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A blog from Japan- imitation is the sincerest form of battery.

September 1, 2006 at 10:02 AM

the Renaissance sculptor Michelangelo, once explained to an idiot fan (or gushing reporter) that he didn’t actually turn blocks of marble into Garfield or whatever. Rather, he simply removed the excess marble to reveal the glowing example of humanity within.
Learning and performing a piece of music is somewhat like this I think. Recently I had to coach and then lead a pretty good amateur orchestra playing Shostakovitch 10th symphony . Unfortunately the end product had emerged in the first rehearsal way ahead of the chipping process and you couldn’t imagine an uglier or misshapen entity if you had nightmares for the rest of your life. How was it I asked, that the group had managed to produce something that actually needed the marble chipping stuck back on as quickly as possible? The answer was very simple. In order to be as prepared as possible the players had spent hours listening to one specific recording of the work and following the score. It took a huge amount of effort to get rid of the mislearnings and preconceptions, a rehearsal laden with exchanges such as:
‘Well, these 8th notes have no dots so although its the same theme as later Shostakovitch probably wanted a contrast."
‘But Karajan plays it that way.’

‘Why are you doing a big crescendo in this bar?’
"Because Karajan does."
‘But the same bar is repeated with a crescendo marked. Shostakovitch does things for a reason.’

Similarly, our piano trio had its first meeting with a new pianist last week. Very professional player, sight read Beethoven trios well and then switched styles beautifully to read the Debussy trio for the first time. It was clear to both the cellist and I that this player really knew her French music and we were quite content to absorb new things from her by playing through the work . However, after the rehearsal the pianist tentatively asked me to lend her a recording of the trio so she could ‘study how to play it.’
For me, these were two classic examples of how after basic training (boot camp if you like) players so easily fall into the trap of imitation and as a consequence develop little in the way of their true self. The problem is especially strong in Japan for cultural reasons. So this begs the question "How does one know what or how to play something?’
Asides from the importance of studying the whole oeuvre of the composer as far as is humanly possible I recall an interview with Joshua Bell in which he rather simplistically stated ‘Just play what is written on the page.’ This point of view seems rather banal compared with the type of advice one hears from more esoteric thinkers such as Stern who would make profound remarks about music existing between the notes on the page... But there is not really a contradiction and Joshua Bell is nobody’s fool. The truth is 95% of the music is written on the page and it is up to us to find it by going over the score in depth and trying to play what is written.
The problem is, most people don’t. If you pick up Auer’s book and read the chapter on nuance he lambastes students who make no distinction between mp /p, f and ff etc. The problem is an old one. Auer’s very practical solution is to study the symphonies, quartets, trios of Beethoven.
Of course one then runs into a slight snag... The performance practice up to (and beyond) Mozart doesn’t necessarily include all the bowings and phrasing/dynamics. They were considered common knowledge. Thus a diligent student goes out and buys for example, the Barenreiter edition of Mozart piano trios , and plays endless runs of 16ths as plain detache which is not what Mozart intended at all. The player has to be aware that the bowings of Mozart’s time were the actually articulations that created the phrase, not simply conveniences, or things that sounded a bit nifty. So the player is forced to decide where the phrase begins and ends, which notes are important and then highlight them with appropriate slurs. The appropriate information on this can be found in Mozart’s father’s book on violin technique. It really isn’t that hard and once one gets something appropriate one is once more playing what is on the page. In the case of Beethoven one is ignoring what is written on the page. For Mozart one is ignoring what is written elsewhere combined with musical common sense.
The other aspect of the problem is to take traditional ways of performing certain works and assume just because a) everybody plays them that way including Heifetz and b) my Peters edition has this bowing printed we don't have to think for ourselves. There are many interesting examples in the Handel sonatas where I think, the composer knew what he wanted and wrote it precisely . Thus the first bar of the A major sonata is usually slurred in two beats two a bow and played that way by just about everyone including some of its greatest interpreters. One thereby avoids the problem of a dotted quarter note on a down bow and two 16ths on an up bow , played twice in a row. But what happens if one flouts convention and plays the bowing Handel wrote? It is radically different from what one normally hears and for some people may speak far more vocally than the usual smoothed out version.
To play what is written on the page is not at all easy. If one can get this far that is really something. The other five percent Stern was referring to comes after and is where the true artist emerges. The error illustrated at the beginning of a distorted imitation of Karajan’s distortions (;) in a sense occurred because the players were trying for that last 5% without doing the bulk of the work first.
Not everyone can get there but we can die trying!

From bill Pratt
Posted on September 1, 2006 at 1:24 PM
good. thanks.
From Man Wong
Posted on September 1, 2006 at 5:59 PM
Thanks much for sharing this bit of insight. I am just a beginner w/ the violin, but I find this insight rings true (perhaps universally so across a wide range of disciplines, including my own profession) and so should serve as a great "reminder" of sorts.

