It is considered common wisdom that developing a personal sound of style on the saxophone, for example, takes hard work spread out over years to study and experience. But I believe that this process can be made significantly shorter if one is focused and very effectively manages their practicing and performing towards a set of realistic goals. Most often this involves thinking differently, considering tradition wisdom while innovating, adapting our strengths and, especially, our (perceived) weaknesses to our advantage. This means that I am referring to a more expanded, “holistic” idea of what one’s own “sound” and style might be, as the musical choices we make are as much a part of our sound as the acoustic properties/sound of the instrument itself. Thus, we could say that we are really developing an overall style as much as a beautiful tone, that the two are part of a continuum, not exclusive to each other. This is because to have a style you automatically must sound different than others, that people could recognize you by how you play a single note. Indeed, one must practice technique and such for many hours a day over a period of a couple of decades to really become a master. But well-planned creative/stylistic program of musical analysis occurring at the same time will hasten the process mentally as your fingers and arm muscles adapt to high levels of performance.
Though we all say that we are working on our sound and style, most beginning and intermediate saxophone students actually aren’t, as they are not strategizing towards that end very creatively or with any amount of originality. Whatever the reason for this though, it merely takes a change of thinking or perception to get on track toward being a truly original player. To do this we must consider our entire being/way of life as a whole: our entire life becomes musical training, every positive action we take towards improving our emotional/physical health via Tai Ch’i, yoga, Zen meditation, or prayer, etc., becomes a musical action, a tool for improved technique and creativity.
We must then consider/examine our entire essence as a person or musician: our likes and dislikes (aesthetics), future goals, thoughts, the relationship between our music (composition, improvisation), everything… not just our reeds and mouthpieces, and make/model of saxophone. I am also not talking about how we define ourselves socially, i.e. marketing our music or making connections in the music industry. Rather, I am talking about having a thorough understanding of your musical life (music-as-life) makes it much easier to start and continue achieving a personal saxophone approach. If, for example, you were offered 10 million dollars a year for the rest of your life to do anything you want musically, what would you begin playing or studying? Is it different than what you are doing now? Why? Why not do and be exactly who/what you would love to do/be right now? Life is short and unpredictable. NOW is the best time to do anything properly….
Now that we are ready to start being ourselves, let’s discuss a common misperception of young musicians; the idea of what constitutes a ‘weakness’ in one’s playing, vs. strength – what one is “good” at. This common misperception is that we assume our weaknesses are just/only that, something wrong, something in need of fixing. Every musician ever has had both strengths and weaknesses, but the problem is that some of our weaknesses are actually underutilized, or misunderstood, strengths! Time and time again I have seen some of the most interesting and progressive musical ideas dismissed as errors, or things that the artist did “wrong.” How many critics of trumpeter Miles Davis’ music in the early 1970s call his music various forms of garbage (!) , like he was selling out and stopped making art in order to appease younger audiences and stay popular at any cost? Davis’ music recordings from the late Sixties to the mid-Seventies (such as Pangea – pictured above) are some of the most ferociously beautiful works ever recorded: primal, fiery and mystic. Like any great recording, this music sounded both ancient and futuristic, like we were being taken to wild, unexplored planets a million light years away, and each track was a different terrain through which Davis led us. This was in the day when people would play records all afternoon for entertainment, gathering in groups to listen to the latest release of their favorites artists. These listening session, especially as a pre-teen were often the first exposure we had to music more sophisticated than the pop songs of the day, and our hearts/mind were set aflame with joy and exasperation at how magical it all seemed.
Yet there were those who refused to listen carefully to the hidden treasures in each recording. Where they consciously chose to be ignorant, those of us who paid very close attention to the music heard magic in what the critics called “mistakes.” – flubbed or half played notes gave a very human, primal quality to the music, and Davis’ crackling trumpet (run through a machine called a ring modulator) sounded more like a screaming banshee than a brass instrument. Davis’ flaws were (and truly are) the most raw, true expressions of human passion, joy, misery, and melancholy ever put created in the jazz genre, and yet the critics refused to hear them. These recordings of Davis’ are still received with great enthusiasm amongst true jazz fans, and heavy metal lovers, and punk, and everyone else who were seeking to play/enjoy high-energy music. If Davis had tried to correct these squawks and shrill notes we would have lost something priceless and beyond compare. These ‘mistakes’ were not failures of musical technique; in this case they were raw sounds, the perfect combination of music and pitch-less exclamation.
