Listen, Listen, Listen Again

We fall into a rut when we don’t do enough listening as a regular part of practicing .

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Note: This practice tip is for intermediate players to return to the discipline of listening. For beginners trying to establish the habit of listening for the first time, see Practice Tip #2 - Listening Counts.

The best players do it

I once heard that Yo Yo Ma listens to a piece about a hundred times before he picks up his bow and plays it for the first time. If the finest musicians in the world are listening to train themselves how to play, then shouldn’t we all?

In this article what I mean by "listening" is what Yo Yo Ma does: hearing someone else's performance, live or recorded, many times as a part of practicing.

What happens when we don’t do it

Here are three common results of practicing without doing enough listening:

  1. Note-by-rote
  2. Low motivation
  3. Narrow artistic interpretation

Let's take each of these in turn.

Note by rote

The first result of not listening is a kind of robotic correctness or what I call "note by rote". A staid form of playing, it just follows the printed music as though there were nothing else to do. Note by rote treats the whole process like a machine, where if you press a button, out comes the music.

Note by rote happens because reading is essentially a left-brain activity. The left brain only knows how to follow procedure in a linear fashion. The left brain also tends to privilege written texts as whole, correct and absolute. 

When we are in the left brain, we can slip into a kind of idolatry of the notes, where the printed page is the thing that rules, rather than the experience of music.

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Low motivation

The second result of not listening is low motivation. The original inspiration we feel at hearing music slips away as we get lost in the technical work. Listening re-inspires our creativity. Listening is not only an effective way to memorize, it reminds of music's expressive, even spiritual quality.

When students connect to this inner quality of music, they respond to it on a deep level. This goes beyond motivation in the usual sense, tapping into a primal source of energy and power. As human beings we are made of "sound" in the sense that energetic vibrations govern every molecule, every cell, every thought, and every action.

Narrow artistic interpretation

There are many different ways of playing, even within the same piece of music. If we aren’t exploring them, we experience a kind of musical poverty from lack of exposure. Repetitions are important, but only doing endless repetition causes us to lose the sense of the big picture.

Listening, whether to live performance or recordings, can expand your sense of what is possible beyond the way you are used to playing. Students will widen their artistic palette and expand their expressive range by exposure to more music.

 This inexpensive wall-mounted CD player has a pull cord, a fun and attractive feature for students

This inexpensive wall-mounted CD player has a pull cord, a fun and attractive feature for students

ACTIONS FOR THE WEEK

  1. Take time out to search for recordings, at the library or online. Find pieces that you are working on and other pieces that you like.
  2. Set up a listening station at home.
  3. Listen to your working piece at least once each day, with the music in front of you.
  • Remember, environment is everything when trying to establish a habit. You can make it easier to do your listening by investing in a bluetooth speaker, a CD player, or a device that mounts on the wall.
  • Parents: Setting up an easy way to play recordings will also help your child with practice independence. They can listen when they get stuck, and play along with a ready-made accompaniment.

Listen one more time

The biggest mistake we can make is to listen once, and then forget about it.As soon as you think you have listened to a piece enough, it is time to listen again. Every time you do, you will hear something new, and it will shape your playing. 

Artistic paralysis ensues when we only hear ourselves, creating a loop that reinforces what we are already doing, instead of continually exploring new and better ways to create musical expression.

Even 20 minutes of listening, done once or twice a week as part of a 45-minute practice session, will re-ignite your playing in ways you don’t expect. The return on artistic investment is worth your while, and will make you a better player.

Happy listening!