It's like that old saying that "one should learn to walk before one tries to run".

Kind regards,


From Charlie Caldwell
Posted on September 2, 2006 at 12:57 AM
I learn something every time your respond to a discussion or write a blog.
From Pauline Lerner
Posted on September 2, 2006 at 5:18 AM
The conductor of my community symphony orchestra often tells us not to listen to recordings of what we're working on. He wants us to get rid of our preconceived notions and let the orchestra, guided by the conductor, find its own sound. It is important to be able to play what is written on the page and then to make the music one's own, with changes in bowing, dynamics, etc.

I don't want to be misinterpreted re racial or cultural issues, but I find it interesting that you say that Japanese musicians are especially susceptible to playing music the way others have because of cultural considerations.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on September 2, 2006 at 6:35 AM
Welcome to the blog page, Buri!
From kimberlee dray
Posted on September 2, 2006 at 10:27 PM
Well said. Also scary--sometimes I'd rather not be that responsible for my music :) It is a good image you begin with--sculpture. Helps me to see the business I'm about, and remind me to think things through.

Your comments are very close to lectures I get regularly from my teacher. I'm still developing my musical brains and it is certainly difficult work.

From Sydney Menees
Posted on September 3, 2006 at 1:46 AM
Great, insightful blog, Buri.

BTW - I love the title.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on September 3, 2006 at 2:52 AM
Nifty essay. For more on Michelangelo, check out Irving Stone's great potboiler "The Agony and the Ecstasy".
From howard vandersluis
Posted on September 3, 2006 at 2:56 AM
So japanese players are inscrutable and mindlessly imitative?? I guess I know what you think of the Suzuki method, eh?

Unfounded and racist remarks aside, I enjoyed your post.

Howard Uritaka

From Man Wong
Posted on September 3, 2006 at 6:16 AM

I don't believe his remark is completely unfounded or racist nor did he say anything that suggests to me that he thinks "japanese players are inscrutable and mindlessly imitative".

All he said was that he's observed more of this kind of thing going on amongst Japanese musicians than amongst musicians in other cultures and that perhaps their culture as a little to do w/ that. His main point was not to smear Japanese musicians (or the culture), but to talk about a certain tendency (or "trap") that we can *ALL* fall into, regardless of race, culture, etc, and thus should seek to avoid. And since this is a personal blog, not some "objective" research thesis, he is simply writing from a recent experience and using that as a sort of spring board to a more important subject to share w/ us. There doesn't appear to be any tone of malice or elitisism (spl?), neither ignorant nor intentional, though I suppose it's always possible for someone to feel slighted or wronged or whatever else whenever words are written and published on the net no matter how well intentioned they may have been.

OTOH, I suppose we are *ALL* biased to an extent, and there might indeed be just a tad bit of "innocent" bias in the thinking process that led to what was written in the blog. None of us are perfect afterall, but I personally would prefer to "see the glass as half full" rather than "half empty" and give him the benefit of the doubt.

Kind regards,


From Stephen Brivati
Posted on September 3, 2006 at 7:05 AM
MMM. Let’s take a look at this one for the heck of it.

>So Japanese players are inscrutable and mindlessly imitative?? I guess I know what you think of the Suzuki method, eh?
Unfounded and racist remarks aside, I enjoyed your post.

The charge of racism has been made. If you are going to make such a charge then do so with precision to start with. No use was made of the word ‘inscrutable’ either literally or by implication. Very sloppy.
Next, the words ‘mindlessly imitative.’ I am unable to find any reference to or implication of mindlessness. On the contrary, it actually takes mind to imitate something.
Aside from the fact that the writer has utterly dishonest in their representation of what was written , for there to be any truth in his vague and appallingly written charges it would have to be established that the Japanese do not have a long history of imitating, absorbing and making their own diverse aspects of many cultures, be it writing, fine arts, martial arts or whatever. It is a great and honorable skill. This skill is reflected for example, in the teaching of calligraphy in which the student (such as myself) is taught to imitate a masters work repeatedly until at a later stage more personalized art is presumed to emerge. I can have serious and thoughtful discussions about this aspect of Japanese history and culture with all manner of educated Japanese in any of the institutes I work. No charge of racism or rudeness would ever be raised. Simply a learning experience.
Another factor contributing to this situation is the nature of Japanese society which is very hierarchical and allows far less questioning of authority figures such as teachers or established experts. I have done thousands of hours of work in discourse analysis comparing degree of challenge to assumed superior such as in the doctor patient relationship and can assure you that my observations and other well know research has shown that one takes what is given to a much greater degree than in a western culture.
As a corollary to this one might examine the language and find, for example, that the best known proverb is ‘a nail that sticks up is hammered down.’ I.e. right form the earliest school days group identity is emphasized over individual to an enormous extent.
Aside from having lived in Japan for 15 years , been married to a Japanese and so forth I think I can claim knowledge of a great deal of anecdotal evidence, that is non racist of comments made by teachers from sources such as the Institutes I attended to newspaper magazines in support of the basic premise that Japanese students achieve the most astonishing technical level but have to work hard to allow their individuality to grow and it may take some huge stimulus. One famous violin teacher in London told a colleague of mine that whenever she has a Japanese girl student she has to wait a few months for her to have her heart broken before she can get that person to express themselves. Another example I recall is a Strad interview with the great Japanese violinist Takezawa who described her struggles when she first went to Julliard because she had never been allowed to really question things or assert her ideas freely.

