new paradigm out.
Grammy-Award winning drummer, composer & bandleader Jared Schonig has toured and/or recorded internationally with Nicholas Payton, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Donny McCaslin, Darcy James and Argue Secret Society, Laurence Hobgood, Tim Hagans, Fred Hersch, Wycliffe Gordon, Tom Harrell, Joe Locke, and Ernie Watts among others.
A favorite among vocalists, Schonig has toured with Grammy Award-winners Kurt Elling, The New York Voices, Kristen Chenoweth, Cynthia Erivo and singer/songwriter Donna Lewis, in addition to rising vocal supergroup Duchess, Spencer Day, Laila Biali and Shayna Steele.
He has performed around the world from Carnegie Hall to festivals in Zimbabwe. Schonig co-led The Wee Trio, which released five critically-acclaimed albums over the past 8 years. The group received praise from numerous publications and toured internationally. He recently recorded two solo albums of original music to be released next spring.
When at home in New York City, Schonig is a fixture in both the jazz and Broadway scene. He recently held the drum chair for the critically acclaimed Tony, Grammy and Emmy-award winning Broadway Revival of The Color Purple and is currently playing drums and percussion for Moulin Rouge! The Musical.
Jared is also an in-demand drummer/percussionist for studio recordings, jingle sessions and other commercial music recordings.
Jared with The Wee Trio (with Nir Felder) performing "Gibbs Street".
"Poinciana" Drum Solo.
"I'm Here" from The Color Purple.