Tuesday, November 27, 2007

We are not critical listeners.

During Symphonic Band rehearsal today, whilst watching student conductors (attempt to) strut their stuff at the podium, this thought struck me: "we are not critical listeners." Upon further contemplation, I realized that this would be a great topic to explore on this delightful yet oft forgotten blog. Until now, I have only written concert reviews, but as I am in a music school and encounter music from all different angles daily, there's no reason for me to continue to limit myself.

When I say that "we are not critical listeners," I am referring to everyone I encounter on a daily basis: musicians and non-musicians alike. This is something that we all need to take into account if we are truly serious about music.

So, first of all, what do I mean by "critical listening?" To me, critical listening is essential, yet, like this blog, often overlooked. The thought came to me for two reasons. The first reason was that during a close listen to The World/Inferno Friendship Society's "True Story of the Bridgewater Astral League" album, I picked up on things I'd never heard before. Voices, sound effects, instruments, that may as well have not existed before. Of course those sounds have always been there, I just haven't been perceptive enough to accept them into my preconceived aural notion of the music. This tells me, personally, that I haven't been listening critically enough.

The other thing that perpetuated my thoughts on critical listening was that the student conductors of my band could easily conduct, keep a beat, and attempt to get what they wanted from the ensemble, but they couldn't act in real time and adapt their actions to the response they were getting from the musicians. From personal experience, I'd say that this is close to impossible for me to do. I understand that this real-time correction requires great experience, familiarity with the music, and flexibility. But, let me pose this question: When a conductor gets on the podium, is he or she truly listening to and being affected by the sound the musicians produce, or is he or she just accepting what they hear and assuming that it matches the sound in their head?

One final example of when the inferiority of our listening skills is highly evident is when my Aural Skills class takes dictation from the piano. We are handed the information on a silver platter--key signature, time signature, starting pitch and number of measures--yet somehow we all get tongue-tied every time, simply can't follow the pitches and patterns of the piano. If we had been listening critically for our entire lives, this activity would be a cinch.

For musicians as well as music lovers, this lack of critical, and creative listening, can be crippling when it comes to understanding and appreciation. So, how then, can we hone in on our listening skills and fix them?

The easiest and most practical solution is, as teachers and parents, to begin incorporating critical listening from an early age. This is an essential part of the Suzuki method, in which students are constantly exposed to music and then asked simple questions, such as those regarding instruments and dynamics. To get children's minds to think like this from such a young age will incorporate it into their thought process much sooner. I didn't even think about the instrumentation on pop and rock records until I was in high school. Imagine listening to music for 14 years without consciously realizing that yes, there is a bass guitar, yes, there is a drum set keeping that beat steady. At a higher level even, we do close listening to period-exemplifying pieces, paying close attention to sound, harmony, melody, rhythm, and growth.

Of course, for most everyone reading this, it is impossible to go back in time and readjust how you were introduced to music. So, I present to you some simple listening exercises that can help you become a more active and critical listener. The first thing that you can do is take a piece of music that you are sure you know inside and out, and listen to it closely, challenging yourself to find something new about it. With each new thing you discover, you'll find that you have deeper understanding of the music. Another way to understand the music more deeply is to pause it mid-song and see if you can continue to sing the prominent line. If it's a piece you know well, you can continue to sing it as you know it, but if it's something that you aren't familiar with, just try to see if you can imagine where the thread of the melody is going. This will give you a better understanding of functional harmony, melody line, and the tonic.

To be quite honest, I just thought up those two exercises on the spot, as I have to be at my next class in just a few minutes, but they are things I am anxious to try myself. I hope this was at least a little bit insightful...happy listening!