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Learning to Listen

Tom Ruby | April 2009

    One of the most daunting tasks for new music educators is be­ing able to listen to an ensemble perform, then analyze the difficulties with pitch, rhythm, dynamics, and style, and immediately correct them. As a new director, I would rehearse entire phrases of a work but listen only for obvious musical elements, such as a crescendo in bar two of a score or a solid trumpet entrance on beat four. Later I noticed that while I waited for these two things to happen, other sections of the ensemble would be making errors.
    I quickly realized that the skill of listening for specific dynamics and entrances and at the same time listening to the rest of the ensemble was important to what I could accomplish before the next concert. Because of short rehearsal periods, I had to work efficiently by listening to more than one part at a time and make as many corrections as possible during pauses, then move ahead through an entire work.
    In truth, it is natural for directors to focus on a single event in a phrase, such as a crescendo or an important entrance, during the first few re­hearsals of a new piece because problems with these elements may cause the music to fall apart. While these errors are important to fix immediately so they don’t compromise the flow of a piece, it is equally important to correct any of the small errors that you hear at the same time.
    For example, if the trumpets start the melody on beat four and the low brass play a crescendo leading to the trumpet melody, I would immediately fix a weak trumpet entrance and at the same time ex­plain that the low brass  need to help the trumpets by building to the next phrase. The difficulty with concentrating on one event at a time is that it is easy to lose focus on anything else that is going on in the score.
    Overlooking er­rors creates a problem in that the more students rehearse them, the more difficult they become to correct in the future. In the example of the trumpet and low brass, if the low brass continue to miss the crescendo they will learn to play the music without it. As rehearsals progress it will take more time in the future to correct the missing cres­cendo than if you had corrected the mistake early in re­hearsals. I like to compare the problem to a person who breaks a bone but doesn’t seek the help of a doctor. Most likely the bone sets in the wrong position, and the person ends up going through additional pain and aggravation to have it reset correctly.

Widen Your Range
     It is easy to fall into the trap of narrowing the range of your listening, with the most common problem being that directors limit their focus solely to the instrument they play. Those who play low brass, for ex­ample, typically listen for bass trombone or tuba parts because their ears have become attuned to the sounds of these instruments after years of private lessons, practice, and rehearsals.
    The first step to expanding your listening range is to know the nuances of sound for each instrument in the en­semble. To make this process simple, I’ve found it easiest to pick out the melody and harmony of a piece and follow it through out a score. These two parts will change voices as the music moves ahead and give you a chance to listen carefully to instrumentation you may not be accustomed to hearing. As you study a new score, analyze the music by highlighting the melody as it moves across the piece. Then listen to a recording of the music and follow the highlighted parts. 
    Another beneficial way to attune your ears to other instrumental groups is to work just with those instruments. This can be easy if your schedule includes time for lessons built into each day. If the upper voices of the ensemble are troublesome, work on listening to the sounds of those instruments in the lessons. I suggest you become highly familiar with them, even playing the instruments on your own and as part of the group lessons.
    It is also helpful to play small ensemble pieces so you become accustomed to hearing the sounds of a specific group of instruments. Although there is a big jump from working with a single section to the entire ensemble, this will at least help you to listen acutely to these instruments. Because it is difficult to focus on directing an entire rehearsal and developing your listening skills at the same time, I’ve found it better to extract a problem and resolve it without distractions.
    Once you develop your ears to hearing the sections within the ensemble, you  need to be able to refocus your attention quickly, moving from individual players to the entire ensemble. This means that during rehearsals, you should be able to hear a problem in a certain section and then pinpoint the student who is making the error. That may seem difficult, but with practice it can be surprisingly easy.
    The best way to develop this skill is to start with a small ensemble of students during a lesson. As they play through a phrase in a piece, look each student in the eyes and try to focus on just his sound. If your teaching schedule does not include group lessons, set aside a few minutes to work with different sections during re­hearsals.
    I have found that walking around the room and standing directly in front of students will help you to focus only on them. As you become more comfortable, try to move your attention quickly from student to student. This can also work to get the ensemble to play with a good sound: pinpoint a student within a section who is playing with a poor sound and help him to make the necessary corrections. Next, move on to the entire ensemble and focus on sections that are having difficulties.

