Emulate Don’t Imitate

3 Min Read  •  Arts Integration

Emulate don’t imitate. Look deeply into an idea or technique then leap and make it your own. Imitation beyond the point of initial mastery means we lack of trust in our own creative voice. We often believe that it is easier to copy pre-existing work and styles and receive praise for it than to express our own voice and fail. Why?

It’s the ego hard at work convincing us that somehow we are unworthy of the legacy of the creative masters: brilliant self-expression that speaks to the universal. It’s a good thing that not everybody has that attitude. Then, we’d live in a world of homogeneity. What would happen if you thought you had as much to offer the world as Leonardo, Michelangelo, Einstein, or Gandhi? Is it presumptuous to think we are capable of such great accomplishments or are we letting ourselves off the hook by placing the seeds of deep creativity away from our inner resources and intuition?

Accepting the mantle of creative artists might make life rather difficult for us so we choose “The Greatest Hits” method taking only what we need to get a basic result – one that superficially satisfies us. We have someone else make our food rather than learn to make our own.

If we made our own “Greatest Hits” collection we might stand out from the crowd too much or worse, become isolated. That is a risk too few of us take and yet how eager we are to seek and accept praise when our work fits nicely into a pre-existing school or methodology.

The best way to avoid imitation of another artist’s creative work is by understanding the concepts behind their technique rather than the technique alone. Technique never stands alone apart from its origin yet it is taught this way all the time. Is it the brushstroke that made Rembrandt great or something else? Is it the way Jimi Hendrix strung his guitar that made his solos sing or something else? What do we like about our favorite artists and creators? Make a list of all their positive qualities.

Try to understand why they made creative choices rather than how they did it. When we ask why it sets our imagination in motion while keeping a connection the how. What opportunities do we have to express our own artistry while still honoring the work of the masters? The work of Stravinsky is undeniably his own yet strains of Russian folk songs, jazz and traditional classical music run throughout his work. The creative artist fashions and integrates pre-existing material in a way that provides references to what we recognize yet moves beyond it, boldly putting their own stamp on it.

One of the greatest ways to learn is by observing beginners and teachers working together. Can the teacher communicate the fundamentals while tolerating deviation from his/her established practice? Is the student encouraged to try something else – to compose a melody from an exercise rather than merely perfecting it by rote? Why should a teacher be embarrassed when a student surpasses his or her technique or morphs it into something else, something unplanned for? We, as teachers, must be flexible and open to the innocent methodology of the sincere student. Give the student room to find their own voice: teach fundamentals but do not control the creative process and seeking of the student. That is the mark of a great teacher.