Humans have such a natural, almost infinite creative urge if freed from certain socio-psychological constraints, one of which being the false labeling of certain strengths we have as ‘weaknesses.’ For example, when I went to college to get a diploma in jazz performance I was exposed to the music of saxophonist Charlie Parker in much more depth than previous. Parker and his works are the quintessential example of bebop jazz at its absolute best: curving melodies, brilliantly utilized chromatic runs, cleverly substituted chord progressions and so on. Bebop is also usually played extremely fast, and this is where most jazz musicians run into ‘trouble’ with it. It doesn’t have to be played fast to be good bebop, but the best bebop songs and famous solos are all rapid; these being aspects that separate the true pros from the amateurs. Now, when I began to seriously study Parker, I spent literally hundreds of hours carefully studying and practicing his music, memorizing dozens of songs and solos, and spending two full years practicing bebop scales/theory/Parker’s at least 5 to 8 hours a day! The result? I found out the hard way that I just can’t play Parker’s music with any true perspective of my own, let alone play the style properly. To play bebop properly requires dedicating one’s life to the music. Thus, you can listen to bebop masters such as saxophonist Phil Woods, or Canadian alto saxophonist P.J Perry and hear a full life spent in bebop. Woods’ and Perry’s music are profound examples of bebop taken to the heights of being, taking Parker’s music to new, unique places within the realm of jazz. So, I had worked super hard to get on that path, and discovered that I just didn’t have it. I didn’t just feel like I couldn’t do it, it is a scientific fact. Some people have “that thing” the instinct(s) and muscle types that bebop requires. Not me. I felt really depressed. All those hours and sweat, and aching shoulders, and sore embouchure and I had nothing to show for it. Or so I thought…
But something amazing happened after I came to this realization. I had just graduated from college, it was Fall, and I was wondering what to do next and where to go. By a great stroke of luck, I got the chance to travel around northern Japan (Hokkaido) as well as perform with a Japanese harp (koto) player in one of my favorite cities, Sapporo. I hadn’t practiced for a couple of months because I felt rather depressed over my “lack” of progress. But, having put down bebop and 6 hour practicing, I had given my body/mind a chance to rest and subconsciously organize/meditate on what I had learnt.
Thus, when it was time to get out my tenor saxophone and rehearse with the koto player I was to be working with, something amazing happened. I had lost a lot of the physical virtuosity (speed) on my horn, but I found myself playing in a more sparse, minimalistic style manner naturally, which worked perfectly with the koto. And not only did it fit, but I felt a new sense of wonder and deep inner joy. Something rather startling and profound was taking place… old habits and perceptions were falling away, and instead of feeling like I had lost everything, it felt like I was freed from an invisible prison of my own making. It was in that moment I realized an amazing profound truth about myself, and bebop: what the thousands of hours of practicing and sweat really meant…
The fact was that Life was trying to tell me I didn’t have to play it!! My supposed “inability” to play bebop was Life trying to tell me that I was meant to play something else, and that something would be so much more true to myself, artistic, and fun to play. I didn’t have to play bebop, rather I used what I learnt from the great bebop masters to move on and eventually find my own voice. My bebop mistakes were trying to tell me I would be so much happier playing what I was uniquely meant for, and that bebop was a wonderful stepping stone towards my ultimate being. Realizing this just before I stepped onstage to play, I made a promise to myself that, just this once, I would only play what I felt, and not be scared to play simple, medium-speed ideas that weaved through and supported what the koto player did, creating a true dialogue of harp and saxophone that was joyous, fun, and (hopefully) a pleasure for the crowd to listen to.
It just so happened that the Governor of Hokkaido and his wife were present, and later they both came up to me with a translator and expressed how much they enjoyed what we had done. This was a very special moment for me, for not only was it a great honor to talk to them, but to also reveal that the koto player and I had improvised the entire 30-minute performance! We had put down our preconceptions about how traditional koto and jazz saxophone music might (or might not) work together and just trusted the moment and each other. Besides, I spoke zero Japanese at that point and she didn’t know the technical terms of music in English. So once our translator left the stage, we had only improvisation as our possible language, and that particular performance is still a super-wonderful memory.
Hidden within my bebop “weakness” was something so personally profound and moving, and I shudder to think what my life would have been like if I had never had the courage to trust myself, show myself kindness and compassion, and allow myself to be musically free. I stopped comparing myself to bebop and its masters, and allowed my true self to emerge. Even more so, I gave myself a chance to thrive, I allowed what I was within to have a fair chance to emerge, make mistakes and ultimately begin making its own uniqueness known.
Inspired by this moment and the rest of the trip around Hokkaido, I eventually moved on to New York City, studied improvisation with Ornette Coleman, and went back to Japan (Osaka) for a number of years, all the while discovering, coaxing out, and strengthening my own vision of music, which really blossomed as I worked with amazing musicians and artists from Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe (in what is known as the Onkyo music scene). That one decision, more so than others, to be who I was led directly to the things that I am deeply grateful for and humbled by in music. And no amount of analyzing others’ work can eventually be a replacement for letting go and allowing yourself to be happy being who you really are, who you are (maybe) scared to be, but ultimately would love to be.
If you secretly would love to be an X rather than Y, don’t be scared! Your heart will show you what you need, and that is the best sound and style advice one can truly give. Choosing to encourage yourself and your music – rather than force yourself/”beat yourself up” by comparing yourself to others- will show you something thrilling, wild, and amazing… you!!