The art of listening
Written by Live! Mentor
I’ve wanted to write this article for quite a while now. I am going to be talking about a very important skill that in my observation, is rarely discussed in any sort of specific or instructive way.
It’s a subject of such critical importance to the act of making and experiencing music that it still remains to me a curiosity as to why it’s rarely ever addressed with any regularity in the world of musical education.
It is the skill that defines us in our craft. It separates the men from the boys, (or girls), the wheat from the chaff. It is the proverbial key to the kingdom. What is this all-important skill that is so commonly overlooked but is the cornerstone of everything we do as musicians? It is the act of listening.
I suppose there are a few reasons that this ability is rarely given the attention it deserves and it will help us in our discussion to try and see why.
Firstly, listening is a skill that is commonly taken for granted. It’s as if I tried to convince you of the value of walking. Walking is something that most of us do every day without giving it a thought. So why talk about it? Why try to ‘perfect’ it? Such is the case with listening. We all listen! When people talk, the sound of what they say hits our ears and we form thoughts and responses based on what we hear. Simple enough. And when we get together with a group of musicians, we all know when the song starts because we hear the count off and we’re able to keep the form because we’re listening to our fellow band mates.
But are we really listening? Are we listening at a critical level that will enable us to react, and creatively interact with 3 or 4 individuals with split second timing, each moment cascading effortlessly into the next? Well, unless you’ve spent some time working at it, not likely! Listening is like any other skill. In order to get good at it beyond the level of the casual listener, it must be practiced and given the respect it deserves as one of our most valuable musical tools.
The second misunderstanding about listening is that it is commonly perceived as something akin to a light switch, which is either on or off. That is, it’s something we are either doing, or not doing, with no middle ground. We are either listening to something, or we are not listening to it. This error in understanding is what I believe prevents most people from embarking on the journey to becoming better listeners.
Listening, like so many other things, occurs in a matter of degrees. It is not a switch that we turn on and hear everything and then turn off and hear nothing.
To give an example, take a moment and observe your surroundings where you are right now. Listen to what is happening all around you in this moment. Try not to let your thoughts distract you. Is there an air conditioner making noise? Perhaps a ceiling fan with a gentle hum? Can you hear the sound of your own breath as it flows in and out of your nostrils? If you keep listening, and stay focused in a relaxed way, you will start to hear all this peripheral (and internal) noise coming into your awareness. The constant churning of our thoughts and the filters that help organize our daily experiences into manageable chunks both contribute to this narrowing and constricted experience of sound. But as musicians or as lovers of music we don’t want a constricted and narrow experience of sound. We want an expanded experience that includes all of the sounds our brains normally filter out. In order for us to effectively participate in the musical experience in a deeper way we have to hear more!
Before we get into any talk on how become a better listener, a few things need to be ironed out in order to lay the groundwork for any meaningful discussion. The first is that for most of us, unless we’ve had some really good teachers who reinforced these points consistently, listen in a very muted and limited way. And the bugaboo is we don’t have any clue about it how poorly we listen, or that there are greater possibilities available to us, provided we work at it. In other words, we don’t know that we don’t know. And that ignorance holds us back.
Ok, so you’ll take it on a little faith for the moment that perhaps you are not the best listener and that learning to expand your listening skills is something that might be useful after all. But before you embark on something that’s going take some work to improve, you’ll want to know why is it important to expand our ability to listen.
What will it give you that you currently don’t have? Why become a better listener?
Listening enhances our creativity.
Firstly, music is an auditory experience. It involves our emotions, our intellect, as well as the body. But in order for these things to occur, first we need to accept the sound coming to us, so to speak. It must all come in through our ears. If we have sound going on around us and we are daydreaming about what we ate for lunch, then those sounds reach us in a very muted and limited way. Taking in a song playing on a radio while you’re reading a magazine will be experienced differently than if you’re at full attention using headphones in a darkened room with no distractions. You still might be hearing the same song, but one is experienced more than the other. It is a matter of degrees, as was touched on before. If you accept the premise that the music we listen to is what feeds our unconscious mind or our soul and is ultimately the foundation from which all our creativity stems, or at least a good part of it, then wouldn’t you want to widen the doorway through which all this great information and beauty passes? Why look at a sublime mountainscape through a keyhole when you could see it in full panorama? This analogy applies perfectly as to how we hear. Many people are still listening to music through the proverbial keyhole when there is a whole universe of sounds waiting to be experienced if they would learn to open themselves up to it. And so the first principle is, if music is what feeds our creativity, then it stands to reason that you should experience more of it! And that doesn’t mean listening longer and more often. It means listening wider or taking in more of the details that constitute the whole of what you’re listening to. It’s learning to bypass those limiting organizational filters of the mind through a sustained and relaxed concentration.
