Listening to music is difficult. Most of us run our Pandora Radio stations on various electronic devices at home or work by selecting a few stations that we like, or ones that represent our present moods, and go about our business. This is not “listening” to music. This is creating a soundtrack for our daily lives. Sure, many of the songs may have significance to how we are thinking or feeling at the time but essentially we use them as background noise much like the humming of a fan or the blaring of a television set. When we actively listen to music, however (meaning shutting out the rest of the world – INCLUDING FACEBOOK – and concentrating solely on the sounds emanating from our speakers), we may find life lessons buried within the layers of melody, harmony and everything in between.
It is difficult to motivate ourselves to actively listen when we do not know what we are trying to hear. I have sat in many an orchestra rehearsal where a well-meaning conductor, after struggling to clarify complicated rhythmic gestures, has asked the violin section, “have you listened to a recording of this music?” Deafening silence typically falls upon the group as various heads shake back and forth in a resounding “no.” Unfortunately they are not alone. Many of us do not listen before we jump into learning a new piece of music or spend hours polishing excerpts that we think we already “know.” But how do we encourage ourselves to listen and is there a way that we can provide a “listening road map” of sorts to help our students, and ourselves, focus on the various lessons that can be learned through active listening?
I have put together the following “listening assignment” for my flute students and have discovered that it has been highly effective in opening the dialog regarding what they hear, how it relates to what they are learning, what they would like to learn in the future, what styles they prefer and why and, most importantly, how they build an interpretation based what they hear. This is active listening. A CD of 5-6 tracks featuring flute and orchestra (or piano) is circulated to my beginning students while concerti and sonatas featuring other instruments are added for more advanced players (Yes! We can learn things from other instruments!!!). These questions can be tweaked a bit for non-flutists and conductors may even want to substitute questions relating to larger orchestral works for their own students. I am also including some of my favorite answers to these questions here as examples of how inspiring, creative and hilarious students can be when given the opportunity to open their ears and their minds.
LISTENING ASSIGNMENT – Flute CD
Listen each track on the provided CD and answer the following questions:
1. What do you like/dislike about this music? Why? (Examples – “I really liked the way the music sounded during the fast sections because the articulation was very light and the notes moved very fast!” or “I did not like the way the flute sounded in the beginning of the song because it sounded too soft and out of tune.”)
- “I didn’t like the low notes because they sounded too dark and gloomy.”
- “I liked the fast section because it was bright and exciting. I disliked where there were too many trills because it sounded too complicated and dizzy.”
2. What do you notice about this music that we have talked about in our flute lessons?
- “Bendy vibrato.”
- “Clock exercise for long notes.”
- “Long, slurred passages.”
- “16th notes and scales.”
3. Did you notice anything in the music that you would like to try in your flute lessons? Explain.
- “I would like to try the extremely fast part. It sounds very pretty and I think it will be “very” challenging and I like challenges!”
4. What does the music make you think about? Do you think there is a story behind the music? Explain.
- “There is a little girl who is lost. She is scared and she keeps crying. She runs here and there and she finds a huge castle. She explores the castle. Then a monster jumps out and chases her. She runs out of the castle and runs away from the monster. When she looks up she sees she is at her house (it was a dream).” (re: recording of Griffes’ Poem)
- “It sounds like a baby bird talking with Mom bird about many different things. The notes are very high so it sounds like the birds are very happy or angry.” (re: recording of Rodrigo’s Fantasia para un genilhombre, 4th movement)
This template can be used not just with our students but for ourselves whenever we actively listen to flute music, orchestral music, popular music, jazz and virtually any other music that offers an opportunity to relate what we hear with what we know or wish to learn. If we listen closely, we may just hear something we didn’t know we were searching for until it found us.
Do you use a similar listening assignment in your studio? How do you actively listen to music in your own practice? Please share your experiences and examples in the comments below.