About (self)imitation

A central aspect of learning a musical instrument is imitation. Traditionally, it has taken place as the mirroring of the teacher in the student: By his mere example, the teacher shows the student the way into his own developmental process.

Today, there is a more nuanced picture of the teacher’s role: The good teacher must also be able to develop students with other types of prerequisites than their own, so a deep understanding of the student’s individual composition and competencies in both physical and mental areas play a big role. It also requires a lot of learning tools to support the student with the right feedback at the right time.

But if we are still looking at the “pure” imitation, which, after all, is the phenomenon that has been a part of music education for centuries, there are a number of interesting things going on:

We have areas of systems in our brain, which are activated, both when an action is performed and when it is observed. These “mirror systems” are seen by some researchers as the cognitive basis for our understanding of other people and as one of the basic building blocks for our ability to learn. For example: One may learn a simple motor task just as quickly by observing others perform it as by practising it oneself[1]. Therefore, it’s the same neural mechanisms that are at play, and our motor systems are activated with substantial overlap in either case.

Although there is a vigorous scientific discussion of the wider consequences of these neural systems, it is plausible that motor imitation is a fundamental behavior for us. This phenomenon could be the basis for learning, understanding and a general decoding of communication and intentions from others.

In fact, imitation is so crucial that the imitation behavior itself is the most natural for us – notice how you will easily end up sitting in the same way as the person you are talking to. We even have inhibitory elements in the brain, so we do not just walk around and imitate per reflex. Pathological cases have been identified where some people lack this inhibition and therefore compulsorily imitate the behavior that they see[2].

Then, what happens when we start looking at ourselves from the outside like I do with my videos? Why do I clearly experience my practice process improve? Why is it enough just to imagine a “virtual” camera and still get a more focused practising and stronger artistic results?

At least some of the answer is, that I suddenly become part of a “normal” learning situation with myself as both teacher and student. As an experienced teacher, I am trained to think my students’ behaviors in different ways and to imagine alternatives that might bring better results. This competence is based on a link of imitation (I imagine how it is to be them) together with intuitive leaps, which is based on an experience of the relationship between performance-action-result (See About interpretation). The camera gives me a mental focal point, which shifts my attention to the results of my actions and thus enter into the role of being my own teacher. (See About tickling yourself).

There is a further twist on this, which I discovered while editing the videos for YouTube: During the project, I seem gradually to have developed a “language” or conceptual framework that enables me to understand faster what happens in my practice: At the beginning, my reflections are less concrete and occur more seldom, but the longer I get into the project, I get more – and more accurate – notes when viewing the videos. It seems that I’ve got a stronger “toolbox” to categorize the different phenomena in my practice processes.

I think that the positive effects of the insights that this self-mirroring behaviour has led to, is an exciting result, which shows a promising way towards gaining more knowledge about the interplay between imagination, sensation, imitation and, not least, artistic expression.

[1] Marc Jeannerod: Motor Cognition: What actions tell the self. Oxford University Press 2006, 118

[2] Marc Jeannerod: Motor Cognition: What actions tell the self. Oxford University Press 2006, 165

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