Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate

Some really interesting bits of information and insight I’ve picked up today from my lessons.  The first “fun fact” that both surprised and somewhat disturbed me is that 80% of music on iTunes has NEVER been listened to or downloaded.  That’s a lot of music!  So many artists are putting their work out there unsuccessfully, while the same twenty pop artists get thousands of downloads per day.  We had a really great lecture today from cellist, composer, and musicologist David Bahanovich on the evolving world of music production, and he gave us some excellent insight into what it takes to be a successful musician in today’s society.  As all musicians are, I’m sure, well-aware, the music industry has undergone immense changes in response to the evolution of technology.  Massive corporations like Apple, Spotify, and Amazon have changed the way music is consumed, so that the audience is more likely to download songs and albums online rather than buying the physical album in stores.  YouTube has also provided an opportunity for the audience to pirate music.  If you’re making millions as a pop artist by selling out stadium shows and marketing merchandise, this may not affect you as much; however, if you’re a struggling artist trying to sell your work, the last thing you need is for people to steal your music off of YouTube.  It’s a tough situation, but essentially the solution is to adapt and market yourself in a way that targets a specific audience.  As Mr.Bahanovich put it, we can’t simply play music; we must create an experience, something our audience has never seen before and will be likely to remember.  We have to find a way to stand out from all the “background noise,” the 80% of music that is never heard.

After this engaging lecture, I had my jazz improvisation class.  I really love this class, and I’ve been searching for an opportunity to improve my skills in vocal jazz.  I have never gotten the chance to receive formal training in vocal jazz, so this class is a great experience for me.  We’re currently working on gaining a better understanding of the chord structure in popular jazz standards.  Today, my teacher gave us such a fantastic anecdote on learning to play/sing jazz that I just had to share it.  He likened learning improvisation to learning a new language; when learning a language, you try to imitate those who have mastered the language by imitating the accent, the sentence structure, etc.  It’s essentially the same with jazz.  A great place to start is by imitating the masters of jazz, musicians like Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, Miles Davis.  From there, you can start to develop your own voice, customizing the music to fit your own unique style.  I had never thought of learning jazz in this way, and it was such a great perspective.  Concerning improvisation, he quoted trumpeter Clark Terry’s theory: imitate, assimilate, innovate.  Basically the same point as comparing jazz to languages, one must imitate the musicians we strive to become like, then continually practice and master the art.  Only after mastering the essentials and gaining a deep understanding of how the chords and structures work can one start to branch out and create a unique voice.  Perhaps Terry’s theory stretches beyond jazz improvisation.  During the lecture today, Mr.Bahanovich told some stories of seemingly ordinary and average musicians who achieved great success by coming up with unusual yet simple ways to market themselves.  Of course we strive to imitate them in order to build an audience and gain fans.  After building that fan base, we can then begin to “innovate,” establishing an individualized voice and music completely unique from anyone else’s.  We must create a one-of-a-kind experience for our listeners, whether that be a visually-engaging production or music that forms a unique and personal connection to our audience.  The music industry has seen massive changes in the last two decades, but hope is not lost for aspiring musicians.  We must continue to master our craft and earn the respect and devotion of listeners.  From there, the possibilities are endless.