All ears

Listening is fundamental to everything we do as musicians, but it isn’t always easy to do or to teach. Alex Laing explains how asking students simple questions can help

‘A true state of listening cannot be acquired by force. The order to listen – Listen! – guarantees a closing off, a turning away, a non-listening…. By its very nature, listening is a continual and gentle process of opening…’ Hildegard Westerkamp, composer
International Symposium on Electronic Art, Canada, 2015
Listening is, of course, our first introduction to music as small children and it must remain central to its creation and appreciation. Without listening, how can we play in an ensemble, how can we improve our tuning, how can we enjoy a concert performance? Sadly, conscious and conscientious listening is not something that most young musicians prioritise, especially in this world of ever increasing pressure on students to produce ‘right answers’ in order to gain good marks. Young musicians are becoming so conditioned by the pressure of what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ that they do not have (or do not feel they have) the time to experience what they are learning.
It is very important that music teachers do not add to this problem. From our more experienced position as teachers, we ourselves know the extent to which focused listening can improve all aspects of practice and performance. It is all too easy when faced with a tired, stressed, bored or inattentive student, or even one who appears to be trying but has just made the same mistake yet again, to feel like shouting at them to ‘listen, or else!’. Such an admonition merely serves to produce or reinforce a sense of stress and failure. Musicians of all ages and stages need to experience listening for themselves to notice its benefit to their own playing. It is wonderful if this can be introduced early in a young musician’s life, and the most effective method is through ensemble playing, if you are lucky enough to have the resources to do this. If not, a lot of what follows here is also applicable to the teaching of individuals.
In my work with the National Children’s Orchestras of Great Britain, at the Royal College of Music and Uppingham School, I am fortunate to direct and coach ensembles on a regular basis. Young musicians taking part in orchestras and chamber music benefit hugely in developing aural and ensemble skills that will feed their imaginations and can be transferred to inform their own private practice. As a teacher, I ask a lot of questions of my individual students. This helps to engage them with what they are doing, and gives them more ownership of the music they make. Most importantly it helps the students to teach themselves, which is one definition of private practice.
I ask just as many questions when I am coaching or conducting an ensemble. It usually does not matter what the question is: the effect will be that everyone thinks more, listens more and the ensemble improves as a direct result. The best questions, however, are the ones that engage the most musicians in the most positive way. There are many. My favourites include:
  • ‘Who has the melody?’ – especially when the answer is not the first violins.
  • ‘What music are you playing here?’ – especially when the answer might be considered to be ‘nothing much’ or ‘just quavers’ or ‘something boring’. Then I counter (with humour): ‘No! You are the heartbeat, or the machine – the most important thing happening.’
  • ‘Who are the most important people in the room?’ – the answer is always the double basses!
  • ‘Who here is clever?’ Bows and hands tend to shoot up, which gives me lots of choices as to who should answer the real question, which could be something quite subtle about what the music is doing or saying or what we should all be listening to.
  • ‘What type of music is this?’ The answer is almost always a dance or a song. If it is a dance, it lends itself perfectly to a demonstration from me which invariably causes pitying laughter, and helps the players to listen for the moving pulse. If it is a song, the musicians can be encouraged to play longer phrases and breathe more like a singer would have to.
  • ‘What is the character we are trying to depict here?’ This can lead anywhere and fire up imagination. A landscape, a Flamenco dancer, a regal prince, a comic servant: whatever the picture, the result is that everyone is listening in a more cohesive unit.
Questions like this help significantly to build camaraderie and to keep the students alert and focused. Not only do the musicians start to listen more – to the double basses, for example – but the basses themselves, who can often feel far away from the action, bored and neglected, take much more pride in their own playing and everything improves. When this happens it is important to acknowledge, praise, and thank everyone for the improvement. Positive reinforcement is a powerful ally.
Conducting has developed my own listening enormously. I now prepare music much more completely that I ever used to. I need to know the whole score in order to teach it. I need to spot the function of every individual part. It can be a very big task, but it is fun to do: you detect something new in scores every time you look, and these can always be shared with the musicians you work with. Conducting has reinforced in me the realisation that one cannot perform truly effectively without some understanding of the whole piece of music.
