[This article first appeared in the May/June 1976 issue of Contemporary Keyboard magazine.]
I'm often asked by musicians about the learning process. They want to develop a style of their own; find their own creative path. There's a myth to the effect that it's not good to copy other artists, because supposedly if you do that you're not being yourself. But I would like to blow that myth, because it puts a block in the way of the learning process. The basis of learning your own style is learning how to copy other people. When you have learned to duplicate something exactly, you begin to get a feeling of how to apply it in the different contexts.
Before you can reach a creative goal, you have to evolve a way to do it. What usually happens is that you learn a bit of technique, because you hear something that you like and want to copy. When you knowingly gather bits and pieces of technique and learn how to apply them, you immediately have an ability to express something that's your own.
Theoretically, you could develop your technique out of the clear blue sky. But that's not the way it works in real life. If you are a pianist, you're dealing with an instrument that has a relatively long history. There’s a body of knowledge that has been developed by many, many pianists and composers, that is documented in written music and on recordings. If you try to learn to play the piano disregarding that body of knowledge, you're going to have to go through a very long, slow process. You're likely to stumble down a lot of blind alleys before you reach the goal of being able to express yourself.
But if you start by copying what other people have done, you can get the idea of how piano technique has been developed and applied. You’ll reach the point where you can begin to evolve technique from your own viewpoint. And your personal approach as it evolves will stem from a good basic framework, which takes the history of piano technique into account.
The myth is that you mustn't ever copy anybody; that you have to be an individual. But in fact, every musician goes through an apprenticeship. It might be formal study with an established teacher, or it might be informally picking up ideas from other musicians. In either case, the student learns by copying what the more experienced player is doing. As he goes on, he will recognize this process, and he will be drawn to the musicians whose playing he likes. He will seek to study with them, or at least to listen to the recordings they have made and learn to duplicate their music. This is a very natural process.
You have to find the right gradient; find the music that offers the proper level of challenge and difficulty for the abilities that you have. Some of the first music that I was drawn to was the music of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. But at the beginning, I didn't have the desire to copy it, because it was too difficult for me. Instead, my father showed me some popular songs that he’d written out on music paper, that where at a gradient that I could play.
When I started being able to move my fingers around, I got into copying Horace Silver's music. I got all the records Horace had out at the time, and first I copied the melody lines, because they were clear and simple, and they were repeated. I gradually got to where I could copy whole four- and eight-bar phrases after hearing them once.
When I was able to copy melody lines, I started on Horace’s solos, which were a bit more difficult. But I started with easy ones and worked up to the harder ones, until I had copied virtually a whole album of notes—horn riffs, solos, bass lines, everything. And that led to a point where I confronted copying Charlie Parker tunes, and then Charlie Parker solos, and then John Coltrane tunes and John Coltrane solos. By that time I had done so much copying of this stuff, and applying it in a little trio that I had, that I was able to express my own ideas a lot better.
Later on I started believing the myth, and I fell into the trap of trying not to use any of what I had learned through copying, because it always reminded me of where I learned it from. I tried to play things that I didn't know about, so that I would be original. That was one of the craziest things I have ever gotten into. It was good in that it forced me into an area of discovering new things, but it was bad in that I wasn't allowing myself to make use of the abilities I had developed by copying.
There are only 12 notes in the scale, and people tend to like similar things; so some of what you play is bound to sound similar, unless you have fallen into the trap of trying to avoid that. Some musicians develop a style of their own by taking one device and using it over and over in a lot of different ways, until it becomes identified with them. When McCoy Tyner was playing with Coltrane, he developed a harmonic approach that involved building chords on the interval of a fourth. It had a sound that was new to jazz, although Bartok had been doing the same thing in classical music. But McCoy made fourth-chords his own, and after a while, if you played a fourth-chord in jazz, you sounded like McCoy Tyner.
But who owns a fourth-chord? Nobody. Once you have learned McCoy’s technique, you're in a position to evolve your own approach, to work toward your own creative goals. It's not so important what kind of melody or harmony or rhythm you use, or what its historical background might be. What's important is what you do with it, how you communicate your feelings to the people that you are playing to. Trying to avoid sounding like anybody else is like a shoemaker trying to make a shoe that has nothing to do with the shape of the foot. All music comes from the same basic melodies and harmonies and rhythms, and you have to learn what those materials are before you can use them to create anything new.
Next issue I will be talking about the myth of improvisation, and how trying to do something new every time you play a solo can get you into the same kind of trap as trying not to use what you have learned. You will find that copying is important in improvisation, too, because in order to evolve your own style, you have to be able to duplicate yourself. You have to have developed the skills to understand what you just played, in order to play it again.