Pablo Picasso had unique advice for aspiring artists who wanted to discover their “individuality”: he simply advised them to try to draw a perfect circle. Since no one can actually draw a perfect circle, there will be imperfections. And violá… those imperfections will be yours, and yours alone.
The jazz pianist/composer Joe Sample had a musical version of the same advice. He advised young composers to focus on the aspect of their compositions they despised the most. And then to develop that, since it contained the seeds of their musical individuality.
This can be a bitter pill to swallow, but it’s ultimately very liberating. In fact, I’ve found this out firsthand.
When I was younger, I had the good fortune to study with some accomplished stride pianists, notably Billy Taylor and the composer Hale Smith, who also played jazz piano. My generation was perhaps the last one that could absorb this style directly and in-person from the players who came of age in what’s now known as the “pre-bop” era (around 1940, just before bebop). I listened to Taylor and Smith and learned to play with a jazz feel that predated bebop; a rare opportunity for me.
When I started playing professionally, however, I was envious of players who has a consistently “modern” sound. Sure, I could play that way too, but over the course of a 4-hour club performance my playing would inevitably touch on a wide variety of styles, some old and some new. This used to drive me crazy, since I thought that I needed to develop a narrow “personal style.”
It took me a long time to accept the fact that this range of musical genre is an essential part of who I am as a player. Even more, it’s something I now embrace. Not everyone can play like this and it’s brought me into contact with many musicians, from all areas of music. (It’s made me a better teacher too.) What’s more, many of my modern heroes like Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea have begun to incorporate older jazz styles into their playing in recent years.
Of course there are things we all need to improve on, such as pianistic technique, chord voicings, etc. But when it comes to your musical personality, work towards becoming a more proficient version of yourself, including your perceived “imperfections.”
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