I was reading what was a ostensibly a big ad on learning to be a great singer, when I read the following words:
“Singers are only singers because they have the guts to be one! What about natural talent? You may have heard that if you were not born with it, you won’t have the natural ability to sing. It’s simply not true! If you apply yourself with the passion and discipline it takes, you too can become a great singer.”
I thought about that, and thought about my own progression as a performer. I’ve been working the same weekly gig at a local restaurant going on 12 years now. It’s a solo acoustic gig where I play both guitar and piano, and of course, sing. In that gig, I cover all sorts of songs ranging from opera, show tunes, rock and country ballads to classic rock. It’s a great gig where I get to play a lot of different genres. The first couple of years, I was really low-key about doing the gig, happy to get my hourly gig wage, and if I got tips, that was great. I’d do the covers as faithful to the original as I could and things were good. But the problem was that I started to get bored. Real bored.
So I decided one day to “own” the songs; still perform them according to what I felt was the original vision of the songs, but add my own feeling to them. When I was just thinking about doing this, I was admittedly a little nervous. What if people didn’t like what I was doing. It wasn’t as if I’d be performing the music so completely different that it wouldn’t be recognizable, but it would be my own interpretation of the music.
So one day, I just decided to go for it. I was nervous as hell. But I went for it in spite of my fears. It was the best decision I ever made. People seemed to like what I was doing, and they rewarded me in kind with some pretty nice tips. But irrespective of the tips, I learned something very important as a performer since building up the courage to “own” the songs I play: What separates a good performance from a mediocre performance is literally having the courage to put yourself into the song; all your passion, all your love, all your pain, all your joy. Everything you are.
Whether you’re playing an original or a cover makes no difference. One might argue that if you’re doing covers you want to stay as close to the original as possible. I disagree. If all you’re just doing is copying, then you’ll just be an imitator. I’ve seen lots of cover bands in my day, and the best I’ve seen are the ones that don’t follow the covers note-for-note. That said, if you’re doing a tribute band, then note-by-note precision is probably important, but for dance/bar bands, I think capturing the general spirit of the song is good enough and note-for-note precision should take a back seat to really playing and expressing yourself.
Of course, “owning” a piece can backfire. But that’s the risk you take when you do own a song. It takes guts to do it, but in the end, I fully believe that when you’re expressing YOU in the music you play, you’ll have a much greater impact on your audience than when you just play the song.