Developing a style

My wife mentioned to me that as she was going to church last week, she was listening to the Christian radio station and a certain song came on. She said that she immediately thought that the pianist was playing the intro like I would. But then when the DJ mentioned the name of the song and artist after it ended, she realized why–it was me playing (on a project I recorded piano tracks for in 1999).

I was a bit encouraged and a bit discouraged to hear that. First of all, I was discouraged because I am very passionate about getting better. I do not really want to play like I played in 1999. I think I have learned a lot since 1999. It did not help that my wife told me how good I sounded on that track (almost implying I sounded better then than now)! I hope not…

On the other hand, I am glad that I have developed a distinctive style that at least my wife (if no one else) recognizes. Developing a personal style is a hard thing for most musicians. It is especially hard for musicians that do not write or arrange their own music.

What are the factors that contribute toward an individual style? That is a topic that leads into very deep waters, but I have some theories.

First of all, if you are only focused on replicating what is on a music score, you are probably not going to sound unique. That is because a music score is never going to give more than very high level direction on how to interpret a piece of music. While it provides some suggestions on dynamics, articulation, phrasing, and such, those suggestions are rudimentary at best. The artistic decisions that make you sound a certain way are much more detailed than that–I call them micro decisions. If a music score tried to actually provide all of the information about how a professional interprets a song, it would just be a huge mess. There are numerous factors that go into how every key is pressed that are just too involved to put in the score.

Over time, a musician begins to unconsciously make these kinds of micro decisions in a predictable way and a style begins to develop.  That is the point at which someone will tell you that they know you are playing in church even without looking toward the piano. They may not know anything about music but they subconsciously associate tiny nuances with you.

Of course, there are good and bad styles, so the micro decisions you make are important. Focus on playing well, paying attention to minor details, and playing music you like and are comfortable with (that is not too hard for you). Over time, your personal style will develop at least to the point where your spouse will recognize your playing!