Listening in music is a strange one. It is as elusive a concept in normal everyday communication as it is in music. When do we really listen to someone without our minds half present or thinking of how we are going to reply next? How extraordinary and wonderful it is to bump up against people who get it, who know what listening is. And what is real listening? It is engaged, whole-hearted, not just hearing the words, but hearing what is between the words and being totally present to the person who is talking.
So how does that apply to music? Of course musicians listen, always – they have to, it’s what music is all about. But do we?
I have been amazed recently at how easy it is not to listen, but to go through the motions of playing, being relatively expressive, but somehow not really there. I have seen it in students. It is all too easy to enjoy the physicality of playing the instrument without hearing the sounds that are coming from that instrument. So when people record themselves, it can be quite a shock to hear what comes out. Often it will brutally expose that lack of listening in music.
What can change this is to notice the melodies that need to be brought out and hear them clearly in your head before you play and also during your playing. Learning to pitch the first note of a melody, to hear it, if you are a woodwind player, a pianist or string player makes an enormous difference to what comes across. It is a much more ‘alive’ sound. Singers do this naturally because they have to. And this is what all the other instruments have to learn – to pitch, to sing in their head, to engage with the sound before it is played.
Listening connects to singing and singing is one of the clearest and most direct routes to learning how to listen fully as an instrumentalist. If you sing the parts that you are playing, you are more likely to engage with them. It teaches you listening skills that after a while become your default mode. I always ask my piano students when they learn a fugue, to sing each part one at a time. Then they have to sing one part and play another, followed by singing one part and playing two others. I strongly suggest they do this for at least three weeks before they start learning the notes with their fingers. The aural training that this gives them is phenomenal and it can be heard in their playing.
Pianists have to make this kind of aural training a priority in their practice. They don’t only need this skill if they are playing with other instrumentalists or singers, or if they are playing chamber music, they need it playing solo piano music. They need to listen to every part they play, balancing and singing out the dominant parts. Pianists can be at a disadvantage to other orchestral musicians and singers. If they were to sing in choirs or play in an orchestra more as they are growing up, they would really notice the difference in their ability to listen.
So listening is helped by playing or singing with other musicians and is equally helped by singing in your head and hearing what you need to play. But going back to the kind of listening we would all love in normal human communication: how would this apply to musicians? I will just adapt the words slightly from the beginning of this blog to make it more relevant to a musician:
Listening as a musician needs to be engaged, whole-hearted, not just a case of hearing the music, but hearing what is in-between the music. A musician needs to be totally present to himself, other players, the audience and above all the music.