Question: Is imitation a good skill to develop when learning to play?
Answer: People are told from a young age that copying someone is bad, and that they should strive to be original. However, being able to imitate another player or even another instrument or sound is an important skill for musicians. I remember when I was a student at the Eastman School of Music, another student told me that her former teacher Harold Bennett, who played principal flute at the Metropolitan Opera, often used imitation during lessons. Students learning the visual arts are often directed to practice making copies of the works of old masters. Traditionally this formed a major part of their training.
Musical imitation hones listening skills and helps one really hear what another player is doing, whether it is listening to a teacher, a recording, or another instrument. By trying to imitate note length, intonation, tone, phrasing, nuances, and different air speeds, players learn to listen to what is truly coming out of their instruments. It is easy to listen to music without really hearing these finer details, but imitation requires paying much closer attention to them.
Imitation is also a valuable skill when playing in an ensemble of any size. A good orchestral second flutist listens and plays notes with the same length and style as the principal player. Even principal flutists should match the players around them, so the section creates a unified sound and style. It should not have to be pointed out that you are hanging over on a note, or playing with too much vibrato, or that you did not play the phrasing the same way as the other players in the woodwind section. Chamber music is the same, and players should be sensitive to the sounds around them and make quick adjustments. This can only happen when players are truly listening to the other musicians as well as their own sound.
I realized how important imitation is during a recent lesson in which I demonstrated a phrase, and then the student did not change the things that I was looking for upon playing it back to me. I realized that she did not hear the details in my playing, and therefore could not make the desired changes. We then worked on imitation so that she could play with those changes, rather than me explaining note by note what to do. By listening and trying to imitate, you use a different part of the brain and learn to recognize non-verbal cues.
Another useful exercise is to imitate another instrument, such as the clarinet or violin, or the sounds of a singer. Listen to a great clarinetist and then try to copy the sound and phrasing without using vibrato. As you listen to a violinist, notice how they can change their bow speed and dynamics on a single note or bow. This is something wind players could benefit from. String players have many different bow strokes that give them hundreds of different sounds. Flutists can learn so much by hearing and imitating those sounds.
You could imitate nature sounds such as a bird in the woods. By listening to their sounds and rhythms, you might gain a better understanding of how to play Olivier Messiaen’s Le Merle Noir or Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf.
Even if you want to sound just like Rampal, Galway, or Pahud, you will never sound exactly like another player. However, the exercise will improve your awareness and listening skills as well as your playing and make you a better member of any ensemble. This is an important skill that every player should spend time exploring.