We continue with the series focused on the tips laid out on the path to mastery by Dan Coyle in his book, “The Little Book of Talent.” If you are interested in learning more about the research and how these ideas were formulated, then please check out Coyle’s books on Amazon. You can check out my post about Tips #1 & 2 here.
Tip #3 is brief and to the point but has been used for thousands of years by people looking to master their craft. Countless quotes have been documented about the idea of “stealing” ideas to use as your own when creating art. You have no doubt heard at least one. For example, Igor Stravinsky is quoted as saying, “Good artists copy; great artists steal.” In this article, we will explore this simple but powerful idea that will help take you further down the path toward mastery.
First, let’s clarify what “stealing” actually means. Does it mean that we take an idea verbatim and call it our own? Does it mean we take an idea and mold it, shape it, and play around with it to come up with our own unique spin? Both are true and both should be used by an artist. I know that in this day in age, we have court cases that warn against “stealing” other’s musical ideas and using them as your own (see the case of Robin Thicke and Marvin Gaye), and I have my own opinions on the matter, but despite the potential risk and punishment, “stealing” musical ideas has been used for centuries and was a common practice up until recent history. The recording music industry itself was even born on the backs of musicians stealing from other, often unnamed, musicians of their day. Whole genres have been born by stealing from other music. (Rock ‘n Roll or Hip-hop anybody?!). The point is not to argue one way or the other about the morals of stealing but just to show that it has been and still is a common occurrence and regular practice used by all artists and musicians.
There are only so many chords and chord progressions that have been repeated since the beginning of western tonal music and we have heard them all. What makes a piece of music unique is not based on one single element but a combination of different elements such as, rhythm, melody, harmony, harmonic rhythm, melodic development, harmonic development, etc. More to the point, “stealing” in the sense that Coyle suggests, is more about taking a specific idea, approach, technique, or form and figuring out how to use it and how and why it works. He writes how younger members of a musical family often achieve greater artistic achievements, which may be partially due to the fact that they are able to “steal” what works from their older siblings and learn from other’s mistakes.
Here are some ideas of what to steal when learning guitar (keep in mind that every tip from Coyle’s book goes hand in hand and are often heavily interdependent and related. This tip relates very much to tip #1 and 2 in that you can steal from the artists you stare at and from the performances your engrave on your brain – after all, those performances and artists are some of the best):
- steal specific approach to fingering – as a side note, some classical guitarists and teachers are sticklers for fingering choices and only abide by their own methods (the infamous story involving Andres Segovia and Michael Chapdelaine comes to mind)
- steal a specific lick when soloing
- steal specific chord(s) when writing
- steal a specific chord progression when writing
- steal a specific voicing when comping
- steal a specific melody or motif when soloing or writing
- steal a specific technique – where would we all be without Van Halen’s popularization of the two-hand tapping technique
- steal specific lyrics
- steal specific themes
- steal a specific interpretation
- steal specific phrasing of a piece you are learning
- steal ideas and techniques from other art forms
- steal raison d’être and philosophies behind the creation of great works
- steal any idea that inspires you
- steal a rhythm
- steal ideas from music around the world – a raga, a rhythm, instrumentation, etc.
Using ideas from other art inspires me and adds to my musical arsenal. In fact i am working on a book that details how to steal from world music to get ideas to enhance your playing and expand your set of tools. One good example of this is John McLaughlin and his work with Shakti.
I have often found myself listening to a certain style of music or specific artist repeatedly and when sitting down to write or improvise, those elements pop up. It might be a certain chord or certain melody line, or certain lick that catches my ear either consciously or subconsciously. Once i get that down in my fingers, it takes on a life of its own and inspires new connections or new ways of hearing it out of context.
Think about the different elements you can steal and that will inspire you to take a deeper dive and explore that idea. Stolen ideas are a great way to find inspiration and use as a jumping off point to being creative in your own right. Play around with the ideas and combine them in different ways to create new combinations and lead to new ideas.
What inspires you? What have you “stolen” from that lead you to create something new? I would love to see your comments below.