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,

Don’t copy me!

On the weekend I taught a day workshop (about Alexander Technique) at the Bristol Folk House, a lovely venue in central Bristol. Amongst my students for this workshop I had a husband and wife lady of the couple said that they have a six-year-old daughter, and that they had been trying to explain to her what they were doing that Saturday. They had told their daughter that when people are young they move around really beautifully, but that as they get older, for one reason or another, sometimes they don’t move so well or so easily as they used to. And Mum and Dad wanted to investigate whether they could move a bit more like their daughter.

I think this is an eloquent description of something that a lot of people feel to be true. Children seem to move so easily and beautifully, with an artless grace that we adults can only wonder at. How do they do it? And what happens to them – and us – between early childhood and adulthood to cause us to lose it?

What happens to us – part 1

One of the other participants in my Saturday workshop was a lady who had a standing lesson. When I worked with her to counteract the habitual way she pushed her hips forward while standing, she exclaimed that I was stopping her from standing up straight. She then gave an impression of  her school mistress telling her to ‘Stand up straight!’

My student had been out of school for a couple or three decades, yet that teacher’s admonition stayed with her. Words are powerful things. If we are told to do something as a child, and told it strongly enough, it is entirely possible that we will keep doing that thing long after the person who told us to has gone away or lost interest! This is even more likely if we received praise for following their instructions.

What things do you still do, just because a teacher/coach/parent told you? And if you have contact with children, are you careful about what rules you choose to pass on?


What happens to us – part 2

My son, when he was younger, absolutely loved a book by author Helen Oxenbury. It’s about a little boy called Tom and his toy monkey Pippo. My son’s favourite little story from the book began like this:


This is the second major thing that happens to us. We find someone we love, and we want to be like them. So we do what Tom does in the story – we copy the person we love. And we most often choose to copy the eccentricities of the person we love. We copy their walk, or the way they hold their head. Tom begins copying his father’s walk as an act of love.


Losing it – or not…

The thing is, we’re all really tempted by the idea that a childlike freedom and gracefulness is just that – childlike, and therefore a thing of the past. We feel nostalgic and a bit envious, and assume that like belief in Father Christmas, our freedom of movement, once gone, is lost forever.

This is a big trick.

If we believe this, we are cutting ourselves off from the truth. We never lost it.

We never lost it.

We listened to our teachers, and tried faithfully to do what they told us (‘Sit up straight!’). We copied those we loved, and did it studiously and well. We lived our lives, and made decisions about what was possible and what was not, and lived accordingly.

All of these acts are decisions. And decisions can be changed.

We have lost nothing. Our natural grace and elegance of movement is still there and waiting for us to rediscover it. And this requires nothing more nor less than a change in our point of view – what Alexander describes as “the royal road to reformation.” Like all roads, sometimes it may get a bit rocky, or may take a few twists or turns. But choose to stick with it.

This is what Alexander says to encourage us:

The brain becomes used to thinking in a certain way, it works in a groove … but when once it is lifted out of the groove, it is astonishing how easily it may be directed. At first it will have a tendency to return to the old manner of working … but the groove soon fills, and although thereafter we may be able to use the old path if we choose, we are no longer bound by it.*

Moving freely and easily is available to us. The path is waiting…

*FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat complete edition of the 4 books, p.67.