Defining The True Artist - Do You Have What It Takes?

"The real communicating artists seek unique expression. They are not interested anymore in sounding like their heroes, they are searching constantly, developing and refining their own unique voice."

There are musicians who are more than comfortable remaining anonymous. You know, happy to hide behind their guitars or keyboards and be sidemen to the stars of today or tomorrow. Then there are those that have grandiose aspirations of stardom, adoration and limelight. And then there are those who have a driving desire and need to say something original artistically, to express themselves and to communicate that expression to an audience, be it a small niche market or wider demographic.

Those falling into the first category can make a living, albeit fairly modest as a general rule. Those falling into the second category often live in a little bit of a dream world and, depending on their tenacity and 'smart' skills, usually end up disappointed because the focus is set on the destination rather than the journey. The third category usually reap the rewards of the second category gaining all the success and limelight, but as a result of focusing on their art rather than the shallow and flighty end of the musician's world. These are usually the most fascinating people too, because they generally have a little mystery about them and because they actually possess what most entertainers really want; sincere and dedicated talent!

But there are also those that are in the early stages of artistic development who are still learning their craft, and open to influences. Possibly they will become great artists in the future, possibly not. It will be a question of choices and consequences, and doors opened and opportunities taken advantage of - or not. Life certainly will take you places.

But for those that do have aspirations of artistry and expression, then I firmly believe you must have qualities that others do not have. As an artist I believe one must stand out from the heard in order to be heard. It is so easy to make a record these days. One no longer needs to have the luxury of a recording contract in order to stand on a pedestal and say "I am an artist - buy my record!" With home studios costing one 16th of the price they did ten years ago and with software programs that do it all, you can churn out albums by the dozen if you put your mind to it. And many do.

However, just because you can, why would you? - is my question. Just for fun? OK, valid I suppose. But Isn't it better to spend that time and energy searching relentlessly for something unique and different? God knows record companies are releasing enough crap by the hour, even signed artists are now under the impression they have got something to offer. Maybe they have, but for the most part I don't think so (as public reaction and their soundscans will attest!)

Perhaps I am being extremely unfair, but I think too many artists do not realize that they have a responsibility to say something profoundly unique, certainly if they expect any kind of career longevity. We live in a world where musicians spend their lives emulating their heroes; singers spend their lives emulating Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, Stevie Wonder, Frank Sinatra and so on. Rock guitarists spend their lives emulating Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Paige, Jeff Beck and Eddie Van Halen. Jazz guitarists are proud emulators of Pat Metheny, John Scofield and Wes Montgomery. Saxophone players worship Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Michael Brecker. And so on...

Before I go on I have to say that emulating heroes is absolutely imperative in your formative years as musicians. You simply MUST listen to the greats, past and present. One has to have a strong grounding and musical knowledge and one simply cannot get there without listening. However, way too many 'artists' cannot get passed this stage. They need to have peer approval, have to know that other respected musicians around them recognize them and applaud their abilities. Often all this takes place subconsciously.

This 'peer approval' is a stage of development that is also important. Every musician goes through it at some point. It is absolutely natural, but I firmly believe that to become a great artist, you have to move beyond that stage and look inward. I always liken it those wedding band singers, who despite having an honorable and justifiable (and in some cases envious) career, they are all too often the 'performing monkeys'. They are often fine vocalists but at the end of the day they are seeking approval and applause and not communicating or expressing anything artistic. They certainly know how to entertain but do they know how to intrigue? It's a huge gap. Nothing remotely subtle about it as far as I am concerned.

The real communicating artists seek unique expression. They are not interested anymore in sounding like their heroes. They have moved past that, now searching constantly, developing and refining their own unique voice. Look at any of the true giants of yesterday and today. Yes you can hear their references, but they also have their own strong identity. At some point during their development something bigger than them took over. The chances are they knew it at the time and took advantage of it and made an extra effort to really hone that uniqueness.

Finding that unique inner voice might not be as easy for some. I think it starts by recognizing your technical weaknesses. It is often those weaknesses that ultimately end up becoming your artistic strengths. Let's face it, if you were able to play the guitar technically perfect, at all speeds, meticulously so every note that came out was totally clean and audible, would this be ultimately interesting to an audience? Yes it might be very clever and impressive, but for how long could you listen to an album where every phrase felt like you were having your teeth drilled!!?

Wes Montgomery played with his thumb because he kept dropping his pick, ultimately enabling him to become the greatest and most influential jazz guitarist of all time. BB King has about three licks in his entire blues repertoire. Does anyone NOT know BB King when they hear him? Thelonius Monk refused to conform to traditional piano techniques and musical ideas. He simply HAD to play music the way he heard it in his head. He made such a bold musical statement during his time that he is emulated the world over and revered by the greatest musicians living today.

Technical shortcomings can be the very essence of your unique artistry. Now, should those shortcomings get in the way of what you need to say musically then those weaknesses might need to be turned around so they don't restrict what you hear in your head.

Remember, the true artist simply communicates from within. All other extraneous thoughts, influences and distractions need to fall by the wayside. The minute a lick or a phrase that your hero played or sung (and made famous) ends up on your record - watch out! You might be in trouble. Absolutely steal from your heroes, but just remember that real artistry is about what YOU have to say, not what your heroes have already said before, and have possibly said better.

Push yourself to the max and search for that truly unique quality within. After all, that next great talent we are all so desperately waiting for might just be you!

Chris Standring is a contemporary jazz recording artist who performs throughout the USA and Europe regularly. He has enjoyed much radio airplay with several albums, opening up a busy touring schedule. His music appears on many compilation CDs also. For more info on Chris' popular home study jazz guitar course go to http://www.PlayJazzGuitar.com

Visit him on the web at http://www.chrisstandring.com

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