January 21, 2011

You have to REALLY listen

"Concerts undoubtedly have great value in developing the student technically and mentally; but too often they have a directly contrary effect. I think there is a very doubtful benefit to be derived from the present habit, as illustrated in New York, London, or other centers, of the student attending concerts, sometimes as many as two or three a day. This habit dwarfs the development of real appreciation, as the student, under these conditions, can little appreciate true works of art when he has crammed his head so full of truck, and worn out his faculties of concentration until listening to music becomes a mechanical mental process. The _indiscriminate_ attending of concerts, to my mind, has an absolutely pernicious effect on the student."
-Albert Spalding, from "Violin Mastery" by Frederick Martens, 1919

It's difficult for me to imagine a world where one could attend two to three concerts a day, but now we could just substitute "listen to your iPod."

Immersion is important

I feel a bit conflicted writing this, because I used to listen to irish traditional music almost all day long at work, and I think it was a big help for me to build up my repertoire of tunes. There are many hundreds of tunes I can play pretty well on the flute that I put no conscious effort into learning. 

I'm convinced that immersing myself in the music of that tradition was crucial to learning it, as it would be with any form of music. After all, listening to music is fundamental for a musician, in order to develop a sense of style and continuity. 

Saturation is the problem

However, it's really easy now to listen to music all day long, and to get into the habit of listening passively. You may be fooling yourself into thinking you're picking up on the details when you're not. It's not a big step to go from "listening passively" to "barely listening at all."

Listening to yourself while you practice and perform is crucial to success. When you're accustomed to "barely listening at all" to music, you may find it hard to listen to yourself while you play, especially if you are already struggling with confidence issues.

You have to REALLY listen!

I discovered about year ago that I was sort of bracing my ears as I played, hiding from the sounds I was making. I found that when I wanted to play something loudly, I ended up not really hearing it at all. It was a total shock to realize this, but it explained a lot about how different my music actually sounded from what I wanted to it to sound like. 

I decided to take drastic (and almost painful) action. For several months, I stopped listening to music almost altogether. The only exception was when I could give all my attention to the music. I would sit on the floor in front of the stereo and listen to one piece at a time, following along in the score whenever possible. (YouTubeimslp.org and the Boije Collection are a great resources for this.)

I wasn't prepared for how quiet and weird my world became, compared to what I was used to. Almost immediately, though, I became aware of all manners of subtleties in the music that I listened to that I had never heard before. I began to hear what makes an interpretation work or not. I began to open up my ears to my own music again, and appreciate how much I really wasn't hearing.

That doesn't sound like me!

I've heard so many people say (and I've said it myself) that they're surprised by what they really sound like, when they listen back to a recording they've made of themselves. If you don't hear what it really sounds like while you're playing, you need to work on your listening skills.

Recording yourself is a helpful and important tool (and I encourage it), but it's not a substitute for being present in the moment while you're playing.


  1. Listening is an active process, that I too frequently tend to passively. I find that quieting my mind before I begin to practice and then just playing a few notes that I do listen to "tunes" my ears for the session. Keep writing William.

  2. Great post! I think this is related to the discussion around "multitasking". I think the idea that you can passively listen, which implies focusing on other things, and still fully experience the music is definitely not the case. Multitasking is somewhat of a myth when you look at how our brains actually function. Something always has to take priority when it comes to assigning attention. So in this case, it needs to be the music. Otherwise, I think you are missing out on a lot that you don't even realize.

  3. @Pete: Thanks for the comment! I was going to respond here, but what I have to say is related to my most recent post so I think I'll just make a new post for it.