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Practice Tip: How Having a Musical Idol Can Be Beneficial to Your Growth as a Musician

Musical idols come in many shapes and sizes from the kind found on TV, a sibling who picked up an instrument before you, or the kid a year ahead of you in the school band or orchestra who hits all the high notes without missing a beat. But one thing they all have in common is that they inspire you to focus your musical aspirations and keep you striving to improve your skills and performance capabilities.

That certainly all sounds positive, but what really are the qualities that make a good idol–or to put it more constructively, a good musical influence, hero, or role model? And what exactly are the benefits of having one?

First on the list–whether you consider them an idol, influence, or mentor–they're all models of behavior for us, and they encourage us to perform music at a higher level. We're stimulated to imitate performances that we admire. In fact learning by imitation is one of the most natural ways that musicians build skill. It's wired into us as human beings from earliest childhood.

If you are like most musicians, you've already got a pantheon of idols whose names quickly come to your mind. How did you choose them? Did you admire their ability? Love their sound? Did they project an image that appealed to you? Was their dedication or focus inspiring? Or was the very idea of making music to make a living virtually irresistible to you?

It is probably hard to find a musician who doesn't have heroes. We grow up looking to others for examples of how to live our lives. And as musicians we usually picture our heroes on stage laying down a solo that holds us spellbound. Like a great painter helps us see the world as we never have before, a musical hero can help us express ourselves in ways we never imagined ourselves capable of.

Musical influencers become positive role models who shine a light–or play a fanfare–highlighting our potential. They inspire us to tap into our strength and hidden ability. In the process they blaze a path toward what we can become. As we strive to be like them, we become greater than our current self. We imagine that if we work hard enough we may one day surpass them. And that inspires us to work hard.

Many of us were fortunate enough to have an inspiring music instructor who became a positive influence in our musical development. A favorite teacher can help us to choose music as an important part of our life.

Trombonist Steve Turre, who has performed with Ray Charles, Art Blakey, Woody Shaw, and many others–credits all of them with being important musical influences and cites Rahsaan Roland Kirk as his first life-changing musical idol. Turre met Kirk a year after completing high school and sat in with him at a jazz workshop where the multi–instrumentalist and the kid hit it off musically. Turre says, "It was a real inspiration, and it encouraged me to continue."

A talented musical role model helps budding musicians focus their energy on where they want to go musically. They help us to create goals and reach musical milestones. Getting down to details, our musical influencers give us examples of areas we can improve in our performance ability. They demonstrate sounds and tones that our instruments are capable of when played with artistry. Technically, they're going to be more advanced than we are, as demonstrated by expressive phrasing and ability to improvise while shifting, double–tonguing, or using vibrato. They'll also be exemplars of keeping a rhythm or a groove as well as balancing and blending with an ensemble.

Our heroes will also give us examples of how to carry our instruments and ourselves in performance with correct posture. Having their example to build upon, we'll also be encouraged to stick with our practice and stay focused on our goals. And a lot of our goals will probably involve learning to do what they do and what we aspire to. Seeing an admired musical influencer performing what we may once have not thought possible turns that performance into a goal for us.

Your idol doesn't have to be a superstar. In fact there are advantages to having your musical influencers close to home. First, it's easier to believe you can do something that now seems difficult if you know another person just like you who can do it, and that person is not a faraway mysterious "god." Secondly, if your idol or mentor is available to practice or jam with, you can take advantage of that. Playing with performers who are better than you is a great way to rapidly improve your skill.

For young music students, having a positive role model is associated with higher grades and higher self–esteem. Parents, note that kids who have positive role models find it easier to avoid negative influences and stay focused.

Young–and old–musicians can benefit from reading about their musical heros, as well. The Woodwind & Brasswind collection of biographies about figures in music is bound to have something about your personal hero. If you are a classical buff, check out the biography of virtuoso guitarist Julian Bream. Jazz aficionados will appreciate the insights of the great performers highlighted over the decades in Downbeat and released asThe Great Jazz Interviews.

If you're already an experienced musician, then you already know how valuable it is to also listen to recordings of musicians you admire–recorded idols. Legend has it that virtuoso pianist, Art Tatum–who had a magnificent ear–learned to play pieces solo by listening to the radio only to later find out that they were actually duets. (There's an interview in which he denies this, but his prodigious talent still makes it easy to believe.)

There are legions of stories about musicians who eventually perform on stage with their idols and the emotional high they experience. But even if that isn't in the cards for you, you may eventually become an idol to the musicians who are following in your footsteps. And that's a role that anyone can be proud of.

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