Finding Oneself – The Road to Self Discovery

by DAVID LIEBMAN

How exactly does one find a unique and individual style? Is it something that is as inexplicable as it appears? Do you either have it or not? What happens after the transcription and style stages? Realizing that many great artists were not prodigies but slow, methodical workers answers that question. Surely there is great talent in such an individual and most important a burning desire to express himself. As the cliché goes, great works of art involve 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration or something to that effect. It is hard work with a vision that enables some individuals to rise above the pack. I have discovered some guidelines for this journey which to one degree or another had an effect on my development at different stages.

1-Admit the possibility: You have to imagine that you can find your voice, that you have something unique to offer, that anything is possible. This is a matter of good old fashioned positive thinking and looking at the glass as half full rather than half empty. You can find something if you work hard enough.

2-Be clinical, objective and disciplined: Finding oneself should not become too much of an emotional issue although of course there are overtones of personality and psychology imbedded in this or any deep process. When you go about the musical end of things, treat it as business with order and consistency. And be hard on yourself. This is not a “walk in the park”. You must be vigilant and demanding.

3-Strip away and submerge obvious influences: This is the hard part. At first you must admit that you are playing someone else’s ideas. By concentrating enough even while performing and not letting yourself play the same familiar patterns, you create a space for new things to evolve. We are all a product of our influences but the best artists find ways to submerge these factors beyond recognition except to a few experts. You may have nothing to replace the old material with for awhile and therefore your level of playing may appear to others to be faltering. Don’t let that throw you. In fact maybe you should take some time off from playing if this is the case in order to leave some space for the new to take root. Imagine who you are rather than who you are through others. Surrender has traditionally been the pathway to self knowledge.

4-Transcribe yourself: In order to discover what is different and good in your own playing transcribe something recent and listen hard. You are bound to find something that is not directly related to your influences, even if it is something minor like the tone on a certain note of your horn, or a certain nuance, or possibly a rhythmic thing. This takes heavy analytical powers but by now you are prepared to notice such fine details.

5-Write exercises and compositions: Take what you hear from yourself and write ten exercises or compositional studies that manifest the device or idea in different ways. Be creative and try everything so that the seed that you planted can grow cumulatively.

6-What is missing: Once you have some written material and a concept of what you are doing check out what is missing from a standpoint of tension and release, opposites, balance and other musical elements. Fill in the blanks both compositionally and from the  playing standpoint.

7-The instrumental trap: Beware of the association of how rather than what. In other words don’t let a musical element borne out of the fingers rather than the music itself become a substitute for a quality idea when looking for those seeds mentioned above. A skilled musician by this time has a lot of finger patterns that work but these are not necessarily of the highest musical value or useful when searching for oneself.

8-Look outward: For inspiration go outside the immediate circle of jazz. Listen to other types of music, observe other arts and sciences, and try to “graft” principles from another field to your own, meaning taking something unrelated but changing it to fit your needs. Be imaginative and take chances, but most of all be curious.

In the end, no matter what the final product years later, this process will reveal parts of yourself that would have never been observed. Treasure this time and use it wisely. And don’t wait too long to do it!!