Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute
Every artist gets asked the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” The honest artist answers, “I steal them.” (Kleon, p. 5)
This is how Austin Kleon begins his book Steal like an artist. For some readers, those two sentences are startling. I was skeptical at first, but when I dove into the book it completely changed my mindset. When I introduced it to my students, the impact was unbelievable.
Kleon is a writer and artist living in Austin, TX. Steal like an artist measures only 6″ x 6″ and comes in at around 150 pages with lots of fun illustrations. It is packed full of inspiring quotes that encourage the reader to stop being so hard on herself to be original and to start building upon what has already been done by those who have come before. Kleon quotes André Gide as having said:
“Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening, everything must be said again.” (Kleon, p. 8)
There is a lot of truth in that statement. If you are a history buff, you know that society keeps repeating the same mistakes of the past. If you are a theatre nerd, you can see themes from Romeo and Juliet throughout centuries of visual and performance art. Kleon says “If we’re free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace influence instead of running away from it.” (Kleon, p. 8). This is a message that I believe our current generation of young artists needs to hear over and over again.
My experience with young performers is that they often delay creating work or putting themselves out there as a performer because they feel like they don’t “know who they are” or they don’t “know their artistic voice” or <insert related excuse>. Kleon is pushing us to surround ourselves with art and ideas as a way to spark our own greatness. This is not something that many young people understand or practice. American film director Jim Jarmusch says:
“Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only thinks to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.” (Kleon, p. 14).
You would think this should be easy in today’s society where the entire world is available at your fingertips via a smartphone. But it is not. The key to this approach is to teach our students to think of the artists that came before them as a sort of family tree. It seems like everyone is obsessed with Ancestry.com right now (including my wife). It is absolutely fascinating to see who came before you, what their life experiences were, and to think about how each choice that those ancestors made had some influence on where you ended up in this world. The same can be said for the artists who came before us as singers (and pedagogues for that matter). Rock musicals came into existence when two very separate art forms merged. If it were not for theatre and opera, there would be no operetta. Without operetta, there would be no musical theatre. Without rock ‘n’ roll, there would be no electric guitars and amplification and we would have never seen the evolution of the rock musical. Everything is tied together, but young singers often fail to see this and they become so obsessed with being “original” that they create nothing while they wait for their big idea.
Voice teachers can also fall into this trap. Young teachers will often pressure themselves to come up with their own technique for teaching. They get the idea that they must have their own technique from their previous teachers who extolled their own approach as if it was based on completely original discoveries of their own greatness in singing. That is simply not true. Pedagogues have been talking about vocal function for centuries. There is no reason to try to reinvent the wheel when it comes to respiratory and phonatory coordination during vocal production. There are however new scientific discoveries that should inform our work and new concepts from related disciplines that can improve our outcomes in the studio (yoga, body mapping, mindfulness, etc.). The great teacher does not create a system in a vacuum. Instead they draw from those who came before them, creating their own lens through which they train the singers in front of them. Great teachers “Steal like a pedagogue!”
I assign Kleon’s book to my senior musical theatre majors at SU and we read through a chapter a week and discuss the readings when we get together in studio class. I give them assignments along the way and ask them to steal as much as possible when preparing for lessons. It is important to make sure that understand that Kleon is not advocating plagiarism, in fact he drives home the need to cite your sources throughout. That is another part of this book that deserves special mention. Borrowing from others and telling your audience where the inspiration comes from does not make you a weaker artist or teacher. It takes confidence to say “these are my influences and this is my take on the work that came before me,” while knowing that you have only contributed 10% of “new material” to the work. But that is the reality we live in as creative types. It is that 10% of ourselves that we put into our work that makes the end result special. When you learn to embrace the small contributions you can make while borrowing from the greats who came before, you unlock your own greatness.
If you are looking for a little easy summer reading, I cannot recommend “Steal Like an Artist” enough. When you are finished with the book, check out the sequel “Show your work.” And in the spirit of citing your source, I need to give a special shout-out to Ian Howell for recommending I write a post about the book. Thanks Ian!
Do you have other methods for teaching your students to absorb influences? If so, please leave them in the comment section below. If you would like to learn more about “Stealing like a Pedagogue”, consider joining us this summer at the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute. While the early registration deadline has already passed, you can still receive the early bird rate by writing “Blog” at the top of your application. If you are not already following the blog, please enter your email on the bottom right of this page to receive a message every time there is a new post. If you enjoyed this article, please consider sharing it on social media. As always thank you for reading! ~ Matt