Figuring out your personal style is a big part of the transition from student life to professional work, whether you perform, teach, or do something else entirely. Having a unique, authentic approach that feels comfortable to you is what makes you a marketable and appealing hire. "Personal style" seems like an abstract thing at first glance, but there are a series of steps you can take to figure out your brand. Today's post will focus on performance; teaching will be covered on Wednesday, 1/15.
Step 1: Be a Big Fat Copycat
It seems counterintuitive, but start by copying performers you like to listen to. There's a reason you gravitate toward some players over others. Try playing as closely to their sound as possible; this includes dynamics, articulation, tempo, timing, vibrato, and timbre. Do this with several performers you like. See if you can play the same piece in the style of three or four different musicians. The trick is to adhere EXACTLY to what they do.
This kind of practice is an excellent opportunity to build both your aural skills and your vocabulary of sound. The only way you can mimic something is to listen to it closely, so you will have plenty of opportunity to refine your ear. By imitating different performers, you learn how many ways there are to play a staccato note or shape a phrase. At first, everything might sound similar; take notes or mark up a copy of the score as you listen. One thing I like to do is make a photocopy of a piece and use a different colored pen for the notes I take about each different performer I listen to.
At a certain point, you will start to feel something change. The guidance of the recordings you listen to will gradually shift from helpful to stifling. Playing exactly like your favorite performer will start to feel like a box you have to fit into that crowds and limits you. Listen to this feeling, because it leads you into the next step: making your own choices.
Step 2: Make Like a Tree and Branch Out
Let's say you like the overall approach a certain player has to tempo, but you notice they hold notes at the ends of phrases for just a touch too long. Assuming that your rhythmic accuracy is high and that they really are holding those notes too long, you might feel a pull to cut off those ending notes a little sooner than they would.
Or perhaps you notice that one of the performers you listen to tends to use primarily straight sound, with little vibrato. You feel, however, that adding vibrato judiciously could help shape phrases and bring different tone colors to your performance. These are examples of where you can start to make educated deviations from your style mentors.
Now that you've spent some time listening to all the different ways music can be played, you have many tools at your disposal. It's the difference between being able to say you're happy versus being able to differentiate between excited, anticipatory, elated, overjoyed, or thrilled. You have more colors on your palette.
So start slowly, be patient with yourself and keep your ears open for new ideas. Your performance style can (and will) evolve as you get older, so if there's something you don't like about how you play, it's never too late to change it. Good luck and get listening!