Inspiration vs. Saturation
This is going to show my age, but I remember a time when, as a very young boy learning to play the drums, one of my biggest treats was being allowed to stay up late and watch Buddy Rich on The Johnny Carson Show. It was so exciting and inspirational to get a glimpse of one of my idols; this was ramped up even further on those few occasions when I had the joy of seeing Buddy and his band live – truly a life-changing experience!
We now live in amazing times. Through the magic of the internet, we can access almost any information we want, whenever we want. In addition to streaming our favourite music or watching an inspirational performance on YouTube or elsewhere, we can also search for specific instructional content (much of it by iconic drummers) designed to help us take our playing to the next level. The reservoir of online content to be explored is like outer space; vast, endless and getting bigger every day.
While there are obvious benefits to having such quick and easy access to music and related content, there may also be some potential concerns or problems. Ironically, our 24-7 access to unlimited content (even if it is used for inspiration and learning) has the potential to fill us with a sense of unease. How do we begin the daunting task of curating this content to align with our creative and professional ambitions? Because it is so readily available, does content (however amazing) become so normalised that it loses its magic and ceases to inspire us in the same way? And finally, does the enormity of the information available have the potential to make you feel that you might be jumping from one topic to the next without fully absorbing anything?
These are difficult questions to answer, and any response is purely subjective. However, as we recognise the potential problems that information overload can create, it’s possible that we might obtain the most success, satisfaction and clarity from our consumption and study of music when we have ascertained what our musical identity is (or will be).
Buddy Rich on The Johnny Carson Show
Defining musical identity
While our quest to define our musical identity can help us to be more focussed in our consumption of content, we also want to avoid being too simplistic or reductionist in our judgments. For many of us, the ‘self-concept’ is constantly changing as we grow older, depending on where we live, the people we interact with, our connection and identification with the zeitgeist of our times (or other times) and many other factors. Similarly, we often evolve in our musical tastes and endeavours; what we are interested in and passionate about today may not be the same as it was 10 years ago. Things always change and we do not live indefinitely in creative stasis.
And yet, despite all of these considerations, we can usually see clear patterns emerge over time regarding how we engage with the creation, performance, listening and appreciation of music. These observations can help us (and others) to put some sort of label on the totality of our musical expression. For example, if we come back to the force of nature that was Buddy Rich, we know that his virtuosity was predominantly contextualised into the genre of jazz. Therefore, in addition to Buddy being one of the greatest drummers of all time, he is also (rightly or wrongly) labelled as a “jazz drummer”. And while there are limitations to this label and it doesn’t fully encompass his prodigious skills and achievements, it is not without merit or substance. Additionally, it conforms to a collective opinion.
Freedom in knowing
Therefore, if we can make an assessment of our own musical identity (which should be based not only on our convictions but in consultation with those who know us) and embrace this, it follows that we may be far more able to distil our focus towards music that can enhance our existing skills and ambitions. We can be more laser-focussed towards the type of content that will keep us inspired and not overwhelmed. Admittedly, there is a tension here between the potential benefits we’ve just mentioned and closing yourself off unnecessarily to new ideas and influences. Regarding the latter, we should avoid becoming blinkered in our views and limiting our chances to explore new concepts that may enhance our musical identity. For example, Omar Hakim may not be thought of (or think of himself) as a “reggae drummer” in the same way as Carlton Barrett, who was an iconic drummer within the genre. However, Omar embraces reggae into his playing in ways that are congruent with his complex and multi-faceted musical identity, producing a stylised approach that is wonderful element of his identifiable sound.
Determining your musical identity
Unless you are an extremely rare human being (e.g. Vinnie Colaiuta), you will eventually specialise to some extent in your creative and professional musical activities. Just like the medical profession, it’s impossible to learn it all. Depending on the demands of a person’s health, an entire team of practitioners may be involved; nutritionists, oncologists, endocrinologists, surgeons, etc. All of these practitioners are crucial to restoring wellness to their patients, and therefore none can be ranked more highly than the other in their skills or knowledge.
The determination of your own musical identity is about looking at yourself honestly, embracing who you are, and knowing that it’s something to be celebrated. While not an exhaustive list, here are some things you might do or consider:
- Pay close attention to your own ‘inner compass’ with regards to your musical interests, i.e. what do you gravitate towards with regards to listening, performing or creating?
- Once you’ve determined the above, do a ‘deep-dive’ on the things that interest you. For example, absorb an entire album, not just individual tracks – see how this resonates with your musical universe.
- Consult with your peers/colleagues/family/friends – what do they think you are characterised by?
- What instruments do you own? How do you set up when you perform?
- If you’re looking for musical inspiration, where do you go?
Without forgetting some of the potential risks, I believe a thoughtful attempt at defining our musical identity (which may evolve over time) has the potential to make us more comfortable with who we are as musicians and can increase our enjoyment and success. Though it might seem a vague and esoteric concept, be a patient observer of your inner life and where it leads you in your musical journey. Everyone’s path is different; there are no absolutes, and comparisons are usually not helpful. We all have something of value to offer to the world if we remember that music is a gift that enriches the soul and not an athletic competition!