Talent. It’s a word that’s thrown around in all professions and all parts of life. From sports and academics to art and music. And nowhere is it more prevalent than in jazz improvisation. We listen to the musical masters of the past century, we look at our teachers, the musicians at jam sessions and the young improvisers in school that show promise, and we imagine that these players were born with innate musical gifts.
That they can simply pick up their instruments and start playing beautiful music in any key, at any tempo, and at any time of the day…all because they have this thing called talent.
But is talent real?
Is it the missing link between an average musician and a master musician? The elusive piece of the puzzle that you need to gain exceptional musicianship…
Or is it a word that hints at a much deeper process?
For many people, the process of improvisation is hard to define and talent is often the easiest explanation. But what you might not realize is that chalking everything up to talent can actually hold you back in the long run.
Let me explain…
The Musical Truth Hidden in Plain Sight
It’s easy to use a term like talent.
Or to say that a musician is a natural, or gifted, or even a prodigy.
However, when you attribute musical skills or musicianship to talent you start to believe that improvisation arises from natural ability – that great improvisers are born instead of made.
That the Charlie Parkers and John Coltranes of the world didn’t have to acquire skills or practice like everyone else. That some force beyond their reach was responsible for the greatness that they achieved.
And like it or not, this mindset will unconsciously affect the way you approach your own practice.
If you think that the best musicians relied on natural talent, then it’s not too far fetched to believe that given enough time, something eventually will click in your own playing.
That your breakthrough is just around the corner. That a few more times playing with that play-a-long, more time running through scales, and a couple more gigs will unleash a hidden talent.
And this is exactly what many musicians do in the practice room, hope for musical skills to magically appear in their playing over time. However, this type of approach is wishful thinking.
Just like any other skill, you get out of improvising what you put in to it.
But this is easier said than done. So today we’re going to show you how exceptional musicians practiced and developed skills – just like you.
Below are 3 master musicians, “talented” in every sense of the word, that didn’t rely on talent to achieve their musical potential…
Clifford Brown: An uncommon technique
One of the most celebrated improvisers to play music is Clifford Brown…
He is known the world around for a warm sound, flawless articulation and his uncanny ability to run effortlessly through a chord progression…
Any player would wish for this kind of technique in their solos, but is this talent?
On the surface it appears to be, but if you dig a little deeper you’ll find a different story.
You see, early on Clifford worked on exercises that improved his ear and in high school his teacher helped him with his embouchure and introduced him to a calculated approach to technical studies:
“Clifford had had some experience in a local Elks band when he came to our school…I started him on the Prescott System, which is based on Arban’s Method (for cornet). We used the Arban book to teach the Prescott System. One of the exercises, for example, was to play 16 or 32 bars in one breath. We put a maximum of eight weeks to work on an exercise.”~Harry Andrews
He performed the Carnival of Venice at his graduation, he practically slept with his Arban’s book, and he idolized the playing of great trumpet players like Raphael Mendez and Fats Navarro.
All of this directly affected his approach to articulation, tone, and musicality on the trumpet. And he approached the process of improvisation with the same serious dedication, learning lines and chord progressions and repeating them over and over again:
“I’ll put it like this: We would have breakfast, and Clifford would practice. We would go out, and Clifford would practice. We would have lunch, and Clifford would practice. Clifford practiced anytime he possibly could and even if we were in a place where he couldn’t blow his horn, even with the mute, he would do lip exercises and tongue exercises or he would just simply play his mouthpiece. He played constantly.”~LaRue Brown Watson
You can only do so much with your natural ability, beyond that it’s up to the skills you develop.
Frank Sinatra: The voice
You can immediately recognize the distinctive voice of Frank Sinatra.
That tone, that phrasing…
But wait, a singer is born with a voice right? How much control can you have over your own voice?
More than you think. What most people don’t know is that Frank Sinatra had to work to develop his iconic sound – that he consciously spent years working on his tone and vocal technique.
Early on he studied with former MET opera singer John Quinlan to develop the foundation of his vocal technique. Listen to him talking about those exercises here:
Aside from his technique he also worked on the musicality of his singing. He listened to other vocalists like Billie Holiday for inspiration…
And he crafted his approach from instrumentalists as well.
“My greatest teacher was not a vocal coach, but the way Tommy Dorsey breathed and phrased on the trombone.”~Frank Sinatra
It’s easy to say that Sinatra was a natural or talented, but you’d be ignoring the years of dedication that he put in developing his craft.
Mark Turner: Developing a new sound
Every few years certain players pop up on the scene.
They generate a lot of buzz and to the outside observer they appear to be an overnight success. Winning competitions, possessing impressive talent and a showcasing a developed artistic vision.
But if you look closely, you’ll find that this overnight success happened to be a decade long “overnight.”
One of these players is the tenor saxophonist Mark Turner.
He has an immediately recognizable sound and a distinct approach to melody. But how did he develop this approach, from talent?
Not exactly. Here is Mark describing his development in his own words…
Much of that (harmonic sensibility, horn range) were things that came after Berklee. Although the foundation started there. After transcribing a lot I had learned from that process, things other than vocabulary such as voice leading/harmony, note groupings, ornamentation, pacing, phrasing, swing/time, sound. Transcribing helped me to learn how to assimilate/integrate information in my own way. So I tried to find ways to combine/continue these things without transcribing. For example play a two five with voice leading( two to six voices all smooth voice leading), see all common tones including all alterations/change of chord color, change cadence with final chord the same, keep cadence change final chord, use note grouping of some type, triads, intervals, use ornamentation etc. Range came out of necessity. There were things I wanted to play that required it. So these are all things that I still work on…
You see the details a methodical and painstaking process rather than someone winging it with their natural ability.
The things that we immediately identify as the “Mark Turner sound” he spent years consciously working on and developing in the practice room and bandstand.
The list could go on and on
Every great musician that you listen to has a similar story.
Underneath the incredible technique and sounds that you hear are the untold hours spent in the practice room.
Clifford’s greatness didn’t come from talent. Sinatra wasn’t born a polished vocalist. And Mark Turner didn’t simply appear with an innovative approach.
Their musical abilities were not left up to chance…They worked hard for each exceptional piece of their playing.
And the same is true for you.
Instead of putting these players on a pedestal or treating them as super-humans that are imbued with with special gifts, try seeing them as just like you.
It’s not talent or natural ability that determines the way you sound, it’s you!
It’s easy to forget…
It’s true that any person can have a natural aptitude
An inclination, or a physical make-up that gives them an advantage. They can be born to jazz musician parents, raised in a jazz club and have the best teachers in the world…
But all of that stuff can only get you so far. Above all of those external forces is the work you put in and the goals you set for yourself. The passion you have and the determination to work and succeed.
The truth is, as a musician you can sound like anything you want – you simply need to put the pieces there step by step.
So take a good look at the musician you are now and the one that you want to become. What will it take to transform into that player?
- Want a great sound? You’ve got to put it in your playing, each day in the practice room.
- Want to play in the high register? Start working on exercises to develop that skill.
- Want fast technique? You gotta spend the time working on technical exercises.
- Want to have an innovative harmonic approach? You guessed it…you’ve got to put it in your playing.
Rather than natural ability or talent, improvement takes a conscious effort in the practice room.
Your musical potential is not predetermined, set in stone, or dependent upon your natural ability. Just like every musician before you exceptional musical ability is well within your reach.