October 31st, 2011

8 Steps to Finding Your Voice as an Improviser

By Eric

There aren’t many things that we can all agree on when it comes to discussing the history of jazz, but one thing that we can come to a consensus on is that all the masters of this music had their own voice. Each and every one sounded unique and accomplished in their own way. Every time that you put on a great record, you hear distinct personalities coming through the speakers loud and clear.

We all want to create an original voice in jazz and hope to someday become an innovator, but this is not an easy task and few in the music have achieved both. However, you can do some very simple things to put you on the track to crafting your individual style. Here are eight ways to help you discover your very own musical direction and develop your voice as an improviser.

I) Listen to everything

To become a successful improviser and especially an original improviser, you need to expand your musical palate. Listening to Charlie Parker and Coltrane on repeat is great, but if you don’t explore other types of music you’re going to develop a very limited musical outlook. Worse yet, you could turn into yet another third-rate musical clone. Don’t fall into this trap.

Parker loved to listen to Stravinsky and Bartok. Coltrane studied Indian music. Not all jazz masters listened exclusively to jazz. In fact, jazz musicians have a long history of exploring all genres of music. Bach, Ravel, Debussy, Schoenberg, African music, the Beatles – these are just a few of the other types of music that have influenced and continue to shape jazz today. Do yourself a favor and explore every type of music that you can, you’ll be surprised at what you find.

II) Play all types of music

Don’t be pigeonholed into only playing in a big band or only performing with your jazz combo. There are just too many types of music out there to be the stereotypical jazz player. Remember that no musical experience is wasted. You can learn from any musical situation that you are in and the experience will only add to the depth of your musicianship.

Try playing a type of music that you would not normally perform. Put yourself in musical situations that are completely foreign to you. Perform with different ensembles, experiment with different instrumentation, and explore as many different genres as you can. Who knows, you may discover a type of music that resonates with you very deeply.

III) Imitate the masters

Aspiring writers study and imitate the prose of the great authors. Hopeful art students recreate the masterworks stroke by stroke. Young athletes copy every movement and stat of their idols. People in all disciplines have role models, heroes, and mentors that they study intently to improve their craft. Improvisation is no different.

Don’t believe the myth that transcribing and studying master musicians will inhibit the development of your own voice. Creating a personal voice on your instrument doesn’t just magically happen without a model or vision. Find the best musicians, in person and on record, and learn from them. Imitate the things that you love and eventually they will be your own.

IV) Study the sounds that move you

It could be a short chord progression. It could be a pop tune that you happened to catch on the radio. It might be a ii-V line played by one of your heroes. It might be a voicing that sends a chill down your spine. It could even be just one note.

Whatever they are, find the sounds that resonate with you personally and study them. Figure out what they are, how they work, and how to use them. What exactly is it about that sound moves you? Why do you like that particular chord progression, melody, or rhythm?

The answers to these questions will lead you to finding your own voice. Listen to any great player and you’ll hear the same harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic devices showing up again and again in their solos. This is not a coincidence. Find your strengths and personal sound and let it come through in your playing.

V) Question your assumptions

Why are you playing this music? What makes you want to improvise? What do you want to get out of being a jazz musician?

The answer may not be what you think it is. Your beliefs can change. As a beginner, that image that you created in your mind of the iconic “jazz musician”may have been a misconception, an illusion. When you grow as an improviser, your values and goals evolve and often differ from the mindset you had when you began your journey.

Learn to see things as they really are and follow what you truly want to do with music. The greatest improvisers over the years were very unique and took very different paths to achieve their greatness. Don’t feel like you have fit into the image of the jazz musician portrayed by the history books, push yourself to forge an original path and it will lead to an original voice.

VI ) Don’t be afraid to make mistakes

Playing it safe or sticking to the rules is a sure fire way to sound like everyone else. It’s easy to rely on theory and the methods of other people, but it’s very difficult to strive for your own sound. Take a chance and follow your own path.

When you explore new harmonic concepts and experiment with new techniques however, they aren’t going to be perfect right away. This is part of the process of improving and developing your voice. Don’t be afraid of sounding bad and take chances with those new ideas when you are performing, this is the path to creating something original.

VII) Play the things that you love

You’re an individual. The standards that you love are different from the ones preferred by other musicians. The players and records that inspire you are unique to you. These are the factors that make you unique as a musician. Don’t be afraid to study and perform the things that you love.

When you perform, it’s very obvious if you are passionate about the material that you’re playing. If you’re playing what you think is safe or accepted by the majority rather than what you’re emotionally into, it will have an adverse effect on everyone involved. Play what you’re passionate about and it will show. The group dynamic will be better, the audience will respond, and most importantly, performing will be much more fulfilling for you.

VIII) Push yourself

Even though you are following your own path in this music, it doesn’t mean that you can coast along and suddenly you’ll have your own voice. You must challenge yourself and relentlessly push yourself to your full potential. You must study the history of the music and learn from the masters. Success won’t come to you by going half way.

It may sound bad at first and it will take time to see progress. Other musicians may chastise you for being unorthodox or following your own path. Don’t let these things discourage you or set you back. Be confident and follow your vision, and in the end, you will find yourself improvising with a strange new voice that is coming through each solo – your own.

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