Music is a discipline based almost entirely on sound. One might think that listening would be considered by all who study it as a priority. From my experiences as a teacher, listening is often neglected by learners; surprising as this sounds --- excuse the pun --- many learners simply do not listen to the sounds they are making; learning pianists often the worst culprits.
As pianists, we spend most of our time on our own; the majority of our musical activities are spent in isolation, governing ourselves. When we play, we can often immerse ourselves in the music, looking inward, forgetting that we are actually making sounds that at some point need to be heard by others. A dangerous habit would be to routinely practise in this manner.
A musician who is actively listening is able to take in new information; with a small amount of effort, they will be able to process the information and output a reaction to it. The problem is that if they are not listening, they will not be able to start this process; furthermore, they will never arrive at a concluded output.
A stock phrase I use with my students is: “It is always hard … at first, but easy once you try”. To some, this might seem flippant, or insincere, but it is at the very heart of my teaching, and the first lesson I teach my newcomers. The difficulty is relative; my understanding is that anything ‘difficult’ is simply something that has not been taken in, processed, then understood.
Remember, there was a point in your life that you struggled to grasp a door handle, or hold a pencil to write, but now these tasks are commonplace and an instinctual reflex (or more correctly, muscle memory). Someone who is not listening never starts this process in regards to music and learning, so everything will be difficult for them.
When lessons begin with a prospective new student, I generally encounter two types of learner: those who listen, and those who don’t. This situation is not limited to beginner students; the affliction can sometimes be found in intermediate players and some more advanced players.
The students that listen excel at an astonishing rate, consuming repertoire, and progressing relatively quickly. Unfortunately, the non-listeners spend an insurmountable period of time on ‘the basics’, and never seem to get anywhere; often, quitting out of frustration.
Surprisingly, this scenario can be applied to all aspects of music-making; that is, not listening completely to what is actually being practised or performed, inhibiting the progress of the person trying to practise or perform it. A few examples:
- While sight-reading a new piece of music, a learner plays a note that sounds discordant and incorrect, however simply ignores the sound.
The result: they never arrive at a certain conclusion whether any given sound is or is not correct.
- While working on the pulse with a metronome, a learner does not acknowledge that they are playing ‘out of time’, because they are not actively listening to the external stimuli.
The result: they never learn to control the tempo of their playing; usually skipping rest measures, causing pain to accompanists and fellow ensemble players.
- While performing a piece of music, a learner does not listen to the timbre of sound they are producing; that is: “Am I actually playing staccato?”, “Am I playing soft or loud?”, or, “Is my melody actually audible?”.
The result: the performer never reaches the advanced levels of interpretation because they cannot hear and control their playing.
All these can seem quite daunting to a beginner; there is a lot to think about while playing music, but it all starts with listening and developing a musical ear. If at any point, a musician is not actively listening to what they are doing, they have failed. More importantly, how can we expect our audience to listen intently to our efforts if we do not respect them enough to listen to ourselves?
Dylan completed his music training with honours at Colchester Institute, where he studied piano with Australian pianist Lesley Young, and composition with British composer Dr Mark Bellis. While studying, in 2009, Dylan won Colchester Institute’s Canon Jack Award for Solo Piano adjudicated by Andrew Ball. A composer, promoter, and advocate of contemporary classical music, Dylan joined the membership of Colchester New Music in 2014.
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