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When I went to Prince’s very last show two weeks ago, I was inspired and humbled. In his newest incarnation as singer with a piano and a microphone, he was doing so many things well that I want to be able to do as a musician. Wanting to copy Prince put center stage in my mind the old debate I have with myself.
Should I emulate my heroes? Prince did. He played like Hendrix and sang like Vandross, among others.
And yet no one would mistake him for either of those people. He was able to incorporate the things he learned from them into his own work so that he just sounds like himself. I wonder if this is possible for everyone, or at least for me.
I am a very good mimic of styles, both musical and literary. When looking for success, the easiest trick in the book is to see how someone else did it, and copy them. The benefit is you don’t have to re-invent the wheel, but the risk is that you become a lesser version of someone else and never hit your true value.
If I were to undertake a serious study of Prince, I might sing more effectively. I might create a sound that more people would find appealing. They would recognize it as part of their universe and bring me in.
The risks: I might end up sounding stupid, because that’s not me, not my vibe, not my area of expertise. I might also be passing up the opportunity to share a sound that only I can make. What is the balance between these two extremes?
I don’t have a pat answer. I struggle with this in writing, composing, singing, and even teaching. Many times I’ve deliberately avoided a careful study of someone else’s work for fear that I would ultimately undercut my goal to be heard as who I am.
Yet there must be a way to trust that, as Elvis Costello said, when you’re trying to sound like your heroes, you really only end up sounding like yourself anyway. Since I could never ever duplicate Prince, I might actually improve the efficacy of my sound by incorporating what I learn from him. That’s what he did, after all.
If I were to advise my students, I’d probably tell them that it’s all about intentions. If I am seeking to impersonate Prince’s success to further my own, I’m probably going to be disappointed. On the other hand, if I want to improve myself by studying his successes and comparing them to my own, I might have everything to gain.
I know I have a lot of friends who have faced this dilemma. I really want to hear from you now. If you’ve found a good answer, I might want to do what you did!