I Got Ya “Cover”-ed: The Surprising Benefits Of Playing Other People’s Music

I have always desired to make and be known for original music.  I remember as a little kid fantasizing about writing music inspired by other music I loved:  movie scores, music on the radio, even the demo song from the keyboard my dad bought for us (us being my brother, my sister, and myself) for Christmas one year.   Whatever the source, I remember fantasizing about creating my own music that emulated (or even surpassed!) the models that inspired me.   Accordingly, that is what I have worked to accomplish, writing music as both a composer and a songwriter working in a variety of formats and genres, from piano music to theater music and hip hop.

In fact, there was about a four year period after college, in which I went every week to an open mic in the Bay Area, where I lived, and I almost universally and completely played only my original music.  With very few exceptions, I rarely performed any cover songs (playing cover songs means playing renditions of other people’s music).  During this time I got a lot of satisfaction from showing my own commitment to originality, to developing  “my own thing,” which is something I felt strongly about.  This was a very important phase in my development.

Eventually, however, I realized that there was a major opportunity that I was missing by not playing anything besides original music.  This realization happened for two reasons that I can think of:  first, I was looking for professional opportunities to gig, as I had had enough of the open mic scene and was ready for more than the occasional dive bar or cafe performance.   Secondly, I saw how much people loved hearing music that they knew, and I noticed that they actually were usually MORE receptive to my original music once I played music that was familiar to them.

Therefore, I made up my mind to seek new performance opportunities.  In my usual individual fashion,  I made a rather unorthodox choice by picking an audience that satisfied a variety of wishes of mine, including the desire to grow personally and to give back.

I decided to play at retirement homes.  Previously, I had played informally at several retirement homes over the years while visiting family relatives.  I had also played there for piano recitals with my students.  I can remember as far back as high school visiting a retirement home and seeing how appreciative the residents were that I was even there.  I began playing shows at retirement homes one day after responding to a Craigslist ad for entertainment at a Alzheimer’s facility just down the street from where I lived.  After taking this opportunity, which became a weekly gig for over a year and a half, I soon booked piano shows at many other facilities all over the Bay Area.  In fact, the following year I did nearly three hunded piano performances at dozens of places.  Most of these performances were at retirement homes.

My approach to playing retirement homes was very different from my previous approach at the open mics.  At this point I was more interested in entertaining my audience.  I was interested in pleasing them.  I wanted to make them smile and bring joy to their day.  Basically, I wanted to be a hit.   And so I was.

My new mindset was one of the keys to my success.  Because now I mostly played music that my audience already knew and liked.  If I was at an Alzheimer’s home, I played traditional tunes like “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See” or “Oh When the Saints.”  If I was an independent living retirement home, I played Cole Porter tunes and songs that Frank Sinatra sang.

At the same time, I also included music that I wanted to play, including more contemporary pop songs, classical pieces, and of course, my original music.  In fact, these shows were a main impetus for getting “Waterfall” completed, as I wanted to have CDs to sell.  Even then, these pieces were selected with the audience in mind.

The point is, that in addition to getting to play original music, I had suddenly become decidedly PRO-cover song.  I was playing covers ALL the time!  I was playing Rogers and Hammerstein showtunes, and traditional Americana songs, and Beatles songs, and old favorites like “It Had to Be You.”  In my new mindset, I was no longer only about me on stage, which I had been before.  Now I was about the audience.

And audiences love covers!  Now don’t get me wrong, I am just as committed to original music as ever I was.  Yet I have found again and again the wonderful joy of pleasing a grateful crowd… which is made all the sweeter by people singing along, humming along, or dancing along, BECAUSE they know the song!  This is part of the incredible benefit of playing music people are already familiar with.

This one realization has completely changed my experience as a performer, and therefore my life, for the better.  It has allowed me to experience the joy of making music to make other people happy.  I have performed for literally thousands of people, and seen nearly every one of them light up with joy at hearing a song that they know.  I have seen people spontaneously jump up and start dancing.  I have received thank you cards elaborating IN DETAIL what each song meant to the person listening.  I have had people line up after my shows to thank me, saying they appreciated hearing music they had not heard in years.

At the same time, I have gotten the personal satisfaction of being a composer sharing my music with a receptive audience.  I have achieved, and will continue to achieve, my own ends as a composer.  And I am also achieving my hopes and desires as a performer.  By opening up to other people’s tastes, by meeting them half way, so to speak, I have done more for my artistic career than I did when I thought only about my personal aims.   Playing covers has actually opened up new doors.  And it has helped me to do what I think is one of the most important things for any creator:  it has helped me connect with my audience.