(This article was originally published on Spinditty in January 2017. It has been edited here to reflect the current time passed.)
I’ve been playing in cover bands ever since I started learning an instrument nearly 40 years ago. There have been over forty different cover bands in which I was either a member or a frequent sub. But it wasn’t until 11 years ago after moving to New Orleans from New Jersey that I started playing full-time.
I’ve been a member of a dozen or so different bands in and around NOLA, and have maintained a schedule of four, five, and sometimes six nights a week for most of the time I’ve been here
Needless to stay, I’ve learned a lot of stuff. I’m sure there are plenty more things that I’ve learned that I’ve not included in this list, but what follows are some that stand out.
1. You always have to prove yourself
New Orleans is a tourist city. Our audience is different every night, and with no cover charge along with the permission to carry alcoholic beverages in and out, it changes frequently throughout the evening. Nobody knows who I am, and most don’t really care. All they’re concerned with is hearing good music and having fun.
It doesn’t matter how long I’ve played. It doesn’t matter how skilled I am. Most people aren’t interested. To the crowd, what I’m doing is brand new. It’s my job to play every song as good as I can every time. I need to play it like it’s the first time I’ve played it, and correctly, every time.
This point is also essential for my relationship with my fellow musicians. We have a mutual respect for each other as we’re all working for the same purpose, but I have to regularly nurture that respect. In approaching my craft with integrity, I’m able to achieve that goal, as long as I never take anything for granted.
2. You can never know enough songs
I never counted, but I can guess with confidence that I know over 1,000 songs. That may seem like a lot, but there are tens of thousands of good songs that can be performed in a cover band.
I’m constantly being asked to play songs that I don’t know, and I’ve actually learned songs on stage many times. Learning new songs is a never ending responsibility in order to ensure keeping a gig and/or getting more work.
3. You have to pace yourself
Here in New Orleans we play at least four or five 45-minute sets on a weeknight, and five or six on the weekend, usually running two or three sets in a row. That’s two hours plus, standing on our feet, playing and singing without a break…twice. It takes quite a bit of endurance to keep that up night after night while still delivering a good performance.
Fortunately, the regularity of that type of schedule lends itself well to developing a steady routine, both before and during the gig. Getting the right amount of sleep, making sure you eat a good meal, and drinking in moderation while you’re working are all key components in maintaining a steady pace.
It’s easy to go overboard with alcohol in this city if you like to drink. But knowing your level of tolerance, and I making sure it never compromises your ability to do your job is imperative.
4. Vocals are key
I love to sing. It’s one of my favorite things about playing this much. I sing lead on a handful of songs and sing harmonies on most tunes. I can sing fairly well, but I would never call myself a singer.
The best sounding bands are the ones with a compliment of full vocals. I learned that it’s key to take initiative and just sing. None of the bands I’ve played with in New Orleans ever rehearse. We figure out harmonies on the spot by using hand signals or simply listening and picking the best harmony for our range.
I learned that if you want your band to sound its best, and you can sing, then you should sing as much as possible.
5. Learning people's names is really important
I have what you would consider residency gigs – where I’m playing the same clubs week after week. Although the staff is quite large, I find it very beneficial to get to know the people I see on a regular basis.
Even if it’s just a “Hello” now and then, people you work with will appreciate your kindness, especially when you know their names. This will go a long way in how you’re treated by the staff, and how much they will champion your band to the patrons.
6. Listening is just as important as playing
The ability to follow along with each individual instrument at the same time while also playing your own is a skill that develops with time and experience. But it’s also something that you can forget you’re doing when you play often.
There can be equal focus on what you’re doing and hearing at all times. You find that by keying in on the sounds and feel of other instruments and vocals, you become more comfortable in the music, and your playing soars to new heights.
7. Nothing lasts forever
I’ve been plucked from a couple of bands, clubs have closed, management has changed, and band personnel has been modified many times in my decade on Bourbon Street. I learned that it’s essential to roll with the changes with dignity and gratitude.
This is a tight-knit community of musicians, and many of us end up working with one another again in a different setting. I’ve found it’s best to celebrate each gig as an event in itself and enjoy the moment, because I know that things will eventually change.
8. You can actually make a living at this
I had been wanting to play music for a living since as early as I can remember. It took years of struggles, mistakes, rejections, hard work, dedication and perseverance to achieve this goal, but I did it.
I thought it was curious that there was no Musician option for Career Day in high school, and most people told me that it’s too difficult…or to give it up because it can’t be done.
But it can be done. If you love to play…if you feel that you have to play…there is a way.
I never would’ve guessed where I eventually ended up, but I stuck with a dream without ever completely resigning to the insurmountable odds, or letting the doubts of the majority break my spirit.
I make a very comfortable living just playing music. I learned that if I believe in something with unwavering passion, it will absolutely happen.
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