Art or Work (Developing your own voice vs. Practicing for a job)

Being able to accurately re-create is essential to the translation of a performance and to the comfort of other musicians. When learning tunes for a specific gig, we learn things that become part of our musical vocabulary. We draw from these things later and apply the grooves, techniques, sounds, licks and idiosyncrasies to other pieces of music. For a gigging musician, this kind of practice is survival; it is also one source of a good repertoire.

For an artist, the above process can be almost counter intuitive to having “your own” voice. Striving to have your own voice may mean learning techniques and creating “new ideas” from them. It can also mean copying something from someone else and then changing it to be “your own”.

As a teacher/facilitator, I am constantly challenged by what to teach. I see the value in teaching songs and having students learn exact parts, and yet I gravitate towards guiding a student to creation and artistic risk because all the people we copy are, most often, the ones that have taken that risk and have influenced people’s lives with their art.

Other musicians and most mentors tell us, as players, that it is important to listen to the artists that came before us to  have a better understanding of what we do. I whole-heartedly agree. It would be difficult to understand and create your own voice in jazz without listening to Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, Roy Haynes, or Tony Williams.

Philly Joe Jones, drummer for the Miles Davis Quintet

Philly Joe Jones, drummer for the Miles Davis Quintet

However, I start to feel uncomfortable when someone asks me, even expects me, to copy the exact feel and the exact parts that someone else has played. When we ‘cover’ tunes in bars, the essence of the tune is melody and, if present, lyrics. The ‘feel’ is subjective; no two players have the exact same feel. Tunes can be re-harmonized and still sound like, and be true to, the original ‘tune’.

To survive in a job situation, we need the ability to copy well. To be artists, we need to find our voices. This, for me, is the true paradox of musicians, and the true dilemma of musicians who function in the realities of a full life. These musicians have commitments to family, to friends, and to community, and embrace the demands of being much more than an artist – of being a husband, a father, a person who makes a difference in people’s lives in many ways. Do I focus on earning a living or do I spend my time finding my artistic voice with other like-minded artists? Translated to teaching, one can see the challenge – how and what does one teach to prepare future musicians for the balance of art and life? What a responsibility!

Over the years, my faith in students has increased. If I offer a few paths and they show interest, then I facilitate those directions.  Sometimes, that has meant passing students on to other teachers who may inspire them more towards their desired journeys, the journeys that they must, ultimately, decide and walk for themselves. Teaching a student exact parts has never been as much of a passion for me as helping them find their own voices. My favourite drummers (Tony Williams, Steve Gadd, Philly Joe Jones, Stewart Copeland, John Bonham, and Mark Guiliana, to name a few) all have a distinct style and sound. And even though I do jobbing gigs, much of my practice time is spent finding my voice and developing a vocabulary that will allow me to play what I hear the music calling me to play –  a life-long, enjoyable pursuit, but the paradox remains.

I don’t know the masters’ secrets to balancing art and life. Teachers cannot teach that balance, because each individual artist’s balance is unique. Teachers can only point the way, and provide insight into the unique challenges of creating one’s own voice as an artist while working to meet the demands of leading and providing for a full, quality-rich life.