More Banff: On Innovation and Developing a Personal Voice

Photograph of Steve Lehman by Michael Hoefner
In a master class last week, Steve Lehman made an insightful distinction between "doing something that hasn't been done" versus "doing something deeply personal." Although these two things are very different, it can be easy to get stuck in the mentality of wanting to "innovate," rather than creating music that is representative of your personality, life experience, and interests in music.

As I understood it, prioritizing the development of a deeply personal voice should necessarily come before the desire to innovate or change the world, since the latter often necessarily comes from the former. Developing a personal musical identity is a never-ending quest in itself, but according to Steve, the approach to doing so is pretty simple: with maximal specificity, identify precisely what elements of certain tunes, players, and recordings resonate with you, as well as those that don't, and write and practice exercises that cultivate those specific elements you like. It seems pretty intuitive—maybe even obvious—but for musicians coming out of music school or just any musicians feeling the pressure of adapting to a highly competitive music scene, it's easy to prioritize short-term means towards advancing one's career over long-term means towards achieving one's goals as a musician.

I think having this sort of an approach in mind helps put things in perspective with regards to where we want to go as musicians—it's much more meaningful than constantly attending to what we think we should be practicing, which is also important at times as students of improvisation, but not the central purpose in studying music.