“Imitate, assimilate, and innovate” ~ Clark Terry, trumpeter (1920 – 2015)
Growing up as a jazz musician and trumpeter, I was taught that it is critical to learn from the musicians of the past before you can truly find your own unique voice. This seems to be true of all forms of art as I’ve talked with artists across various fields. As the great jazz trumpeter and educator, Clark Terry, was famous for saying, you must first imitate and assimilate the language of the great musicians of the past before you can truly innovate and create a truly unique voice of your own.
In the 1960s, Eric Clapton famously imitated and assimilated the great delta blues guitar masters in America before creating his truly unique blues/rock guitar style. The same was true for Jimi Hendrix, one of the true musical geniuses (and original voices) of his generation.
So, that is all well and good for guitar players, painters, sculptures, and jazz musicians, but what about for those of us in ministry, called to lead worship, write, teach, or preach? What can we learn from from the arts that can help us uncover our own God-given voice?
Your unique voice
You have a unique voice that is God-given. For most of us, we just haven’t found it yet. The sources of both “voice” and “vocation” is the Latin word, vocare, which means to call or to evoke. Our voice is the thing being called out of us in the midst of our work. It is the underlying why of our work, even if we’ve never considered it.
Just as God has created each of us uniquely, I believe it is important for all of us to find our unique voices. We may not even like it once we’ve uncovered it, but we must learn how to embrace it. Let’s look at a few techniques that can help us uncover our voice from the great Clark Terry.
Why are the best worship leaders so good at ushering in the presence God and providing a great atmosphere for corporate worship? What is it about the delivery and use of (or lack of) emotion of your favorite communicators that make them so effective? I’ve heard many, particularly in reference to preaching, say that you should never copy someone else’s unique style. While this is true, you can still learn a great deal from them by copying in a very strategic and intentional way. While imitation is not the end goal, there is so much you can learn from the masters of your craft. There are two practices I would encourage to do this.
First, transcribe and learn to “perform” a worship set, lecture, or sermon of someone who truly inspires you. I wouldn’t recommend doing this in a public service, but imitating a great worship leader or communicator can tell you a great deal about how they deliver content in a compelling and masterful way. Again a warning: this is practice not the end goal, but it is a step that not many people ever attempt or even think about.
Second, don’t stop at just practicing techniques, learn how to truly reflect on what you are learning. When you hear a great communicator, musician, or worship leader, stop long enough to consider why they are so effective in that moment. There could be dozens or hundreds of small ways that make them effective, but developing the skill to critically evaluate will help you contextualize these into your own emerging voice.
Once you learn how to imitate (with reflection) the new techniques will then begin to slowly come out naturally in your own work. We stand on the shoulders of so many great preachers, worship leaders, and musicians. This tradition creates a solid foundation with proven practices. Assimilation happens when these practices become part of your natural style.
If you are worried about becoming a copycat, don’t. If you have done imitation and assimilation well, you won’t simply be a copycat, but you will have begun to uncover your own voice. John Mayer says that his vocal style was just his poor imitation of Stevie Ray Vaughn! While you can certainly hear this influence, it is still uniquely John Mayer.
Once you have learned to appropriately imitate and assimilate, then you are poised to innovate. This is the place where your influences and natural voice have melded into something wholly other. You are not a copycat, but you have uncovered your unique voice based on the strength of those who have come before you.
Cover bands don’t change the world. You need to find your unique voice, and your voice deserves to be heard!
Image attribution: idealistock / Thinkstock