Listening supports the ability to have a great sense of ‘time.’
As musicians, one of the most important abilities we must possess. other than listening, is to play with a strong sense of time. Whether you are playing lead or rhythm you always want to project a firm command of the pulse of the music. How important this is and how it’s achieved is a whole discussion in itself. But suffice it to say, in a group setting, it is impossible to lock in with the timekeeper (drummer or percussionist) and the other musicians if you are not listening to them. And I don’t mean listening to them in a passive, casual sort of way. I mean, listening to them directly and with attention. Not as if they are some background noise that you’re playing on top of, but rather as a close friend to whom you’re listening, hanging on their every word. And so, if you value having great ‘time’ (and you should), listening is one of the key abilities that supports this. You would be hard pressed to find a musician who has a really solid sense of ‘time’ who wasn’t also a really attentive listener. They go hand in hand.
Listening softens the ego.
There are many things that can hold us back in a performance situation. Sometimes we are overly concerned with the perceptions of our audience or our fellow musicians, to the point where our performance flow suffers. Sometimes this can manifest into what we can “nerves.” Other times it can hinder out process by causing a constant second-guessing of everything we play. We’ve all experienced these unpleasant situations where playing is an uphill battle. And we can all attest to how difficult it is to talk ourselves out of these moments into a smoother and more relaxed performance. Such a forceful tactic only seems to invite more resistance. But what does help us get out of our ego driven heads is the act of listening. It helps to realign us in the moment. It opens us so we are not so mentally panicked and constricted where we are grabbing at everything and anything, trying to create something positive by brute force.
Listening enables us to become better “ensemble players.”
Music is a communal experience. Unless we are on that stage by ourselves, then we need to listen in an expanded way to our fellow musicians. When you get a group of people together who are all attentively listening to one another, they are saying “I respect the possibilities that you are bringing to this moment, and I am here to support you and to give back to you as well.” In other words, you get people together that are having an actual conversation with pitches and rhythms. Make no mistake. We are speaking a language on stage. Trading ideas, making jokes. We are creating a story together. That is, if we are listening to each other. We all know people that we loath to talk to simply because they seem to converse with you while listening to their own thoughts. They might as well be talking to themselves, because they certainly aren’t listening to anything you’re saying. Music is no different.
For those of us who’ve been around the block a few times, we can all relate to being on the bandstand with a non-listener. They’re easy and quick enough to spot. The first clue is that they are usually always playing too loud. They don’t know to play softer or turn down because they are not listening to themselves in relation to the other musicians. They are like someone talking at the top of their lungs in a library or quiet study hall. They are not listening to their surroundings, so they don’t suspect that they are talking at an inappropriate volume. The second easy clue is, if they play a musical figure or idea, whether it be a rhythm or some notes which you then play right back to them, they won’t realize it because they’re locked into their own little world. The non-listener says, “I am the only one here that matters.” It’s frustrating, and laborious to play with people who make no effort to listen. And the crime is that they are so self absorbed, they’ll go home thinking they had a great gig without ever even realizing they just crapped all over everybody and everything.
Ok so I’ve sold you on the idea of listening. What are the steps to becoming a better listener?
Remember to listen.
This point is going to seem exceedingly obvious, but it is absolutely critical and must not be overlooked. In order to listen, one must first remember to listen. That means when the count off begins, you have to remember that you’ve made a commitment to listen as broadly as you can. You’re not going to listen in the same old way to which you’ve become accustomed. You’re not going to forget and just get through the song and try to “sound good.”
I remember when I was in ensemble class in music school. A quartet had played and then it was asked of me by the teacher, what I thought about the drummer’s playing. I answered, quite honestly, that I had forgotten to listen to the drummer.
Well let me tell you, I became the instant object of some ridicule by the teacher and my fellow students. While this experience was unpleasant, it does illustrate a few important points. First of all, when listening to an ensemble I had to “remember” to listen to all the different elements. Even when I made the conscious effort to listen to the ensemble, I had “forgotten” to listen to the drums.
Expand your hearing of the range of frequencies, from low to high.
The above example leads me to my second point. Our ears naturally gravitate towards a specific range of frequencies. For example, growing up as a guitar player, what I always focused on when listening to music was the guitar. I didn’t know any better. And so naturally, when I listened to a song, what stood out to me most was the guitar and other instruments in that frequency range. It wasn’t until I made some efforts to consciously listen to the bass and drums over and over that my brain started to accept them without so much effort.
So do not despair if you do not naturally listen to the kick drum, or the bass, or whatever. It just takes some work to integrate those other frequencies. If you grew up learning to play the bass you are going to hear that frequency range more easily than someone who grew up playing the ukulele. But while we can accept this phenomena as occurring, we are making efforts to move past it and to include those other frequencies. I only make this point so that you understand that it is perfectly natural not to hear everything. But we don’t have stay there.
