Don’t copy me! – why imitation can be a poor improvement strategy

broken mirror

Imitation is a powerful force in teaching – any music teacher or sports coach will agree. But is it a force for good? FM Alexander, creator of the Alexander Technique, clearly was not convinced of its efficacy. He even reportedly told his teacher trainees, “Don’t copy me!” So what’s the problem with imitation?

Imitation in practice

Last week I took my son, a budding classical guitarist, to see the guitar sensation Milos Karadaglic in concert. It was well worth it, particularly to see a musician working with such freedom and gracefulness of movement and expression.

My son was very impressed. He left the concert venue clutching a Milos CD and harbouring a determination to play as well as him. The next day he listened to the CD multiple times, and then got out his guitar to do some practice. And he carefully turned his footstool round the wrong way.

Now, if you don’t know anything about classical guitar, let me explain. The player rests their foot (usually the left) on a footstool to help hold the guitar. And it is usually positioned sloping towards the player. Milos had his footstool sloping away from him. My son wants to be just like Milos, so he turned his footstool around.

Now, it’s just a small example, but it demonstrates very clearly the transactions behind imitation.

Imitation truths

  1. Imitation is truly the sincerest form of flattery. We imitate the people we admire. We want to be just like them.
  2. Very often the things the make the imitated person great are not easily imitated. My son cannot instantly copy Milos’ work ethic, his years of practice. These things are not visible, and take time and discipline to copy. So the likelihood is that they won’t be. We copy what we can easily see, not what makes the great artist great.
  3. What we see are the idiosyncrasies and foibles, and these aren’t what made the person great (most of the time). FM Alexander put it like this:“Most of us are aware that if a pupil in some art is sent to watch a great artist… the pupil is almost invariably more impressed by some characteristics of the artist that may be classed as faults than by his ‘better parts’.
    … the characteristics may be faults which the genius of the particular artist enables him to defy. It is possible that the artist succeeds in spite of them rather than because of them.” (CCC, p.364)
    Was Glen Gould a great pianist because he slumped around on a low piano stool and grunted a lot? Or was it because he worked really hard? Obviously the latter. But the visual idiosyncrasies are easier to copy. Luckily for me and my son, Milos only turns his footstool around!

We are not the same as our heroes. This is another really important factor that makes imitation dangerous, according to FM Alexander. We tend to believe that if we see a teacher or a great artist do an activity in a particular way, that it is possible for us to copy them accurately. But FM says this is a delusion. (UoS, p.418) We are not the same as our teachers – we have subtly different physiques, different experiences, different ideas and beliefs. We are different psycho-physical beings. We could not copy our teachers exactly unless we were able to copy their entire general use of themselves!

Moving beyond imitation

So how are we to proceed? If we can’t copy our teachers, what can we do?
Well, I suggest we do what FM wanted his teacher trainees to do: watch closely what he did, and look to the reasons and principles behind why he was doing what he was doing. Once we understand the reasoning behind what our teachers and coaches do, we can have a go at applying it to our own practice.

In conclusion, here are the steps to follow:

  1. Make sure you understand clearly the goal of the activity.
  2. Make sure you understand the reasoning behind why your teacher or coach does the activity in the way they do.
  3. Attempt to apply this reasoning process in your own attempts at the activity.
  4. Get feedback from your teacher or coach on how well you are doing.

Give it a go, and let me know how it turns out.

*All quotes and page references are from the Irdeat complete edition of Alexander’s books. If you want more information on the books, please contact me.
Image by Luigi Diamanti,