Learning to listen

When most people think about music practice they have an image of a musician with their instrument pulling their hair out at tricky passages.

There are a few things wrong with this image. Firstly practice does not always require an instrument. Secondly this image assumes that much pre-practice preparation has already been completed. This preparation will include your practice plan, what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it.

There’s also another thing missing. Basic skills.

The assumption is that those learning instruments have basic music knowledge, understand some theory and know how to listen. Unfortunately knowing how to listen is not something that is taught very often.

Hence a recent submission to the clinic:

I really like to practice and try to do some everyday. I have discussed plans with my teacher and am using some of the methods from your site to help with my practice. My problem is that I can’t hear what is wrong. I think I am playing it right but when I get to my lesson my teacher says I’m doing it wrong. How can I hear what I’m doing wrong?

Our reply:

I’m glad to hear that you like practice. That’s a VERY good place to be starting from!!

You shouldn’t worry that your teacher can hear things that you can’t – it’s their job. Remember that your teacher has years more experience of listening than you do. This experience enables them to hear things more easily than you.

I like to think of lessons as “renting your teachers ears for 30 minutes”. If you could hear all that they could and knew how to fix the mistakes there would be no need for you to take lessons!

As far as your own listening is concerned you need to think of it like other areas of practice and do it regularly. How much time have you actually spent focusing purely on listening?

Instead of ‘general’ listening when you practice I suggest that you listen to bits of the music individually. If you try to listen to everything in the music at once it is quite likely that you will miss something.

Pick something like dynamics. When you practice spend a few minutes listening only to dynamics. Listen to how loud or soft the dynamics are. How are those crescendos working? Do they grow gradually or are they a bit uneven? Do you play every piano in your pieces the same? Should they all be the same?

Try to focus your listening on a few different areas and ask yourself lots of questions when you listen. With practice things will start to jump out of the music more quickly as being ‘odd’ or ‘wrong’.

I have trouble when I play in groups as I don’t know if I’m in tune or not.

There are a few parts to playing in tune in a group.

Firstly there is the main tuning of your instrument. Many learners struggle with this and can’t hear what is ‘in tune’. My suggestion is to put your tuning slide/finger/peg into a position that is very out of tune. Then gradually move little by little until you think you might be in tune. Carry on moving and you will come out the other side and be out of tune again. Go back a bit until it seems right.

This takes some practice but is better than starting from a position that is ‘nearly in tune’.

Whilst I recommend electronic tuners for some situations I wouldn’t here. You need to develop your ears so that you can hear yourself if you are in tune or not. If you rely on a tuner you will be stuck if it fails or the batteries run out!

Another aspect of tuning that is often overlooked is intonation. Just because you have tuned the main string/slide/joint of your instrument does not mean that all the other notes will also be in tune. Keep listening to every note to make sure it is also in tune.

Lastly on tuning within groups I suggest you think about balance – how loud you are in comparison with other members of your group? If you are not at the same level this can often make it feel as though you are out of tune, so keep an ear on that.

Listening is quite tricky. You need to keep practising it like everything else. Make sure to give it some attention and I’m sure you’ll be fine.

Enjoy your practice!

Would you like to be the subject of a future practice clinic? Contact us with any practice problems and we’d be happy to help.

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