Thinking/Playing Music “Outside the Box”
Let’s face it – the term “outside the box” has become a bit overused, especially in my case! I can’t help but chuckle and think of my friend Don Prorak who has his problems with this phrase. We were having lunch awhile back and I used this term. I’ve forgotten the exact wording of his reply (perhaps he can respond for us at the bottom of this post) but I believe it was something to the effect of “everyone wants to be ‘outside the box…’ so doesn’t that in fact make them all ‘inside the box?”
Whether this was the exact quote or not, I believe that this is a pretty good argument. As musicians, artists, egomaniacs, whatever we are, we’re all struggling to get our voice heard. Sometimes the best way to get your voice heard is to sound completely different than anyone else. Sometimes that works, but not all the time.
So let’s start with the definition of the term. If I just do a quick, simple search on www.dictionary.com we’ll find that the term ‘outside the box’ is defined as: “beyond conventional thought or practice; creative and unorthodox in thought or practice.” OK already this describes a few people I know. haha I mean, c’mon, musicians are a little quirky to begin with, aren’t we? Just the thought of taking that leap of faith to live a lifestyle that comes along with the hustle of trying to be a working musician makes just about anyone in that arena a little bit out of the box for sure!
Why is it then, that so many people want to coin this term so often; as if to be in this magical “club” that seems to add a bit of mystique to their music and/or persona? Honestly, I use this term often to describe a lot of the music that I create. Is it legitimate? Well, perhaps that’s for you the listener to decide. For myself, and I think a lot of people that describe themselves in this way, I believe it means that we’re not purposely trying to sound like anyone else. The ‘norm’ just isn’t what we want to be. Now is it truly possible to not sound like anyone else? Of course not. We are a product of our environment and any note that you’ve listened to, good or bad throughout your lifetime is stuck somewhere in that subconscious and is gonna come out at some point in some form or fashion. Those musicians or bands that you admire so much and listen to are going to have an effect on your music.
Now here’s the rub, and the negative side of putting yourself up on the “outside the box” pedestal. If you get too out there…no one will listen. Maybe some people will listen but probably not enough. At this point it is very important to ask why you’re so “out there” and going against the grain. Honestly I’ve known some guys that really take it out there, and it’s for the wrong reasons. Maybe they’re bitter, they’re out to get ‘the man’ or buck the system, or they just read an article about some advanced improvisational techniques, whatever the reason. The true artists and geniuses that have been able to take music to a new place probably didn’t set out to do so. Music has to come from your soul. It should come from a pure place, musically speaking. If your whole intention is to go against the grain and do something weird, it will most likely be just that: weird. Now those that might be objecting to my previous statements, let me clarify. I’m not saying all of this coming from a subjective opinion. Yes, you could argue that just because something seems ‘out’ to one person it may not be to another. It may only be because you don’t understand it. In this case, this isn’t what I’m talking about. Objectively, we can all probably agree that Frank Zappa was certainly “outside the box.” Subjectively you may or may not have liked his music, but his music came from his soul.
However, this brings up my next point about the negatives of trying to get outside of the box. Let’s take Zappa as an example. Here’s someone that definitely took it out there, yet he had a very strong musical background. I’m no “Zappa scholar” so I don’t know all of his background; rather my point is that I’m pretty sure that he knew a little bit about music theory, and had obviously spent a lot of time practicing at some point in his life. I think that some people use their inadequacies as an excuse to get outside of the box. “No, I don’t need to learn that – everyone else does that…I don’t do what everyone else does…” That, my friend is the wrong way to go about it!
Thus, here’s the whole point of this entire blog: I believe that the only way to truly begin to play “outside the box” is to have a strong foundation grounded in the vast history of your instrument. For drummers, you should at an early age learn your rudiments and emulate other famous drummers. That’s how you learn. It’s after you’ve gotten your mechanics together that you can start branching out and letting your own voice to be heard. That’s the whole point! Don’t skip the steps – we all have to do them. There’s time to let your voice be heard, and it will mature as your playing matures. Learn from those that have come before you – there’s a whole history of amazing musicians that built their sound upon those that came before them.
I really don’t think that there’s anything wrong with trying to be outside the box. As musicians, we’re artists; we have to create. To create means to take something that’s entirely innate in our being and bring it out for the whole world to see and hear. I don’t want to sound like anyone else. I’m doing some different things with my music not because I feel the need to be different, but because it’s just what I hear. It’s my voice. What do you hear when you are playing?