Career Paths #1 : Following in the footsteps of giants

//Career Paths #1 : Following in the footsteps of giants

Career Paths #1 : Following in the footsteps of giants

After a recent performance up at Yale University I was reminded that there is a core group of young, career-minded students that frequent Classical Guitar Corner.

This is the first post in a series that is written with those musicians in mind, and I hope it sparks some inspiration.

Following in the footsteps of giants.

There are wonderful artists in history that inspire us and motivate us to make art in our own lives. These artists were trailblazers, pioneers, and risk takers. In many ways they are leaders of a community that crosses borders and traverses time.

I do think, however, that we sometimes are misguided when we choose to follow in their footsteps by copying their style or artistic mannerisms. To look at it objectively their true gift to the artistic community was to take risks, to forge a new path, and to look deeply into their own artistic vision so that something unique could be created.

To illustrate this point I am going to resist the temptation to use the familiar figures in the classical guitar world. To be honest, I think they are a little loaded for this conversation to make an impact. So, I would like to talk about the great Lindy Hop dancer Frankie Manning.

Frankie Manning is adored, idolized, and perhaps even deified by the swing dance community. His swing dance steps have been analyzed and re-created endlessly by professionals and amateurs alike. He is generally seen as the gold standard for Lindy Hop throughout the world and any criticism of his dancing will likely incite an instantaneous and fiery rebuke.

My objective observation of the Lindy Hop community is that when people are inspired by Frankie Manning they use that inspiration to copy his moves and imitate his style. However, this has very little to do with the artistic contribution that he made to the swing dance community.

Of course he added great moves and choreography to the tradition, but more to the point, he came up with something unique and original. Something new. He developed a style and moves that were true to himself and he was looking forward not backwards in his craft. He was creating something new not copying something that had been done before.

So, when I see the idolization and resulting imitation of Frankie Manning in the swing dance community I feel that the point is being missed. Because if you really wanted to continue the legacy of this pioneer you would not be looking to copy his style but rather looking deep within yourself to find out what creative contribution you can make too.

You can make a contribution, you have your own style, and you don’t need anyones permission to experiment.

The hardest part about taking a risk is that it is scary. We feel fear.

Rejection, humiliation, and uncertainty are all fearful elements that hold us back from truly following the footsteps of these great leaders. So, if we are to make even the smallest artistic contribution to our community we need to deal with this fear and accompanying doubt that inevitably arises whenever we consider doing something new.

Conquering the fear and overcoming the doubt should be something to aspire to. Not only that, but it should be celebrated in others. When you see somebody in your field taking a risk, appreciate the courage that was involved. If we can learn to support and celebrate risk takers a virtuous cycle of artistic development will occur.

Many of us have been inculcated with certain ideals of “success”. Schools, competitions and a fiercely negative internet can be incredibly powerful guide rails for mediocrity. Mediocrity is safe, and inoffensive but as an artist you cannot settle for safe.

Don’t be afraid to fail. If you are “failing” it means you are taking risks and after failing enough times you will find your true successes.

2016-10-24T00:19:49+00:005 Comments


  1. craig neidlinger January 23, 2016 at 2:09 am - Reply

    Excellent! Steve morse, Eric Johnson, they all advocate the same thing: find your own voice.

  2. Linda Tsardakas January 24, 2016 at 8:41 am - Reply

    Great article and film. Frankie Manning’s quote is so full of meaning today: “Politicians from all over the world should dig this wonderful scene to see how well everybody gets along on the dance floor”. Music and dance can bring people together!

  3. Daniel Shugrue February 3, 2016 at 4:09 pm - Reply

    Charlie Parker, and then Billy Sheehan, said something to the effect of: “Learn it all, then forget it all and play”. My question, after reading this excellent blog post, is this: At what point does the beginner or intermediate student STOP imitating and start digging for his or her own voice? We all grew up learning Clapton’s licks, Rhoads’ hammer-ons, and then when we got into classical we listened to Bream, Segovia, Russell, etc. And having the ability to imitate these greats helped us grow as musicians. The range of voices that I can dig for grows if I can imitate the voicings of more musicians. My challenge has always been finding the line between learning more from the greats and stoping the learning and digging for my voice. Would you recommend that I approach this piece by piece? Or is my voice something that I bring to every piece I play, from when I begin to learn it to when I am ready to play it live?

  4. Linda Tsardakas February 4, 2016 at 8:46 am - Reply

    Hi Daniel,
    Have you found podcast 004 “Finding your voice on the guitar” yet?
    These podcasts are really great, and can be worth listening to more than once even.
    Best wishes,

  5. Dave Belcher February 5, 2016 at 12:24 am - Reply

    Hi Daniel,

    Yes, what Linda said! That’s a really great podcast.

    I think we all have to “start digging for [our] own voice” as early as possible. Your’e absolutely right that the line between “influence” of the greats and striking out on our own can seem paper thin at times. I can’t tell you how often I’ve played a passage in one of my favorite pieces only to realize I had completely mimed one of my favorite recordings. And it’s helpful to acknowledge those who have influenced us—it reminds us that we are finite, that we have limitations. Music, however, is an act of creation, bringing something new into this world (even if it’s already been heard before) and we each have something unique to contribute. Bringing your own voice to the piece is the only way that the music can come alive in a new way right at that moment. Start digging in right away!


    Dave B (CGC team)

Leave A Comment