by Sarah Haughton
The imitation of recordings has long been demonized in the music education community. Viewed as a form of creative impotence, teachers tend to discourage their students from copying recordings. To the contrary, I believe we should encourage our students to copy and imitate quality recordings as much as possible.
I acknowledge there is some risk associated with having a student imitate someone else’s interpretation, tone, etc. We all want our students to be thinkers, independent and free to let the music guide them. Verbatim copying, absent thoughtful analysis, can be far more destructive than constructive. But I would assert that the imitation of recordings does more to develop the artistry of our students than it does hinder.
The most popular argument against imitation contends that professional musicians never copy other musicians, and that all ‘true artists’ develop within a vacuum. Somehow, separated from all sphere of influence, their artistry emerges like a phoenix, rising out of the ashes, ‘ex nihilo’.
The reality is quite different. There is ingrained in musical history a long-standing tradition of copying among musicians of all kinds and spanning various genres. Some have even gone so far as to label copying as stealing. “Let us not forget that the greatest composers were also the greatest thieves. They stole from everyone and everywhere.”
Copying other artists may seem unimaginative and lazy, but it puts our students in good company with great musicians. This is no anomaly, and performers as well as composers are guilty of this alleged sin. Ella Fitzgerald once quipped, “I stole everything I ever heard, but mostly I stole from the horns.” While Michael Bublé acknowledged, “I got to study and I got to mimic and what I basically did was I stole from every person that I could steal from. I was an imitator. That’s what I was. It was years before I could take all of these things that I love about all of those different artists and put them together and find my voice.”
Rather than being fruitless chicanery, it turns out that imitation is crucial when it comes to developing musical independence.
Artistry Through Imitation
There are several ways in which I believe copying recordings can improve upon a students’ artistic abilities. Listed below are a few I believe are the most important. Be forewarned this is by no means an exhaustive list.
- Imitation Refines Your Listening Skills
Imitating recordings is no mindless task. I like to think that the process involved is to listening, like diagramming sentences is to reading. You have to break the music down piece by expressive piece until you hear every movement, articulation, breath, and dynamic. It is nothing short of hard, exhausting work. It requires purposeful and analytic listening, which is something we would like our students to do more of anyway!
- Imitation Broadens Your Musical Vocabulary
Did you ever have an English teacher discourage you from using a thesaurus? Mine certainly did not. The more I employed synonyms in my writing, the more accurately I was able to communicate my thoughts. Nuance should be your friend, not the crazy relative we would all rather forget about. Similarly, the choices an artist makes in a recording can be mined when our own vocabulary seems stale, or maybe when we just need ideas to get our creative juices flowing.
- Imitation Is Experimentation.
It is not enough to know how you would like a piece or phrase to sound. Copying a recording requires that you recreate the sound you hear: articulation, tone, dynamics, even phrasing. This is where the majority of the learning takes place, because the physical motions that are required to recreate the sound must be perfected. In other words, this is a great opportunity for teachers to test their student’s knowledge of technique.
- Imitation Increases Progress
This point has three separate applications. The first has to do with motivation. It is hard to be apathetic towards a piece when listening to a master musician! Not impossible (we all have that one student). But really hard, especially if you are passionate about your instrument. The second has to do with goal setting. As professional musicians, we have acclimated ourselves to the world of the abstract. Most of our students however, still deal in very concrete terms. When a student can physically hear how s/he should sound, it makes it easier to apply the technique. The third application has to do with expectations. We tend to give our students “baby” expectations. However, when a student’s goal is the sound of a master musician rather than their eighth grade counterpart, they tend to make greater gains in a shorter period of time. Plus, the expectations feel more natural, not forced or imposed.
Rather than a substitute for thoughtful deliberation, the practice of imitating recordings can be an informative and useful tool. I have personally discovered that imitation does more to arouse interest in the creative process than to extinguish it. Just for fun, here are some quotes on the subject of imitation for your enjoyment:
“Oh dear, wouldn’t it be terrible if somebody came out sounding like Rostropovich or Casals?!”
- Irene Sharp, Cellist and Pedagogue
“I’ve learned a lot from being a chameleon; sort of adopting the musical personalities of who I was playing with.”
- Jeremy Denk, Chamber Musician
“It’s hard to read good fiction when I am writing, because if it is really good I catch myself sort of inadvertently imitating a great writer.” – John Grisham
 Pablo Casals