I used to be a serious musician. I played viola and hoped one day to be part of an orchestra, preferably the New York Philharmonic but I told myself I’d settle for a Boston or even Philadelphia symphony. Put to the incredibly pressure-filled test in college, my classical dream died hard and I chose instead an equally lucrative career – writing. But my love of music has persisted. And, despite my past life as a classical violist, these days I’m much more the singer/songwriter devotee. Lucky for me, Manhattan is full of great ones. You need only travel as far as the subway station to find an unsigned talent and they pack scores of restaurants, bars, and music venues every night of the week.

Sure, you can check Time Out New York or New York magazine to see what hot band is playing in this rocking city. But getting a real sense of the music scene here is as much about where you’re listening as what you’re listening to.  The places I like to visit all have great music, some every night of the week, and most of the time you can slip right in to these loved-by-locals spots without lines or advance ticket sales. 

At one of my favorites, Marie’s Crisis in the West Village, you can even participate. The tiny basement space combines two of my preferred pastimes: show tunes and happy hour. But this isn’t some cheesy amateur hour. Well, sometimes it is… But mostly those who belt out tunes have voices ranging from good to astounding.

It’s not unusual to see a crew of Broadway performers stopping by for an impromptu sing along. At the center of the room is an upright piano, behind which sits one of the handful of truly amazing musicians Marie’s employs to carry our melodies. Any patron can request a song but it’s best to grab one of the coveted seats around the piano if you really want to hold show tune court. 

While Marie’s is where I head when I want to join in, my other go to venues are low-key spots with consistently great talent. On Wednesdays, for example, I like to head to the shabby-chic wine bar Entwine, also in the West Village. Here well-known musicians like Joseph Arthur have been known to stop by and try out material. I also love the nearby 55 Bar. Walk down a few steps into this prohibition style joint occupied by a long, wooden bar. The stools are perpetually full of folks listening to great jazz, funk, and blues. And if you want to round out your jazzy night, you should meander over to Smalls, where a typical lineup might include a jam session, trio, and solo tenor sax.

When I venture across town, it’s usually to Rockwood Music Hall on the Lower East Side. There are two small stages to choose from and you know a musician is on her way up when she’s earned a spot on the larger one. Some of the shows here require tickets but you can rock up (get it?) to Stage 1 almost any night of the week and see great, free indie folk rock. Just make sure to throw some tips into the tip jar at the end of the set.

But I’m not one of those snobby Manhattanites who never leaves her borough.  There are so many great venues in Brooklyn that I’d have to start a whole new list. But one place I’ve been impressed by lately is Shapeshifter Lab, a Park Slope spot with shows every night from 8-11. Without fail, I fall in music love with some new musician I’ve never heard of before whenever I go here. Consider yourselves warned.