Start Small
    When you are learning to develop anything new, it is always important to take on no more than you can handle. In the case of improving your listening skills, you should begin by standing physically close to the ensemble at first be­cause you’ll more easily be able to pick out problems in smaller groups. I suggest that you initially do this by observing another ensemble and identify the errors you hear because it removes any responsibilities for classroom management.
    The distance you move around the room will depend on its size. If you are working with a marching band outdoors, then you will have plenty of area in which to move around. As you begin to hear two and three individual parts at once, you should move farther back, creating more space between you and the ensemble. This allows the sound to thoroughly blend together before it reaches your ears. The most difficult task I once had was listening to an entire marching ensemble from the stands, focusing on each part and correcting any errors during a rehearsal.
    In general, rehearsals are easier for directors during the beginning of a season when more of the obvious errors take place. Once students are playing errors beyond the halfway mark of a season, the problems are more difficult because they become more subtle. Knowing how to correct these subtle errors can make a mediocre ensemble sound great.
    The first season I worked with a drum and bugle corps was tremendously difficult because I had to listen more critically to the group’s sound. It was the end of the competitive season and the corps was trying to achieve a perfect show. If there was one playing error in the course of five minutes, that single error could allow another group to place higher. It was important for me and the other instructors to have finely  tuned ears.

Useful Tools
    Many directors use an audio re­corder to develop good ears, continuing to practice aural skills on their own rather than only during rehearsals. Even experienced directors record rehearsals and then review the recordings to catch the errors they did not hear the first time; and as the date of a concert performance grows near, they use recorders to pick up subtle errors from the ensemble that are difficult to pick out during rehearsals.
    One piece of advice I heard was that “recordings do not lie.” You may be convinced something is taking place in a piece or that a specific phrase is perfect, when a recording reveals something unexpected. This happens because directors have the added job of managing the classroom during re­hearsals. As a result they either can’t focus entirely on the music or their position in the room keeps them from hearing a problem in the music.
    It is a good idea to purchase a recorder that gives you the finest audio quality possible. Digital recorders are best, but if you cannot afford one, a tape recorder with an external microphone is a good supplement. Built-in microphones do not pick up sound over a large frequency range, meaning  they do not allow you to hear everything correctly.
  A digital recorder is terrific because once you push record, you can leave it on for the entire rehearsal and not worry about running out of memory or tape. Further, digital recorders have built-in microphones, usually with great quality. They are a worthwhile investment because you can use them to record any ensemble in the music program, to help students record  auditions, or to provide students with a copy of a piece they are working on.
I enjoy using the Zoom H4 digital recorder because I can move audio files to my computer with it, edit the files, and put them on a CD or send them to a friend or student by e-mail. On one drum-corps tour a digital recorder stood up through three months of continuous use.
    Another helpful tool is listening to recordings of other ensembles, whether they are groups of colleague or professional ensembles. I suggest you begin by listening primarily to small ensembles because at first you may not be able to determine parts based solely on instrument. Give yourself a listening test to see if you can guess the number of instruments playing.
    Once you master this, try listening to small mixed ensembles and decide on the number of instruments, which instruments are playing, and what parts they are playing. Finally, listen to large ensembles and try to do the same. Although it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact instrumentation and break down the parts of an ensemble, the exercise will help you to more accurately listen to a full ensemble, and it will give you the experience of listening to multiple parts of the same instrument. For example, many pieces break the trumpets into three parts; your job is to be able to hear the three parts and rehearse them.

Teaching Your Skill To Others
    The final step is teaching the students in your ensemble to open their ears and listen to great artists; it will help them to create a good sounding, in-tune group. In my experience it is always easiest to focus on others who are playing your part. Students playing higher pitched instruments generally need to develop their listening skills more than students on lower instruments, who usually develop a round, in-tune sound by listening to low bass parts. Low brass are grouped together and do not have to listen far to match sound. 
    A great technique that I use is to have the bass instruments sustain a low concert Bb, then bring in the higher-pitched instruments section by section on concert Bb. The idea is to have them focus on the bass pitch – the foundation – matching the openness of the sound and tuning with each other. Once the entire ensemble is playing with a good sound, I cut them off and have them attack the note a again, this time immediately playing with the same quality and sound. It may take several times for the group to play initially with such quality, but the results are well worth it.
    Once the ensemble masters this technique I move on to chord progressions using the series Treasury of Scales by Leonard B. Smith (Alfred). This set of books has written parts for each instrument in the ensemble and chord progressions in every key. We work with chord progressions first because students can focus on their sound and not worry about technical rhythms.
    Developing your students’ ears is ex­tremely beneficial because it helps them to analyze and remedy the problems in their playing. When each person in an ensemble becomes critical of his own sound and knows how to correct poor pitch, then directors have more time to fine tuning the interpretation of a piece rather than spend it pointing out errors with pitch and rhythm.
    I began compiling the ideas for this article shortly after student teaching when I was overwhelmed by the number of responsibilities a new teacher had to handle at any one time. I hope these tools will help new directors develop their listening skills and become better educators. If directors master them, they can maximize their rehearsals and produce great-sounding ensembles.