So let’s bring all these ideas to a real-life playing situation.
Ok, so we’re on the bandstand. Here we go. The drummer counts off. This is a great place to start. How does the drummer sound? What is his feel? Is he playing up front? On top? Is he laying the snare back at all? How does his/or her interpretation of the subdivision feel against how you are playing? Try to hear the high hat. The kick, the snare. What is the drummers overall energy? Is he busy? Is he really holding down the groove? Rushing? Dragging? If you lay back a little, does he follow you? Does he keep a firm grip on the pulse? Look at him. Is he looking at you? Most drummers who listen will be looking at you at least part of the time. It won’t take long to make some sort of eye contact. There is a look that fellow listeners have in their eyes. You will know it when you see it. Now move on to the bass player. Is he locking in with the drums? Can you hear him clearly? Is he playing on top or is he behind the beat? Does he fill a lot? Does he play with confidence and stability? The bass is a melodic instrument. Copy one of his fills and play it back to them. Does he notice? If he is listening, he most likely will. How about the keyboard player? Is he playing in your register? Does he need to move higher or lower to accommodate you? Or do you need to move to accommodate him? Does he notice you or seem to care? How are his sounds? Cheesy, or authentic? Thin, or rich sounding? Does he play in time? How do all these people sound together? Suddenly you hear the keyboard player play a part that stands out. Maybe a little musical phrase that wasn’t part of the song, but is more of an embellishment. You throw it back to him. Maybe you’ve played it on a different point in the scale so it’s not an exact copy, but the rhythm and the shape of the phrase are similar enough to the original idea. You look over. Did he notice? If he is listening, you can expect some look of recognition. A nod or a smile. It means that you are listening attentively enough to have heard something he did, then you reshaped it, and sent it back him in a matter of only seconds. People like that. It shows that you’re paying attention to them. On the bandstand, just as in real life, people want to be heard. Ok, moving on. The drummer goes into the next section with a little more rise in volume. Do you meet his change in dynamics with some sort of change that shows you know that the music is changing? Maybe change to a different sound? A different register? A little louder? Or maybe you play a little busier? Now what about yourself? Are you too loud? Are you getting buried behind one of the other instruments? Can you turn up without messing up the blend? How is your time? Your feel? Your touch? Your energy? Is it in proper context to all the sound that is flowing around you? Listen to what’s happening inside of you. Inside your body and your mind. Are the sounds you’re taking in all around you exciting? Mellow? Do you get that nasty sort of gritty feeling inside when things are really funky and grooving? This form of inner observing is also a form of listening. We are listening to our own emotions, our own inner cues as to what should come out of our instrument. It is not about over thinking it. Thoughts are not bad. But we don’t become attached to them at the detriment of being in the moment. So much is happening all around you. Sound is coming from all directions. If you’re playing with good musicians, this sound has an intent. This intent helps create an energy that can rise inside you. You look over and you can see from the physicality and the expressions that your stage mates are experiencing the same thing.
This sort of experience can happen regularly if you learn to listen and play with good musicians who place a high value on the act of listening.
We can also practice expanded listening while we are by ourselves. Any time we listen to music we can try to open our ears a bit more. Relax into it, but don’t drift off. Close your eyes and listen to all the different elements. If you start and feel like you’re not hearing much, make an effort to hear what’s happening in the lower register, then come up to the top. Then try to include it all at once. Or try and hear at least one instrument, whatever it is, that you weren’t hearing when you first turned on the music. Then integrate that into the other elements you heard more naturally.
Listening expansively feels less like forced concentration and more like entering “the zone”, so to speak. And as well as you think you might listen, there is always more to hear. This is good news, not bad! It means that we can always take our experience of the impressions we take in when we listen to music deeper and deeper. It’s definitely a dynamic experience. Some days we are better listeners than others. We are not computers and so we can expect the human element to come into play. Some days you will have a broader sense of the sounds around you than others. But if you consistently work at it, you can count on your ears continually improving and expanding. As a musician, if you value this process and this skill it will serve you beyond all others. It is a journey that never ends. We can always listen more!
About the author: Dylan Schiavone is a south Florida based session guitarist, songwriter and educator. His accomplishments include everything from acting as musical director for major label recording artists, to being the band leader in an off-Broadway musical production. He enjoys playing live as well as collaborating in the studio. Having studied many forms of music ranging from classical and jazz to bluegrass and folkloric music, Dylan feels that his wide musical palette gives him many colors to draw from when writing and performing. More than anything, Dylan feels it’s important to keep the excitement and curiosity for learning new things alive, as it will continually guide and feed us in our journey.