I’ve encountered all kinds of students in the many years I’ve been teaching music. I often get the ones who are concerned about sounding original and finding their unique voice, which I think is a legitimate concern. But we have to be careful in our search for originality because in the process we can make some mistakes that instead of taking us forward into finding our sound, set us back catastrophically.
In this post, I’m going to share with you 3 of the most frequent mistakes I see aspiring jazz musicians make when looking for their distinctive sound and style.
1. They stop listening to other musicians.
Isolating yourself is one of the most common and dangerous of all mistakes. I feel like I die a little bit inside when I ask students who they are listening to or checking out and get the answer: “No one because I don’t want to sound like anybody else, I want to develop my own style.”
That’s a catastrophic mistake. You need to listen and absorb the knowledge of the masters who came before you, and also your peers who are developing at the same time as you. Learn from them, and do your homework before thinking about forming your own sound.
This is a piece of advice not only for music but in every aspect of life. Have you ever heard a doctor say I’m not checking out any other doctors or studies because I want to develop my unique style of medical practice? No, no one has ever said that. Or imagine an architect saying the same. That would be a disaster. We all need to absorb the knowledge of people who came before us, and from there, we’ll build our own unique interpretation of the style and the language.
Remember, you need to know the past to innovate.
2. They don’t practice technique.
The excuse I often get for not putting in the effort to study technique is that it is going to take away their feel and they are going to end up sounding like everybody else.
That is just. Not. True. NOT AT ALL.
Technique is just a tool.
It is not going to define what we play because what we play is determined by our personality as musicians and human beings. Technique will only help us express our thoughts in a more relaxed and precise way.
I’ll give you an example. Imagine that you go through an exceptional life experience and you want to share it with the world. So, you decide to write a book about it. In the process, you realize that it is a hard task, and you conclude that you need to learn some writing techniques and deepen your knowledge of the rules and grammar of the English language. So you take the time to study and learn all you need to write your book.
So here is the question: do you think deepening your knowledge of the English language is suddenly going to change your life experience and the subject of your book? Now your book is going to be just like all the other books out on the market? Is working on your technique going to take away your personality?
No, all the grammar rules and vocabulary you learn will only help facilitate the task. Now, you have more tools to express your personal experience. You will be able to get your ideas across in a more efficient way.
In music, technique serves the same purpose. It is only going to help us play our musical thoughts out in a better and more precise way. Our playing is going to be relaxed, thoughtful and articulated.
Take the time to practice technique. If anything, it is only going to accelerate the process of finding your personality on the instrument you play.
3. They start the search too soon.
Worrying about your sound too soon is also dangerous. More often than not it leads you to make mistakes number 1 and 2.
To obtain a personal and distinctive sound requires time and a lot of effort and practice.
There are a few things we can do to accelerate the process. But, it is highly related to your experiences and personality as a human being. Your sound is going to evolve whether you want it to or not.
Even if we all practice the same things, we are always going to sound a little different from each other. Why? Because each one of us is unique, and we all come from different homes, cities, and countries.
It’s easy to compare this to growing up as a human being.
Have you ever worried about being a unique person, who has those distinctive opinions and views on issues? Probably not so much, and yet because of your environment and decisions in life, you have grown to be an exceptional individual with personal tastes, beliefs, and worldviews. Your personality is the sum of all your life experiences, which have been unique to you and no one else.
In music the process is similar. Our environment, experiences, and decisions in music are going to determine what kind of musician we are going to be.
We decide which styles of music we are going to go deeper in, and the musicians we like the most. We play gigs, session, hang and interact with different musicians. We practice, listen, transcribe, analyze, tweak things and make them our own.
It is a long journey and you have to be patient. But in the process, your sound will come out because you are you and no one will sound just like you.
So, don’t worry about your sound so much. Just with living your life to the fullest, practicing and doing your work, you are already working on it. In the end, music is a human activity. It is related and deeply connected to our personal lives. Everything we do and experience adds up to our personality and sound as a musician.
Hopefully, reading about these three common mistakes will help you avoid them and give you a break from worrying too much about developing an original sound.