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Listening is hard

To be effective, listening has to be done with a purpose; without purpose it's just a self-indulgence without any purpose other than making you feel a bit better. We are bombarded with “sound” all day long. Traffic, radio, people noise, machinery, etc. And our wonderful brains manage to filter out most of it and we end up hearing very little. And, that is most likely a kindness to our well being. Being aware of every sound, big or small, would most probably drive most of us insane.

In this short essay I want to discuss three different concepts of listening (and not listening) you, as a musician, should master.

If you've been to any band practices at all you'll hear me, the conductor, saying two contradictory things:

  • Don't listen to the others, play your chart,

  • Listen to others and blend.

And if you've ever played in a small group, be it rock and roll or baroque, you'll have heard someone say “but so-and-so played it this way”. So, lets explore each point.

Play Your Chart

There is no easier way to get totally lost when playing a piece of music than to listen to the other fellow in the band ... especially if you are playing something other than the melody. And since, in a band, the melody usually moves between instruments it's very easy to get lost!

You might be tasked in a section of music to play a counter melody or off beats. Or harmony. Or any one of a multitude of other musical ideas which complement the melody. These ideas don't necessarily start or end at the same place as the melody; and they may have a totally different rhythm. Listening to the melody will ensure that you will start to make mistakes and, ultimately, get lost. And, if you are playing melody, listening to the other “stuff” going on will ... well, you know!

Another great example is when two sections have notes on and off the beat. A march or polka with a “Oom-pah” beat. One section plays the “oom” and another the “pah”. Nine times out of ten the nice people playing the “pah”s end up playing them at the same time as the “oom”s. It's hard. Very hard. The best advice I can give is to stop listening to the “oom”s, watch the conductor (I know, it's a concept) and read your chart. Funnily enough, it's a lot easier with a “Oom-pah-pah” waltz. I have no idea why. And the folks with the “oom” parts seldom get lost, probably because they are playing on the down beat.

So, don't listen to the other folks. Play your part. Watch the conductor (they really like it when you do).

Listen To The Band

Now the multitasking come into play. We've stopped listening to the others, but now we need to listen to what they are doing. How loud is your stand mate? Is your part harmony? Is it rhythm? Is it melody? Can you tell the difference between them?

Some general rules are probably:

  • Melody should always stand out. If you have the melody, play a bit louder. If you're pretty much alone in having the melody, play quite a bit louder.

  • Harmony supports the melody. Just like a brace supporting a tree, this support should be underneath the melody. Play more quietly (less loudly?). If the melody starts to get quieter, play more quieter still.

  • Rhythm includes percussion and all those “Oom-pah-pah”s we talked about earlier. Again, this is a support. Rhythm on the first beat tends to be louder than others. Short, percussive rhythm can be louder than longer notes. Again, watch your chart and the conductor. And listen! Are you overpowering the piece with your perfectly correct rhythm? Oops, that's not your job.

  • Who's in tune? As a band or orchestra changes its overall volume or jumps between high and low pitched sections, the tone and intonation of individual instruments tends to change. As instruments warm up (or cool down) their overall pitch will change. If you're in a group with good players, the amount of change will be small ... but it will still be there. Great players make minute changes while they are playing to keep it all sounding wonderful. Listen to the others. It's great if you are perfectly in tune, but if everyone else is a little flat or sharp you will stand out. And not in a nice way. So, listen and adjust.

So, when you are told to listen to the band you need to listen to the overall effect and determine what your role is.

Listening To Others

Now we get out of the band room and into the real world where you have your radio or favorite digital music device. What are you listening to? Is it always (or mostly always) your favorite style of music? If the answer is “yes” then you are doing it all wrong. Well, if you want to become a better musician, it's wrong.

The best thing to do for your ears is to listen, really listen, to all kinds of different musical styles. You don't need to love them. Or even like them. Just listen and try to figure what you like and don't like about them.

I really hate rap music. And, yes, I have listened to some of it. And, no I don't hate it because my kids like it (well, that's not the overriding reason). Because I have listened I can state that I don't like the heavy bass, the repetitive rhythm, the lack of melody and the despondent, obscene, angry and misogynistic lyrics. That doesn't say that I don't think it is easy to create a good (oh my, yet another contradiction) rap song. Not at all. But, just because it is difficult doesn't mean it is worth doing. Mind you, I understand that a lot of this mindless, repetitive, loud, bass driven so-called music is great for dancing the night away. Alas, dancing is a skill I don't have!

On the other hand I really like classical Latin music. Dance music like sambas, rumbas, etc. For one thing they have a happy feel. Lyrics usually don't mean too much to me since I don't speak Spanish or Portuguese, but I don't care. The rhythms are forefront and complicated enough to keep my interest. Instrumentation is varied to create aural interest.

Rock and roll? Sure. Classical? Of course. World music from other cultures? It's a must to listen to. I like jazz. I listen to it. Play it. Don't understand it much more now than I did when I started. And most certainly don't like all of it! But I keep listening and try to include parts of what I like into my playing, composing and arranging. Hopefully, it'll keep me young (and if it doesn't, I can always get a haircut to make me look younger!).

Listen to as many different styles of music you can find. Listen, not to enjoy, but to learn. Listen to the way the percusion is played. Listen to bass lines, counter melodies, lyrics, and everything else happening in the music. Make mental notes on what you like and what you don't. Think about why you do and don't.

After listening to all these other folks you'll have a pretty good idea of how “they played” something. But you will have an even better idea of how you want to play it. I'm not a big fan of cover bands (ones which play other people's music and try their best to make sound like the original). If I want to listen to someone play a particular version of a song I'll buy the recording. Play a song for me the way you want to play it. Be original. Be different. Put lots of “you” into the equation ... you'll probably not be a star or get a recording contract, but you'll feel great about yourself when you go to sleep at night. And I think that's the most important gift you can give yourself and others.

So listen. Listen more. Think and listen. Listen and think. And enjoy the journey!

And let me know if this article helps.

The entire contents of this article are (C) Copyright Bob van der Poel. All rights reserved.

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