Perhaps all the fiddling has finally gotten to me.

But somewhere between the students’ fiddling and my own doodling, I invented “Copycats.”

OK, maybe I didn’t totally invent it. Probably it was partly triggered by reading Jeffrey Agrell’s book, Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians, which every creative music teacher should rush out and buy. At any rate, suddenly we are all playing “Copycats.”

It works like this: two people sit at the piano bench. One is the leader, the other is the follower. The leader plays a single note. The follower plays the same note in a comfortable octave of his choice. The leader then plays the first note and then a second note, which could be the same note repeated, or a different note, totally her choice. The follower responds by playing the same two notes, like a copycat (Hence the name. Clever, huh?). The leader then plays the first, second, and a third note. The follower repeats the sequence. The game continues until someone—leader or follower—messes up.

In a world where we are still trying to negotiate safe distancing in the piano studio, Copycat might take a slightly different format. The two pianists could be situated on two different instruments, and instead of copying the exact sequence of notes, one could imitate the gestures—up/down, legato/staccato, high/low, forte/piano—using any notes. This freer, gesture-based exercise can also make a nice pedagogical stepping stone towards improvisational/compositional work if students are usually reluctant or inhibited at creative play.

Any version of Copycat teaches us to listen and mimic better, which is also a necessary stepstone of musical growth. After all, we can only play what we can hear. The careful mirroring of Copycat lays down a strong foundation for students learning to imitate teachers’ call and responses of all kinds: when fixing rhythms or articulations in their repertoire, when coaching the dynamic shape of phrases, when demonstrating subtle differences in voicing between the melody and the accompaniment.

The bottom line is that kids love Copycat. In fact, Copycat may very well be the highlight of summer lessons. From my perspective, while it is play, it is hardly a waste of time. Both leader and follower must be highly focused in order to commit the sequence of notes or the pattern of gestures to memory. The longer the game continues, the more necessary it is to be able to think in groups of notes or gestures, a great skill in learning music. Observing a kid lead Copycat tells me a great deal of how they might be thinking melodically or harmonically (Oh my! The strange chromatic tunes that I’ve witnessed!). I like any activity that brings kids together to do something creative and musical and improvisational. If there is giggling, all the better. Clearly, Copycat is here to stay.

It is impossible not to compare these small, easy joys of this summer with the difficult days of last year. Last July the world kept getting more and more restricted, more and more stressful, more and more confining. Nothing seemed safe. We were told that masks were mandatory outdoors. We were reminded not to gather on the 4th of July with anyone outside our household. We were being hit daily with Covid math: numbers of new cases, numbers of coronavirus deaths, color-coded maps of shame.

It’s not over and I know that. But I am so happy to be in July 2021 and not July 2020 that I want to roll deliciously around on the floor in bliss like one of the kittens in a spot of sunshine. Lately, there have been evenings lingering in the garden with friends over a bottle of wine. There have been impromptu brunches in the courtyard. Matt has been leading community singing events in parks this past month; former students stop by for tea and conversation. Every day I teach my kids—in person! And older vaccinated kids unmasked!—is a good day. I hope I never again take for granted every day I can meet a friend for a drink, or go out to dinner with my husband, or stroll through the farmer’s market on a Saturday morning. They are, in fact, days worth copying.

 

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