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