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“Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.


I decided to call title this post “take me to your leader” because it had a nice ring to it and this article is about the importance of examining our influences as guitarists, musicians and as people.

It took me a while to track down the origin of the catch phrase. According to the Yale Book of Quotations (found via searching Google Books). It turns out that the phrase originated in a 1953 New Yorker Magazine cartoon by Scottish cartoonist Alex Graham.

In the cartoon, two newly landed extraterrestials are addressing a horse, and what they actually say is “Take us to your president.” In any case, the phrase was a good one to get me thinking about the role that leaders, or should I say, “influencers” play in inspiring us to pursue our goals hopes and dreams.

The Power of Influence

In the course of our lives we all have people who have had a powerful influence on us. They might be a teacher, a writer, and actor, a musician, a parent or a sibling. There is always someone we look up to or aspire to be like. These are the people that have a knack for getting us out of a rut when we are stuck, or of getting us to turn off the TV and get to work on that project we have been putting off for way too long. They might also be the people who inspire us so much that we pack up and move to a new city or quit a job and change our careers altogether in search of something we feel passionate about.

The cynical way to see this is that when we are overly influenced we are practicing “hero worship.” It is often said that this can lead to our “following blindly”. In cases like this we attach ourselves to the creative ideas of others and stop thinking for ourselves. When this happens it is most likely because, after being inspired by someones words, actions or ideas, we fail to look deeper into exactly WHY we feel inspired by those words actions or ideas. From then on they can do no wrong and we stop growing and thinking for ourselves.

By thinking deeper about what it really is that we admire in our influences we can quickly move beyond the superficial concept of hero worship and discover many useful things about how and why we choose to do the things we do. This awareness prevents blind admiration and helps us understand exactly who we want to become and why.

Since this is a music blog, I’ll tackle this question in terms of musical influences, but you can easily apply these ideas to examine any type of influence be it religious, artistic or even political.

Who Exactly, Inspires You?

If you look back over your record collection, it will probably be easy to identify who your main influences have been. If you are a guitarist and own every recording by Eric Clapton, or you are a songwriter and can quote every Bob Dylan lyric, or maybe you are a cellist and own every album by Yo Yo Ma, then you most likely are aware of your main influences. By looking deeper however, you might find there are non-celebrities: friends, acquaintances, local musicians, teachers or family members that have inspired you to pick up your instrument and practice hard in order to be more like them. Be sure not to leave these people off your list, they may be the most important in determining what it is you are actually trying to achieve. And they may not be musicians at all.

What is it that Inspires You?

Now start listing the reasons why these people inspire you. Is it their technique, emotional impact, compositional skills, sound, creativity, stage presence? Is it the way they represent themselves in interviews or the way they look? Is it the way you relate to the subjects, themes or characters in their lyrics? Is it their ability to continue making great music in the face of difficult life challenges?

When you examine your list you may find that the things you admire in these people are the very things you admire in your self, or at least in your ideal self. Ask yourself whether the attributes of your influences are things you already have or are traits you are working to develop.

Digging Deeper

To take the next step you might analyze a specific song or solo by this artist and ask yourself some of the following questions:

1. What do you think it took to come up with this masterpiece. Can you guess whether the writer had a particular scale or mode in mind? Do you think the lyrics are inspired by a true story? What musical rules or conventions were broken if any. Do you think it was done on purpose for effect? What did they do in the piece that was unexpected or different?

2. What about their career path? How did this artist make it? Did they gig endlessly in small town clubs or did they win an American Idol contest and have instant rise to fame? What have they said or done in their career that made you want to emulate them?

3. Did they ever think about giving up? What kept them going?

4. How have they handled their time in the limelight, their lack of it, or their fall from it? Have they used their influence to achieve something good, or has it all been for selfish or greedy reasons?

If you don’t know the actual answers to these questions, maybe you could seek out their biography or, what the heck, just pretend you are interviewing them and make up your own answers based on your idea of what they represent to you. This is just a game we are playing after all to get you thinking about what influences in general can tell you about yourself.

Who do you Influence, and How?

You could also try this technique on yourself. Are you aware of anyone that you have influenced in your life. Ask the same types of questions of yourself that you have been asking about those that influence you. Start by seeing yourself as you are now and answer the same type of questions as if you were that future, successful person. Then imagine your ideal self, the person you always wanted to be, and ask the same questions.

If you were outside yourself looking in, would you be inspired by what you have done, or by the way you have gone about doing it? Look back and recall your successes in life. What criteria did you use to classify this or that achievement as a success or a failure? Are there things in your life that you initially thought were failures, but eventually led to successes in other areas?

Success of course is different for everybody. I, like many, once dreamed of a whirlwind career as performer; and even though I didn’t achieve it in any grand sense, I have found real satisfaction in teaching and helping others develop the skills they need to express themselves through music. The satisfaction didn’t arrive overnight, but with each passing year of teaching, there are more and more signs that I really did take the course that was right for me.

Outside of Music

Examining your influences in this way should prove helpful not just in your music related influences but in all areas of life. Examine areas such as your spiritual life, your family life, what politicians you support. Look at your favorite books, TV shows, and movies and give a little thought to what exactly it is in these creations and the creators that you like so much.

You might find a few things that surprise you. Better yet, you might even get closer to discovering how to develop your talents to take you where you want to go from here. At least to where you think you want to go – because as we all know these can end up being two completely different places. Either way, as the Taoists believe, “the journey is it’s own reward.” And in the end you need only answer to the goals and ideals you set for yourself, your harshest critic.

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