I must say I have also found it an interesting feature of this site that knee-jerk antagonists present pseudo claims about what one thinks in order to pontificate about what is really their own problem. Thus it is assumed I cannot stand the Suzuki technique. That is an interesting one. Actually I think it is a very fine and productive concept in its original form that had to move on. In particular in the US teachers have worked diligently to not only remake it according to their cultural more but also adapt as they see fit so that one can no longer present blanket attacks on the ‘method’ such as ‘those students can’t read music.’ Ironically, the country where the method is highly stultified is actually its origin. The reason being obvious from the commentary above. One does not challenge or criticize cultural icons, their thoughts , ideas and precepts however much the world around us changes.
So I think I am owed both a retraction of the charge and an apology. It would be really nice just once in a while if people would take a little more care and thought , make a little more inquiry, before making accusations of racism. At the very least they could have the intellectual honesty to represent what I say truthfully before whingeing about it.

From parmeeta bhogal
Posted on September 3, 2006 at 9:43 AM

Anyone who has spent even a little time in would know that you couldn't be furthur away from the truth if you tried. SBs comments and and writings are always thoughtful and appreciated and can be looked up in the site if you are really interested.

I see now that SB himself has replied.
If you are going to be around and want to people to take you seriously, you will find out soon enough that this site is a bit different and cheap remarks like yours have no place here

From bill Pratt
Posted on September 3, 2006 at 4:11 PM
I literally bit my lip when I read Pauline's response, and then today I find Howard'sresponse, and Buri's thoughtful reply.

Frankly, both Pauline and Howard very transparently show to all the world that they are quite literally ignorant with respect to Japanese culture.

There is indeed a disturbing knee-jerk trend in the US called "multiculturalism" which in its most odious form is in fact a fascistic position where no "culture" can ever be criticized in either the lay sense nor the literary sense.

Clearly culture is a core prinicple for most every human on the planet and it is impossible not to observe cultral differences. Learning to navigate cutural differences is not a matter of turning a blind eye toward observation and comment, which is the fascist multicultural approach. Rather, it is healthy to feel the strangeness of a different culture and then to ask why, how, etc and most certainly to comment!

Finally, Howard's response is quite frankly ethnocentric, to use one of the favorite catch words of the multiculturalism movement. He presumes that imitation is a lower form of behavior than origination which, in the Japanese cuture, is not quite the case as Buri has so eloquently shown.

There is quite clearly nothing wrong with becoming acquainted with multiple cultures. Yet there is everything wrong with the turgid belief that there is some neutral position from which to judge all others who in fact navigate the turbulent waters of cultural interaction.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on September 4, 2006 at 5:30 AM
Bill, I’ll respond to your comment in a manner analogous to Buri’s response to another comment about ethnicity and culture. Before criticizing what I said, read it. To save you the trouble, I’ll repeat it here. I said, “I find it interesting that you [Buri] say that Japanese musicians are especially susceptible to playing music the way others have because of cultural considerations.” Bill, please tell me exactly what there is in my comment that serves as a basis for your remark that I am “quite literally ignorant with respect to Japanese culture.”

I have taught ESOL to many immigrants from different cultures, including many Asians, although Japanese have not been among them. My Chinese students, however, tend not to ask questions of teachers – at least not until they have become somewhat Americanized. I have taught visiting scientists from Japan in research laboratories, and I’ve found it difficult because they do not ask questions. Even if I say, “Do you understand this?” they say “Yes” or “Do you have any questions?” they say “No.” I have also found it very difficult to learn a new technique from them because, no matter how badly I mess something up, they tell me that I am doing it very well. This is not because of a language barrier since they are watching my actions. I remember trying to inject something into a rat’s tail vein and squirting it all over the lab bench and the floor. My Japanese instructor said, “Your technique is very good. Mine is not so good.” Respect is viewed differently in different cultures.

From bill Pratt
Posted on September 4, 2006 at 2:17 PM
Hi Pauline,

Sorry about that.

When I first read your comment, my initial feeling was, "oh no here we go again..."

I did reread your comment after I posted, and came to realize that indeed you were not judging, but merely making an observation. Quite distinctly different from the other cited comment.


Sorry for mishandling your comments.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on September 5, 2006 at 1:24 AM
and how is the rat? ;)

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