This realisation has in turn influenced my teaching of individual violin lessons. In every lesson with my students, and at whatever level they are working, I make music with them for as much time as possible. This varies according to the stage and ability of the student. With an advanced student, while they play (for instance) the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, I may score read the orchestral parts and pick out important or striking elements as we go along on my own violin (my piano playing is atrocious!). This has a benefit to me too as a conductor. For advanced or intermediate students, we might instead sightread ‘proper’ music (such as Telemann canons, or Pleyel or Mazas duets) together. For the less advanced musicians we might play very simple jazzy duets. With these there is often an easy violin part, which the student can start with while listening to the other.
Again, I am armed with questions, like ‘Which instrument plays what I have just played?’ or, ‘How many times did I play that rhythm?’ The benefits are clear. The students are developing aural awareness and ensemble skills and are not thinking so obsessively about their own playing, which, as an added bonus, can aid physical freedom of movement and reduce tension. I always reinforce these moments with questions like: ‘What was the result there?’, ‘What did you feel?’, ‘What effect did it have on your sound?’ and, crucially, ‘Which bit of the music was most important? Your part?’
I have indicated already that my piano playing skills cannot stretch to accompanying my own students. I am in the very fortunate position to have a wonderful friend and colleague, at Uppingham School, Simon Smith, who can be available to play for, rehearse and perform with my violin students. Working with Simon has been crucial for the musical improvement of my students. The benefits do not stop at simply working on a piece with a pianist, and the increased ensemble skills that by definition go with this. Lessons with accompaniment are also great fun for all three participants. I act as an extra pair of ears in the room with an audience’s overview, and interpretation can be explored with the benefit of three people’s responses. It is very important that the student’s ideas are considered seriously before offering suggestions. Teachers and ‘experts’ have to listen too. I always ask the student to think about why they would like a certain passage played in a certain way. Working like this vastly increases the collegial element of music making, and almost always leads to a more positive and less nervy performance in concert or exam.
I remember my own wonderful violin teacher, Warren Jacobs, getting me to listen to what I wanted to sound like in advance of playing. He would ask me to hear a phrase inside before playing it, always from memory. He used to say, ‘If you cannot hear it, you cannot play it’. This has stuck with me and I use it a lot myself with my students. I get them to focus on listening in their head to how they would ideally want the sound to be (I usually use Kreisler’s sound myself!).
It is important also to listen in two other ways. As well as hearing their own ideal sound, I ask my students to listen to the actual sound that comes out of the violin, and to the sound that an audience hears at the back of the room or hall. The results of this approach can often be startling. Even just thinking along these lines can produce more quality and (almost always without a student knowing how they are doing it) it produces much clearer projection.
Sometimes it is necessary to give students more tangible proof of improvements and I do this using performance classes where they all play to and listen to each other. These sessions must be handled with care and positivity, as performing to your peers can, on the surface, be daunting and nerve wracking. I have written an article on the method and benefits of these classes to my students and to me as their teacher (see Arco, vol.39 no.4, 2014, pp.16–17). As the article makes clear, listening – both positively and critically – to themselves and each other – builds confidence, collegiality and an atmosphere of mutual support and responsibility. Interestingly, it sometimes reveals that the less able practitioner may be the better and more astute listener, which also helps to create an atmosphere of mutual respect. Sharing musical ideas and having to articulate them clearly to others always deepens understanding.
In the context of music, listening may be a ‘process of opening’ as an inner, personal experience. But it does not only open one’s heart to the internal appreciation of music, it opens doors in the mind towards creativity and joint enterprise, for confidence building and empathy. It certainly should not be forced, but learning to listen is ultimately a very practical skill. For a musician, intense listening will open up a reliable pathway to rewarding music-making and performance.
This article was first published in the Summer 2016 issue of Arco. ESTA members receive four copies of Arco a year as well as a number of other benefits. For more information see here

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