'Other People's Music': On the Copycat Performance

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There is an approach to developing a performance that substantially borrows the gestures, pacing, emotional shape and styling of another musician's performance of the same piece. This approach is often referred to dismissively as 'copycat' performances, or 'other people's music'. The critics' view is that people should develop their own interpretations, make the music their own, and that copycat performances are derivative and thus artistically empty.

Now, I am not going to argue against these critics. I have also been brought up in artistic traditions that value an individual's own take on a piece, that regards the point of performance as to give a view of some music that nobody else could give. But still, the people doing this aren't going out of their way to generate empty, clichéd performances. They experience them as real, as heartfelt. So I thought it worth stopping to investigate in a bit more depth what's going on here.

For context: I come across these discussions most frequently in barbershop, where a relatively small and very well-defined world allows the predecessors in a piece's performance history to be very easily identified. But it's not unique to this world by any means. I can recall seeing a student performance of West Side Story in which a 20-year-old voice student pretty much recreated the Natalie Wood/Marni Nixon role of Maria. (As an aside, it is interesting to note she copied both the acting and singing dimensions, and thus integrated elements generated separately in the over-dubbed movie.) The entire premise of 'talent shows' such as Stars in Their Eyes is likewise predicated on this process.

Now, one thought to note is that the copycat performance is a feature of a world where music is primarily distributed through recordings. One learns how a piece of music 'goes' aurally, and often particular recordings become iconic, coming to represent the sound-world that first comes to mind in association with a piece.

In an era before recordings, sheet music would reach a wider market than the travelling performers who promoted it. Amateur (and to an extent professional) performers had much less access to existing performance traditions. One might imagine that this made people be more original, as they had to figure out more for themselves; equally one might imagine that this just meant they were generating copycat performances in smaller, more localised musical communities.

In any case, the 'go back to the dots to work it out for yourself' mantra is a very classical one. Not just in the assumption of literacy as the superior form of musical transmission, but also in the sense of sending the performer back to the composer's text, back to the horse's mouth, rather than just relying on what other performers have made of it.

But regardless of how the music you perform is conveyed to you, it feels like a normal part of the development of a musician to become completely inspired by another performer, to be lit up by what they do, to want to be like them. This is part of the process of ignition, of switching gear into higher level of operation.

In this context, the copycat performance looks less like a failure of imagination than a very specific engagement of imagination. It is a process of trying on your hero's musical identity. It is an act of overt musical empathy, of finding your way into how someone you admire thinks and feels by replicating their actions.

In this sense, the copycat performance is the sign of a very positive developmental stage. It is not yet a finished artistic product (are any of us ever actually finished??), but it does show not only an awareness of performance tradition, but an enthusiasm for that tradition's expert modes of expression.

So, I would suggest that the instinct to advise people doing copycat performances to stop copying and 'find their own voice' is somewhat discouraging. That's what they thought they were doing via their engagement with the voice of someone they admired.

More useful, perhaps, would be to advise them to engage with a greater variety of expert performers in their tradition. Having 'tried on' one musical identity, they will get a whole new perspective by trying on other, quite different, ones. And mediating between the different ways of being and patterns of feeling encoded in those contrasting performances will automatically require the developing musicians to start acquiring that sense of critical distance and capacity to reflect that is conspicuously absent when they are over-identified with a single hero.

I pretty much agree with you Liz, but ...

One of the big downsides of the copycat approach is that beginners (especially singers) think they have failed if they can't replicate their favourite singer and sing their favourite songs in the same key.

I did a taster workshop yesterday and some guy was asking how to access his high tenor voice (he has a beautiful natural baritone vocie). I asked him why he wanted to do that rather than just sing songs in a key that suited him. It turns out he wants to sound like his idols. There are few baritone role models in the pop world, so he felt he HAD to be able to sing in a high tenor voice. So he undervalued his own unique voice.

Even worse, some people don't believe they can sing at all (and would never contemplate joining a choir or singing in front of others) precisely because they don't sound exactly like their favourite singer.

Being a copy cat is a great start (remember David Bowie trying to imitate Anthony Newley?!), only as long as it doesn't put people off.

Chris
From the Front of the Choir

I must compare this with the early music scene, in which authentic-performance specialists kill themselves to try and clone Bach's or Schütz's performance as closely as they can. And there's a snobbery in that environment which treats performers who attempt creativity as second-class. Most audiences (other than those composed of authentic-performance junkies themselves) are better-served by performers who think as you do. And performers at the time would have laughed at such an idea, just like serious jazz musicians today would never try to clone a Louis Armstrong performance.

Interesting comparison, Allen.

Isn't it Richard Taruskin who makes the point that it is the very impossibility of actually achieving this cloning that makes 'authentic' performances musical - because they are forced into creativity despite themselves?

Love the notion of 'authentic performance junkies'!

Yes, the engagement is important part of learning and copycatting is part of that. However, when students try to sound like a specific artist whose voices are not at all like theirs, and when by emulating them, they employ and adopt unusual and at times unhealthy (for their voices) vocal techniques, the delicate dance that ensues can be discouraging for the singer and undo months of careful training.

Thank you for ending your article with encouraging teachers to offer alternatives to their students so that they have a wider range of sounds to "try on." It is important for the teacher to listen to why a student feels that they want to sound like Singer Z FACTOR or Singer Antarctica's Got Talent and then capitalize on that interest to guide them into their unique capabilities so that it doesn't become a push-pull conflict between student and teacher.

Part of that alternative is to look at videos of popular artists with students and together assessing their technique, sometimes stopping frames, sometimes replaying a section, a phrase, a vowel sound to see what the artists are doing with their voices.

Recently, after watching and assessing artists' videos with a student, I was really pleased at the next lesson when the student said, "Listen and watch this singer. I want to be like her. There is no strain in her neck muscles, her tongue position is correct, her alignment is healthy, and her vowels are forward and resonant. The range is right for her and it sounds like the song was written for her." She had applied what she had learned in previous video assessments. Her next question was, "Can I sing this song?" The range was right and the song's technical challenges were a stretch but within reasonable reach of the student. Although she is "copycatting," she is doing it with her acquired and applied knowledge and discovering what will work for her without having a the wet blanket of "no you cannot do this" thrown on her passionate spark.

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