Saturday, October 3, 2015

Just Listen

Just listen. I t seems like a pretty simple thing to ask of a group of young orchestral musicians.
But when you think about it we're really asking an awful lot of these young folks in a large ensemble setting. We are asking them to read and interpret the written page. We want them to utilize their knowledge of key signatures, tonal center, and intonation to play in tune and to make pitch adjustments at all times. We want them to play musically and think about the direction of musical line. We want them to interpret the gestures of the conductor and follow them every step of the way. We want them to move freely and express the sound and feel of the music in a visual way as well. We want them to interpret the rhythms represented on the written page and play them together in unison.  All of this is done while in an uncomfortable suit under really hot lights in front of an audience.   You get the point. We are asking an awful lot of student orchestral musicians. But, so often I am compelled to say "Just Listen."

 At its core,  listening is absolutely crucial. It seems like a simple thing to say and perhaps it even seems like a simple thing to do. After all, they are making sound. And, why would they do it if it weren't listening?  Of course they are listening. But, do our students really know what to listen for and how to react to the things they are hearing? These might be the larger questions.
In recent weeks I have been compelled to consider what I am asking students to listen for. In other words, I am trying to be very specific regarding cues that they may hear that will help them with rhythmic accuracy, tonal accuracy, and musical interpretation. I believe that good listening needs to become a habit in student musicians. The only way that good habits will develop, is for us, the instructors, to provide students with solid cues that lead to appropriate reactions by the players. When a student musician has success in following these new-found habits, they will be more compelled to incorporate those habits into their everyday playing life.

Let me give you an example. Today, I was involved in a performance of the final movement of Beethoven's 5th Symphony. At the beginning of the final Allegro, which is in 2 beats per measure, there is a dotted half note. The violins were leaving that half note way too early, getting to the next measure easily a 16th value early if not more, and causing a real rhythmic problem. Simply asking the students not to rush that note, was an ineffective request to make. It really didn't yield any better results. However, when the students were asked to listen to the inner rhythm of the viola's 16th notes, they then had something meaningful to listen to that provided much needed information. Now on that passage, when the students are asked to just listen, they know what to listen for and can react appropriately with the knowledge that by listening, the passage will stay together.

I'm convinced that there are so many times in all repertoire that students want to know what to listen for, but are simply unsure. We as directors, must be very specific in providing suggestions for appropriate listening in the context of an orchestral rehearsal. Our students have so many things to think about when playing. Specific instruction will really clarify the process.

Let me give another example. Today, I was conducting Convergence by Carold Nunez. This is a really cool piece of music that I've programmed many times over the years. Most notably, it has a dance-like 7/8 section in the middle that can be really tricky for the second violins and violas. Throughout the course of rehearsals this week and the students really fought to avoid rushing. The two sections have the eighth, quarter, and dotted quarter notes passages that must lineup between sections. At some point during rehearsals I decided to stop conducting to really forced the students to listen, not only to their own section, but also to the sections around them.  Through this exercise, the second violins came to realize that, if they listened to the 1/8 note passage in the violas, the inner rhythm during their dotted quarter notes, they would much more accurately place the next pulse of this complex rhythm. In fact, during the performance today, at that spot in the piece, I stopped conducting so that the students would "just listen."  The technique was effective. The students knew what to listen for. And the passage was very successful.

Simple, right? Just listen. Well, no. Not really. I would encourage you to think about ways that you might encourage your students to listen more effectively. Find passages in your repertoire where the students can receive meaningful information from another section and incorporate it into their effective performance. Find spots in the repertoire where you can stop conducting and place more value on the skill of listening. It is actually very liberating for a conductor. It takes a great deal of the responsibility off of the stick and places it more squarely in the ears of the musician playing the part. Another way that one might consider this is that it's really the chamber ensemble approach to orchestral music. Again, I think the real skill is knowing when to lift one's listening attention more specifically to another section, knowing what to listen for, and knowing how to react to the things that one hears.

 Obviously, sometimes it is way more important that each musician watches the conductor. So, students need to know when the most important information is visual, and when the most important information is aural. They also need to know when they are giving the information to some other section to listen for. That, too, is an important piece of knowledge for every musician to have. When that is the case,  the section with the passage that is providing information to the other section may more effectively point that information out.

Finally, I would point out that, quite often it is the rock and jazz musicians that are the real pros at just listening. They are the ones that don't have as much information written down in front of them. As a result, they are less likely to get so tied to the note reading aspect of music making. They are more likely to just listen (and react) in an ensemble setting. We, as orchestral musicians, could stand to learn a great deal from our friends in the jazz and rock world.

So there are some thoughts on the art of just listening. I hope that this provides some new insights for you or perhaps gets you thinking about listening on a little different level. I challenge you to encourage your students to listen this week. And also challenge you to think about how would you might specifically direct your students to listen. You might also consider putting down your stick in certain passages of a piece and force your ensemble to find the important information in other areas of the ensemble and to find the places where they are providing the important information.

I know that the students in the ensemble I conducted this weekend can all honestly say that they were encouraged to just listen. And, they really gave an effective performance that demonstrated their understanding of the skill of listening. I wish you the same success in coming weeks and months.



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