Find Your Voice by Imitation

surrealist painter, Salvador Dalí
surrealist painter, Salvador Dalí

“Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.”

—-Salvador Dalí


One of my goals in life is to teach trumpet with a focus on creativity. In my mind, however, the way to a creative approach is through imitation. I am not alone. Francine Prose, in her book Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for those Who Want to Write Them stresses the importance of careful, detailed readings of great writers. Analyzing their words for their various techniques is the most important step in becoming a good writer yourself.

For musicians, however, our “imitation,” especially for classical music, typically comes about this way:

  1. buy some sheet music
  2. read it through
  3. practice until you can play it acceptably


No, not really done for three reasons: this kind of conventional way of imitation (musicians call it practice) is does not involve enough repetition; it often does not involve memory; and, most importantly, it is visually-based. It’s visual, because you get sheet music to look at with your eyes, so that you know which notes to play.

What if classical music learning and practice (“imitation”) were really more like imitation? More like what a jazz student does to learn his craft (especially in the earlier days of jazz, when there weren’t books on how to learn jazz). Here’s the process:

  1. get a recording of the piece you want to play; hopefully the performance is good
  2. listen to it over and over again
  3. “lift” the music (copy the music exactly as you hear it), but without the use of written notation–just play it on your trumpet
  4. in the process you will, without a doubt, memorize your piece and you will deeply understand a lot of the inflections and subtleties of the music
  5. to correct errors and to reveal anything that went by without notice, look at the sheet music
  6. re-listen to integrate what you saw with what you’ve been listening to


Really Done. Now the music is deep inside you. It is part of your musical mind–your “ear.” You will take this piece with you, in your mind, for the rest of your life, probably. Now you have some musical vocabulary for your musical voice.

Of course, the next step is to paraphrase what you have mastered through imitation. You need to blend all of those gestures into your own personal creative soup. This is a long, but organic, process that takes courage and patience. It’s worth it, because to be a truly great trumpeter, your artistic ideas have to be integrated by repetition, memory and come through your “ear.”

Irish playwright and journalist, George Bernard Shaw
Irish playwright and journalist, George Bernard Shaw

“Imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattery–it’s the sincerest form of learning.”

—-George Bernard Shaw



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