Finding your voice as an artist is a complicated challenge. Thankfully, I think I’m starting to boil it down to a few specific things that have helped me in my search. I hope this helps you along your way.
When I was younger I practiced, listened, and studied music constantly and as a result I developed pretty good technique, ears, and a knowledge of musicians and what they did well.
However for the longest time I thought those things would get me by and to be honest they helped me out tremendously once I finally got it, but sometime pretty early in my professional career I realized something was seriously off when I began playing with folks who were really really making Music (with a capital M).
Even though I didn’t know at the time what the problem was I still knew there was a problem. In retrospect I now realize the disconnect was the result of something very specific. The people I was playing with had found their voice! … and unfortunately I hadn’t.
I had serious difficulty using my creative thought process and my technical ability in tandem to make Music (capital M again). In the practice room I was burning and feeling GOOD! Then when I would get to the gig and couldn’t connect a phrase, my timing was off, I had a hard time hearing others, and I literally couldn’t even hear myself think! I just wasn’t connecting the dots. Like I said, IT WAS A PROBLEM. I wasn’t having a conversation.
I should talk a little bit about what I believe it means to “have a voice”. It’s no mystery that to get through life successfully most of us develop the ability to speak to one another in some capacity. Whether that’s the english language, spanish, tongue clicks, ASL or body language we all find a way that works for us to express our needs or wants in the most effective way possible.
For an artist it isn’t much different. We have to develop an effective way of communicating our feelings or ideas with the tools we acquire. With language we have the advantage of learning from our parents, siblings, and those we interact with daily and at a very young age. In the creative arts we don’t always have that luxury and it can take much longer to develop confidence in our ability to communicate through our medium.
In music we call this ability to articulate an idea “facility”. This facility comes from repetition, refinement, and a whole lot of imitation. One of my instructors (and world renowned bassist) Lincoln Goines once told me, “there are no shortcuts”. With every day and with every shred of work I do I understand a little better what I think he was trying to tell me. It should be noted that this doesn’t just apply to music.
This confidence is crucial. Unfortunately it isn’t the only hurdle, I’m sorry to say. What is it that we really want to SAY with our voice anyway? Some of you reading this might have experienced people who were sheltered by academia. That is to say they’ve never really experienced life outside of their studies. Life on life’s terms. Who wants the practice room to be their story? More importantly who really wants to HEAR that story? I’m not saying go out there and be reckless, but then again it might not hurt… actually it probably will hurt… but you know what? It SHOULD hurt. That’s where we get our grit. From hurt. Also from love, sex, travel, comedy, and from being broke and hungry. Also other stuff like being embarrassed. (That’s a really good thing to get used to).
In the end these experiences give us strength and perspective. Knowledge that is irreplaceable and unachievable otherwise. If you let these things happen they can allow you to not take yourself too seriously. Academia often foolishly perpetuates the asinine ideology that you are worthy of praise despite your lack of substance. Ignore that if you’re able.
I’m running out of words. So, in summation… Love something. Make mistakes. Have a story to tell and be able to tell it when you get the chance. Find your voice and USE IT.
- John Inghram