Discovering, Cultivating, and Using Your Own Voice

Ron Pellegrino, March 1997

This essay on was on a back-burner for months mainly because it´s one of those subjects that knows no bounds. Given that the expression"use your own voice" is just another way of saying "be your own person" or "live your own life", I kept thinking that to do the subject justice would involve a major time commitment. Finally I realized that if I were to do it at all, I´d have to solve the problem of the subject´s boundless nature. My solution is to approach the subject as a work-in-progress with periodic extensions appearing as my schedule permits.



The subject of "your own voice" has been a concern of mine since the early 60s when I went off to do graduate studies in music composition at the University of Michigan. I left that program after three weeks because I was completely put off by their cookie cutter approach, their composition faculty´s pressure to conform to their local aesthetic and to their mechanical and narrow, western history based academic view of the creative process.

Several years later I picked up the thread again when I discovered a customizable graduate program in music composition at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. UW´s composition program in the 1960s was geared to supporting a broad range of personal aesthetic views and it encouraged interdisciplinary experimentation and multimedia collaboration. I later learned it was an rare environment that was decades ahead of its time. The four years I spent in graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin in Madison set the tone for the rest of my life and this essay has its roots in what I discovered during that period.


The actual trigger for this essay was a discussion at a 1996 holiday season party with a person who was buoyantly excited about her classes in sound engineering. She especially loved what she called "tweaking" sounds, that is, using the controls of canned algorithms to process and manipulate sound files. I didn´t want to dampen her enthusiasm, but I did want to draw her attention to the built-in trap with any single software or hardware tool, popular or arcane, which is that the inherent signature of that particular tool is indelibly stamped on whatever passes through it or issues from it. Schools of sonic expression, including music composition, are based on tools and techniques that force their users to conform to physical boundaries and conceptual limitations. Most composers and sound designers who use the same schooled mindset or commercially available tools unwittingly sound like every other person using the same mindset or set of tools. This is especially true of those using unmodified presets - preset processing algorithms, preset voices, or fixed mindsets.

Standard Approach to Learning Music

The standard approach to learning music is to study how someone else made or is making music, normally someone who is a consensus model, a solid establishment figure. That approach usually involves activities such as listening to recorded music, analyzing scores, reading the writings of critics and musicologists, and reading the composer´s own words in articles and books. Check out any curriculum anywhere and you´ll be hard pressed to find much emphasis on cultivating in a student composer a creative, original approach to making music. And by original I mean "sui generis" - expression uniquely emerging from an individual´s perspective.

The fact is, that by way of our secondhand approach to education (the transmission of knowledge through historically based books and records rather than the discovery of knowledge through a creative experiential approach), most people are thoroughly imprinted with the idea that imitation is the key to success. "See what´s working out there and copy it" is the motto for our educational system, a system that continues to be firmly rooted in the industrial paradigm. That imitative imprint is so strong in people coming out the back end of our educational programs that they believe that learning standard systems, formulas, routines, and tricks of the trade constitute the only approach to life, including the creative life. The fast-food franchise and the suburban development have become contemporary models in the creative world. Imitation-composers are legion in the ranks of popular and industrial music as well as academic and concert music.

Music Composition Programs

With rare exceptions music composition programs are built around a restricted "school of thought," a highly limited view of the world of sound, of approaches to music, and of settings for music. The success of such programs is measured by the number of disciples they have and where the disciples are employed. When a program achieves a certain level of "success" it is copied by lesser minds at later times. Disciples of these "schools of thought" develop voices that are pale reflections of the originator of the school, perhaps generations or many generations removed. The musicologist-composer, the composer without an original voice, was born of the conformist pressures of 20th century academic institutions. Academia is populated principally by uncreative mechanical people steeped in secondhand history who have convinced each other and society that their primary work is to steep their students in secondhand history as well. All other approaches to music are usually considered threatening and subversive.

Approaches and techniques that help to develop a fertile environment for original creative work.

Finding, cultivating, and using "your own voice" is the work of a lifetime. Although it is essentially personal work, it can be encouraged and accomplished in a group setting if members of the group all buy into and support the idea that each person has a unique experiential base and a unique perspective that make them valuable contributors to everyone else´s creative development. The more viewpoints explored and expressed, the richer the experience for everyone. There simply isn´t enough time for everyone to do everything, so everyone stands to gain immeasurably by hearing through the ears, seeing through the eyes, thinking through the minds, and feeling through the spirits of their cohorts. If individuals are given the encouragement and the freedom to evolve along their own paths, what they discover, what they become, and what they can contribute to other members of the group is considerably amplified.

Who am I?

What makes me different?

What forces shaped me?

What do I have in common with my friends and colleagues?

What do I love?

What drives me?

What inspires me?

What do I want?

What do I need?

What can I contribute to a creative environment?

How shall I conduct myself to make the best of a creative environment for myself and the others involved?

Get comfortable with the idea of being yourself and having a uniquely valuable view.

Give considerable thought to the subject of the internal and external forces that have shaped and are shaping your life and the lives of those around you.

Resist imposing your own views.

Resist conforming to the views of others.

Resist becoming a slave to your subculture´s views and trends.

Make a continuous concerted effort to experience the best (music, art, food, celebrations, work, films, rituals, philosophy, etc.) of as many subcultures (associations, generations, regions, outlooks, etc.) as possible for sheer pleasure and for the purpose of getting perspective on your own subculture.

Contemplate the role of your subculture and related subcultures in the current general culture.

Work on communicating in subcultural dialects.

Convey your ideas by experimenting with a variety of filtered approaches that will communicate clearly with a variety of sub-cultures -- teen-somethings, 20-somethings, artists, relatives, academics, scientists, etc.

Conduct long, drawn out thought experiments that involve considerable visualization and auralization.

Explore the extremes.

Go out on a limb.

Attempt something that most people think is bound to fail and discover what´s required to make it succeed.

Become completely quiet.

Put yourself in the middle of a raging storm.

Over-extend yourself.

Test your limits and then test them again later.

Do what you prefer and what you enjoy most. While you´re doing it, lose yourself in it. Afterwards give considerable thought to the foundations of your preferences and pleasures.

Search out and employ the quirks, the breaks, and the oddities of creative tools.

Compose a piece from throwaways.

Build your own creative tools from scratch or off-the-shelf parts and modify them as you play with them.

Build a performance technique of personalized gestures that feel perfectly right to your hands and ears and then push them beyond the limits of both. Record your experiments, study them, refine them, and commit them to a piece.

For more information see "Your Own Voice" Examples.

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