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On and Off the Grid

Transitions: Musician To Artist, or Finding Your Own Voice

By Published: March 22, 2012
I can only speak from my own experience and what I feel and what I have seen and learned in my lifetime.

An artist is someone who not only can interpret the music but also brings something of himself to the music. It can be the spirit, the intelligence, style, sound or the soul of oneself. But whatever it is, you own it. It is yours alone. So much so that whatever you play, it is distinctive. Your style or sound is immediately recognized. The best examples I can think of are Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
, John Coltrane, Wes Montgomery
Wes Montgomery
Wes Montgomery
1925 - 1968
guitar
, Johnny Smith
Johnny Smith
Johnny Smith
1922 - 2013
guitar
, Cliff deMarks
Cliff deMarks
Cliff deMarks
b.1953
piano
and many, many more. Nowadays these giants have been copied so much that their influences are immediately recognized in the younger players of today.

But how does a young player make that transition? What does it take to find his own voice? Many of the younger musicians have gone to universities or have studied privately. The biggest comment I hear, and believe is that studying at a college may be great for understanding harmony, theory, reading and all the scales related to improvisation, but it does not create individualism in the students. Basically they are all learning the same things and come out playing the same way.

The schools and private teachers stress listening and transcribing from the masters. If you keep listening, in this way you can develop your ear. The most important thing to playing jazz is "ears," meaning you can play anything you can hear inside your head. Well if your head is filled with all this listened music you've been studying, what do you think you will play? Everything you have listened to will eventually beam its head out and you will sound like everyone else. The truth is how many ways can you play a melodic minor scale? This never made sense to me. Scales are not music. Either are arpeggios. Intervals and rhythm make music. How you play those intervals and rhythms combined with the feeling and spirit behind them will differentiate you from the flock?

Guitar great Rick Stone
Rick Stone
Rick Stone
b.1955
guitar
says, "Finding our own voice may be just a function of us 'accepting' our own voice as being something valid and not trying so hard to 'be' someone else. I've learned a lot from listening to other players and I continue to do so because there's so much I still need to learn. I can love what they're doing, and still learn from it, but I don't feel any compulsion to 'be' them because, as John Abercrombie
John Abercrombie
John Abercrombie
b.1944
guitar
so wisely told me in about 1980, it's 'too hard.'" Another opinion that hits the mark Yet, how do you get there?

My story.

During the early sixties, after years of listening to every guitarist and ingesting all that music, invariably I would go on a gig and sound like Wes Montgomery. Then the next gig I would sound like Johnny Smith or Tal Farlow. I wasn't aware of it till a fellow musician, John Ruta, pointed this out to me. Realizing this was true, I stopped listening to guitar players and spent more time listening to Miles, Trane and Monk.

Yet I still hadn't developed my own voice. What finally did it for me was I stopped listening. I started listening to myself. I would record my solos and listen back and see what it was that made me sound like others or myself. This took a long time. I then moved on to free-form improvisation, not with others, but with myself. I found that trying to be creative without a harmonic background and yet make it sound melodic wasn't easy.

Then I moved on to atonal free-form improv. When I mastered that, I decided to use what I had taught myself and apply it to improvising on tunes. I would take one tune and play it over and over again, making sure I knew the melody inside and out. Then I would solo on the original chords and the substituted chords. I wanted to be able to play either inside or out on tunes. This concept freed me up from the standard approach to improvising and also taught me that in order to play well and creatively I had to let go of everything I knew and just play.

Mistakes were part of the learning curve. There were times while I was going through this process that I sounded absolutely awful and I thought the approach I was striving towards would never happen. What I didn't realize was that, although I knew what I wanted to play, I hadn't gotten my technique to where I needed it to be in order to play everything I could hear. I am not talking about speed, but a musical technique. That brain muscle that hears the odd intervals, the jumps and skips that makes improvisation different and yet musical. I also worked on singing my solos. The tonal (inside) I found easy, but the outside was difficult. Scatting and playing at the same time helped a lot. Scatting against the changes without playing tremendously developed my ears.


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