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Listening - A Musician’s Necessary Skill

0 Bill Cahn
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bill_cahn Editor's Abstract

Bill Cahn was a long-time member of the Rochester Philharmonic, and a founding member of NEXUS, a Toronto-based percussion ensemble. Bill has written for Polyphonic in the past, about the use of improvisation in performances and educational programs, and about the impact of social and economic issues on music and the arts. He is the author of ”Creative Music Making,” and teaches a course of the same name at music schools and conservatories. Bill shares with us some of his insights from his most recent course, particularly around the issue of listening and the lack of any formal training for most music majors on HOW to listen.

Bill proposes three levels of listening, describes each in detail, and suggests that the “ideal scenario” is to have all three listening levels at work during an ensemble’s performance.

Ann Drinan
July, 2015

I am continually amazed in my Creative Music Making workshops at music schools and conservatories when I ask participants to raise their hands if they have ever had a class on listening. More often than not there are no hands raised – none – but whenever there are hands raised, it’s usually only one or two in a group of 10 to 15 participants.

The next questions to anyone whose hand is raised is, “what was the course and what did you learn?” The response is almost always “music theory,” and “I learned about chords and scales,” or maybe “form” or “modes.”

What is amazing to me is that usually most of the CMM participants are music majors, seeking careers in the field of music, and yet the subject of how to listen has apparently been overlooked - devalued in the education of music majors almost to the point of zero concern. I wonder if this situation results in part from a music education pedagogy that is focused on learning solo repertoire in the private studio, with a diminishing concern in lessons on issues having to do with ensemble playing.

This problem is addressed wonderfully in a remarkable passage in Steven Schick‘s book, “The Percussionist’s Art.” In reminiscing about his experience in preparing for a performance of Steve Reich’s Drumming, Schick writes: “I had thought of performing chamber music as the attentive stewardship of a small part of a larger whole. Information was to flow from small to large along the scale of detail whereby each individual playing his or her part well predictably created an effective and good-sounding performance. The final result was designed to reflect the sum of its parts. With Drumming, the problem in performance was reversed. I learned that the first goal was to assure the rightness of the community – if everybody sounds good together then that means you are playing your part well.” In other words, it (the music) is not about “me”; it’s about “us.”

To consider this point more deeply, I would propose that there are three levels of attentiveness (listening) while performing.

Level 1 - listening to one’s self

Level 2 - listening to the entire ensemble (including one’s self)

Level 3 - listening to the “music” – the overall effect, often without self-awareness

The ideal scenario is to have all three levels at work in an Ensemble performance.

A system of teaching that focuses primarily on solo performance obviously includes lots of Level 1 attentiveness. There may or may not be attention given to Level 3 listening, in which the performer has a sense of what is being communicated to listeners. To the extent that ensemble playing is not addressed in lessons, Level 2 listening is likely to be seriously overlooked.

I have observed that there is often a distinct characteristic that is noticeable in performers with a soloist mindset: in ensemble performance, the player expects that as long as he/she plays her/his part well, the others in the ensemble will automatically follow along. In a soloist mindset the Level 1 focus may even be so strong that the player is completely unaware of what other players are doing. If the ensemble gets out of sync, it may not even be noticed, and if it is noticed the player may not be willing to adjust to the ensemble. For such players Level 2 attentiveness may be undeveloped or missing entirely.

Level 2 listening and Level 3 listening can best be nurtured when Level 1 listening is not a factor – that is to say when not playing. Unfortunately, acquiring the basic skill of active listening is not properly valued in music education pedagogy. The general focus in music education from elementary school beginners to conservatory graduates is mostly on doing/playing. Listening is treated as if it’s a passive activity, for which no skill is needed.

This is a radically different environment from that in which I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. I distinctly remember having regular 3rd-grade music appreciation sessions – listening to hi-fi LP recordings of classical and popular music, followed by classroom discussions. There were formal music appreciation courses required for all students throughout the middle school years. In college, the dormitory hallways were filled at all hours of the day with the sounds of hi-fi recordings, mostly of classical music or jazz, and more often than not it was a group of classmates listening together and informally talking about the music. Sadly, the term, “music appreciation,” has come to be viewed negatively today in education circles.

In the early days of NEXUS, the Toronto-based percussion quartet, of which I have been a member since its founding in 1971, listening without playing was simply a part of our musical lives. Whenever possible we would record improvisations during our get-togethers, and listen back to them with lots of commentary – seriously humorous and humorously serious. It was not uncommon to hear things during playback that I was completely unaware of when playing. Over time it became increasingly possible to listen in performance with the same Level 2 and Level 3 awareness that occurs when not focused on playing. Today, when a performance seems to me to be really good, I’m aware that all three levels of attentiveness are present.

What must happen to encourage active listening as an integral part of music education? It would be helpful to provide regular opportunities for students at all grade levels to actively listen to all kinds of music without playing – through informal sessions or required courses - and to include followup discussion/analysis/questioning.

In addition the sessions/courses should contain frequent references to the following basic listening techniques:

Listening Technique #1 - Relax - with deep breathing, body tension released and mind cleared. A good exercise to prepare for listening is to stand comfortably with arms at the side. Roll the head gently and then gently roll and drop the shoulders. Take three long, deep breaths slowly and easily. Concentrate on relaxing the muscles of the neck, upper arms, elbows, wrists, hands and fingers. Relax the muscles in the torso, hips, upper legs, calves and feet. Then notice how it feels to be in this relaxed state.

Listening Technique #2 - Do not rush to judgment about what is heard - what kind of music it is or whether or not you like it. Making rushed judgments about what is heard (i.e., good/bad, awful/great, etc.) is not helpful in good listening. In fact, rushing to judgment can get in the way of listening - inhibiting the ability to hear clearly and to notice details.

Listening Technique #3 - Try to notice as much as possible about the sounds that are heard. Listen objectively by noticing various elements of the music, – instrumentation, melody, rhythm, pitch, volume, harmony, timbre, form, style, etc.   Listen subjectively by noticing qualities in the music such as the mood or emotions that can be perceived by listeners. In general, there will likely be agreement among listeners regarding objective elements, and there may be disagreements (without right/wrong implications) regarding the subjective qualities.

© William L. Cahn 2015

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