Cover bands have been one of my most steady streams of income. I had never played keyboard in a band (aside from a jazz band) until I boarded my first cruise ship. There I was thrown headlong into the gig and had to learn hundreds of tunes in a short period of time in a week!
In a cover band, the keyboard player’s role is to fill out the sound, so it sounds more like the original recording. It is also to create live energy by adding different sounds (string, organ, and phaser pads, etc.).
Playing in cover bands forced me to learn more by ear and experiment to find the right sounds and figure out which parts needed to be covered. It was a lot different than playing classical music, where every note I needed to play was already on the page.
As I mentioned in a previous post, when I left cruise ship life and moved to Denver, playing in cover bands helped me get my feet on the ground. Even though I had built a solid library of tunes, there was still a lot more to learn.
On cruise ships, sheet music was provided, but now I was expected to learn all the tunes myself. I realized that learning by ear, while a little more work up front, helped me retain the music better. This was a good skill to have, as sheet music wasn’t always readily available for newer songs.
Many cover bands can’t afford to hire all of the musicians needed to recreate the original bands, so I was often expected to learn horn parts (brass and woodwind lines). I learned from feedback that finding the right sounds, playing all the parts, blending with the band and being technically proficient provided challenges for most keyboard players. So my ability to juggle all these roles really gave me an advantage.
Playing in cover bands meant lots of long days and nights, especially with all the set-up that’s required. Much of the work is at weddings, corporate parties, bars and festivals. Fortunately, the food and drink is good, and the audiences generally want to be there and have a good time!
In addition to being a good source of income, cover bands have really connected me to other musicians. Especially when I have moved, cover bands have given me a community and helped me make my new city home. So many talented musicians play in these bands, and their recommendations have brought me further in my career than I ever could have alone.
One thing that has remained constant in my career is that anyone can be a great connection. Not too long after moving to the Twin Cities, I met a couple who plays over 300 nursing home gigs a year. Our paths crossed through a bi-monthly volunteer gig that I had been doing at a local home for people with Alzheimer’s. They let me pick their brains, and before I knew it they began passing some gigs onto me. I wanted to become a better singer and entertainer, and seniors were a great audience for me to hone skills. They are wonderful at showing their appreciation and are lots of fun. Through these experiences, I also realized that I loved playing for seniors, and this has also become a steady stream of income and joy in my life.
When a friend from college heard I was moving to Minnesota, she reached out over Facebook to see if I was interested in doing a music program for 10 libraries in western MN. This was a gig I never would have thought of on my own, but I jumped at the opportunity. I wrote and performed a show about Minnesota composers and their music for both kids and adults. Through those first 10 shows, I was able to book 15 more shows in libraries.
Another lucky break came when a friend spotted a sign at the airport. They were looking for pianists, and I didn’t hesitate to apply. I got the job and have been playing at both terminals at MSP for almost two years. Not only does the gig pay, but it is also a great opportunity to sell my six albums. I’ve also gotten some pretty interesting tips, including a snack pack from a little kid, a winning scratch off lottery ticket, many handwritten notes, and of course cash! On top of all of this, I have also booked a few gigs from passengers who were listening to me play while waiting for their flights.
I have played countless other gigs for friends’ weddings and referrals from both musician and non-musician friends for all sorts of great gigs. Friends can really help your career out and I am so thankful for them!
I loved Denver, but, after three years, I still missed my Midwestern roots. As I brainstormed places to move, the Twin Cities kept coming to the top of the list. I already had an established social network there of friends, my godchildren and my sister, and Minneapolis-St. Paul was a drivable distance to my hometown of Minot, ND.
I knew it would be a challenge to re-establish myself musically, but I also knew I could take the lessons I learned in Denver and apply them to a new location. In May 2016, I made the move to St. Paul, MN.
True to form, I began my new journey at a jam session. A friend of a friend who was playing there introduced me to the other musicians in the group. The first thing they mentioned was playing in cover bands, which was no longer intimidating for me.
Soon I started subbing in cover bands for a couple of the keyboard players I had met that night. However, when I was approached to join a band full-time, I realized that I was getting a bit burnt out and wanting to play more of my own music. Nevertheless, the cover bands proved to be valuable for networking, and it wasn’t long before I was getting asked to do other gigs through their recommendations. And I do still enjoy subbing in cover bands a couple times a month.
I wanted to play more solo gigs, so I started advertising on some event sites and found myself playing for weddings, corporate parties and private events. Event gigs tend to come in waves – weddings in the summer, holiday parties in the winter – so I knew some other steady income would be helpful.
From my experience teaching a few piano students in Denver, I started to find piano students and started teaching in my new home. I also enjoyed my first experience working as musical director at a small church in Denver, so after applying for a few jobs in the Twin Cities, I was hired to be the part-time music director at a great church in Bloomington, MN. More about these experiences to come in future posts.
In addition to all these musical opportunities and income streams, some new avenues would open up, which would bring me to unexpected places, including the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport.
Nate Hance is a professional pianist, entertainer and composer living in St. Paul, MN. He grew up in Minot, ND but has traveled around the world playing music. You can listen to the six albums that he has written as well as check out his goofy music videos on YouTube