Developing Your Own Sound

“I made the tenor sax. Nobody plays like me and I don’t play like anybody else.” –Coleman Hawkins

“One of the things I’ve always tried to get across to my students is the importance of developing their own sound,” says Ron Kearns, MENC’s March 2009 Jazz Mentor. “Had Charlie Parker, Eric Dolphy or John Coltrane tried to sound like others they heard, think about how much we would have missed out on? Bird was so different from players of his time. He played ‘too many’ notes over the changes and his sound was just—different. If Eric Dolphy took lessons today most teachers would change his embouchure and give him a whole different kind of set-up to use.

“None of these things mattered to those great players,” continues Kearns, “because they were innovators too busy discovering themselves to try to sound like anyone else. One of the reasons I love Cannonball Adderley is that he dared to sound like Cannonball when almost every other alto player of his time was trying to sound like Bird. When he first hit the scene everybody wanted to shape him in Bird’s image, but he resisted. Now a lot of players want to sound like Cannonball.

“Jazz is about innovation, trying to find that sound, that style, that concept, that sets you apart from other players. There was a time when you had a ‘needle drop’ contest to identify players. After listening to a few bars of a tape you could usually identify the player. Now, that’s a very difficult exercise because so many players are trying to get the New York sound, the L.A. sound, or sound like one hot player or another. Young players will spend hours practicing to sound like their favorite player rather than discovering themselves.

The best thing a jazz educator can do for his/her students is:

  • Listen to them and try to help them bring out their own sound.
  • Provide them with the fundamentals and help them understand basic jazz theory without judging them based on someone else’s sound.
  • Try to get them to listen to as many different players of their instrument as possible. That way they can decide what basic style they may want to explore.
  • Once the exploration begins, they should strive to develop their own sound. A teacher’s job is to guide them through the process.

“Becoming an innovator is difficult,” concludes Kearns. “One of my students completed his studies at a major jazz school and stopped playing because his sound was so different. Rather than having his innovation embraced, he was beaten down because he didn’t sound like other sax players who’d graduated from his school. Find yourself. We don’t need another Bird. The original was enough. Thomas Edison didn’t create a better candle. He lit up the world!”

Adapted from “Developing Your Own Sound” by Ron Kearns, originally published in January 2007 TEMPO!

Ron Kearns is a composer, leader of his own group, the Ron Kearns Quintet, an adjudicator and clinician for Vandoren of Paris and Heritage Festivals. He also taught instrumental music and jazz in the Baltimore City and Montgomery County school systems for 30 years.

—Nick Webb, January 27, 2010 © National Association for Music Education