Let’s Talk About Sound…

By Monica Shriver

The first thing that people hear when you play (or sing) is your sound. Let that sink in for a minute. Think about all the time spent working on technique (licks, scales, chords, patterns, etc.), range, and performance material, but all of that is only able to be heard if the listener can get past your sound.

You may have heard the comparison of your sound is like your speaking voice, and each person is unique and recognizable. It’s true. But one of the important things to remember about that analogy is this: your speaking voice is something that you are born with; your sound on a musical instrument is something you have to develop.

Having a frank discussion about sound can be a challenge at times – I suspect because it’s so extremely personal in nature. In addition, what constitutes a “good” sound, especially in jazz, spans a very wide spectrum.

I remember a moment during a rehearsal with my band, when a close musical colleague stated “I hate everyone’s soprano [sax] sound except _blank_ and _blank_.” I looked down at the soprano I was holding, feeling a little awkward, while a million things flashed through my mind.

Soon, two thoughts floated to the surface. First, “Oh crap, I don’t sound anything like either of those two people!” and second, “But I really like my sound!” It was obvious that my dear friend and musical colleague and I had two very different concepts of a good soprano sound and that there was room for both, even within our small ensemble.

Where did the knowledge of knowing that I didn’t sound like either of those two musicians but still liked my own sound come from? How were my friend’s preferences determined? The short answer is Discovery and Confidence. When I started playing soprano, I began researching players and systematically filtered them based off my personal likes and dislikes. Some players stuck with me and others fell off rather quickly.

Some albums I liked, sometimes only one by a certain artist. As the players I was listening to changed and evolved, so did my level of like or dislike. I found my favorites that I was drawn to (Steve Lacy, Jane Ira Bloom, and John Coltrane, among others) and absorbed everything I could about their sound.

How do you find these players? You take recommendations and get started. But the first step is admitting (if only to yourself) what you like and don’t like, but at the same time being willing to change your mind as you move along. The key is to listen actively and then really think about what you can learn from them. Try not to let others persuade your decision, but do listen to their recommendations with open ears. Being open to new things is important, just make your own decision.

All these different discoveries and thoughts have combined to instill a sense of confidence as I have developed my own sound and ultimately, my own voice. I believe that it is only when we apply what we learn and “input” to our own playing that we can truly begin to discover what makes us unique. But it won’t happen without putting in the work to listen, learn, discover, and apply. When you have done the work (application) you become more confident.

Once you know what you like, then you can work hard to sound like who you are – a unique mixture of your favorite influences!

Want to learn more about discovering your sound? Download a free 3-part course called It’s Your Sound at bravemusician.com/sound.

Monica Shriver is an innovative educator who plays 14 instruments. Several years ago, she quit her “day job” and now performs and teaches music for a living, full time. She is a professional musician, band leader, sideman, promoter, gig creator, improvisor, clinician, teaching artist, presenter, composer, and a Brave Musician. Monica also loves playing with art and watching hockey.