Thursday, June 20, 2013

Learning to listen



Learning to listen

          Listening is one of the most important and perhaps least mentioned aspects of music education. It might seem like a really obvious thing but yet again the details of listening are far from obvious, at least that is when you are really listening. So what does it mean to listen?
         Listening can be performed in various ways depending on the context. We might listen to a song we want to learn. We play it over and over trying to pick up the details that really bring a piece of music into focus. This type of listening could be thought of as microscopic. We’re looking for details that might otherwise get missed without a deeper attention to details. We might listen to other musicians we happen to be playing with. If a group or ensemble of some sort hopes to play together they’re hopefully listening to each. You’d be surprised how many groups don’t listen to each other. And then there’s the most obvious but arguably least discussed type of listening. Listening to ourselves.
         As a music teacher I have worked with hundreds of students who, at first, couldn’t play with a metronome. At first. Their problem was not a lack of talent. Nor was it a lack of rhythm. And it wasn’t just because they were not advanced enough to play with a metronome. Their problem was almost exclusively a listening problem. They had not learned to divide their attention between what they were doing and what the metronome was doing. And to be fair, its quite difficult at first. This gets us to the crux of the whole issue. Dividing your attention. The ability to musically focus your attention on two different things at the same time is a crucial skill any musician would do well to develop. Fortunately its not as hard as it might seem if the musician starts slowly.
       A great classical guitarist I know told me a story of a performance he gave in front of a world famous guitarist. After the performance he sought out feedback from the famous guitarist. The guitarist told him he technically played everything right but that he had failed at one thing and his performance was greatly flawed as a result. His one failure? A failure to listen, he said.

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