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Developing Listening Skills

Elizabeth Buck | April 2019

“Music speaks what cannot be expressed, soothes the mind and gives it rest, heals the heart and makes it whole, flows from heaven to the soul.”      – Anonymous 

    “Do you hear what I hear?” Although spring has sprung, and winter holidays are a distant memory, the lyrics from the well-known holiday song, pose such an apt question for every day of the year. Seconds ticking on a clock. Fingers tapping on a keyboard. Voices down a hallway. Airplanes flying overhead. Flutists practicing scales and patterns. How I love the sound of the flute. It is what attracted me to playing and performing – the brilliant sound of the high register soaring into the third octave, the depth and warmth of the low register, and the flexibility and malleability of the middle range. I also love the flute as a solo instrument including the sound of extended techniques from singing while playing to beat-boxing, to whistle tones and more. The sounds of the flute are so endearing to my ears. 
    So often musicians think of sound as an intellectual and physical exercise and try to describe for instance, what bright, dark, mellow, golden, effervescent, or edgy really mean. Flutists practice to create those adjectives – contorting embouchures, changing air speed, shifting angles, shaping vowel sounds, and more – only to be left with a dizzying array of possibilities and directions. How do I wish to sound? What sound is appropriate for a given passage? What tone color is most effective? How do I choose? 

Truly Listen to Music 
    There are so many questions, but there is possibly one answer that fits them all – listen. Are you listening? Truly listening? In other words, are you listening to music without distractions? Or are you hearing music while doing homework or driving to school or work? Listening to music is often a passive activity that sets a background mood for the many things you are busy doing. 
    Simple hearing involves the senses picking up sound and tones while listening is an active state of perceiving sound, paying attention to it, and then making sense of the sound. This is why ear training is crucial for musicians. When musicians remember and encode the frequency of pitches, which come across as sound, timbre, color, and dynamics, to determine the interval, duration, length and combinations of those memorized pitches and sounds, they are able to reproduce what they hear. Otherwise music remains a foreign language. 

How to Become a Better Listener 
    Practice listening. As you set aside time for practicing the flute, plan on time for listening practice as well. Put away distractions, turn off electronics, find a quiet room, and sit down. As you sit in this quiet room, listen to your mind, pay attention to your breathing and focus on your heart. This is a bit like meditation, focusing inward to calm the body and soul and slow down the rate of breathing.  
    If you have trouble letting go of thoughts and worries, take a deep breath, release the exhalation and write those thoughts down. They will still be there when you are finished with your listening practice.
    Often, people hear with their thoughts and emotions rather than their ears. If your mind is judgmental, critical or quick to think, it is possible that whatever you listen to will be judged, criticized and subject to assumptions. If your mind is open and calm, you are more likely to listen with wonder and curiosity. 

What Medium to Use
    To choose a recording, you might get a recommendation from a teacher, friend or colleague. There are literally thousands of available recordings on LPs and CDs or you can download tracks on iTunes, Spotify, or other apps, or subscribe to Naxos Music Library, Sirius XM, or Idagio. You can listen on YouTube, but you might find that you are watching instead of listening. 
    There are many playback options including earbuds, earphones, Alexa, built-in computer speakers, or separate stereophonic speakers. Generally, the larger the playback listening device, the more sound you will perceive. Speakers that have sub-woofers will transmit more of the overall sound spectrum than cordless ear buds. Computer or laptop speakers will transmit less overall sound than stand-alone speakers. In general, sound spectrums are compressed to make digital sound, and digital playback further impacts the sound waves in direct relationship to the size of the speaker. Try to find the highest quality method to play back the music that you can.

Getting Started
    Close your eyes, play the recording and listen. Focus on the following types of questions or come up with some of your own:
    •    Are you listening for the depth of sound? 
    •    Is it clean? 
    •    Is it warm? 
    •    Is the music moving you, or within you? 
    •    Does the sound envelop you? 
    •    Are you noticing technical proficiency? 
    •    Are you hearing breathing? 
    •    Are you distracted by the articulation? 
    •    Are you sensing ambient noises like key clicks or hums? 

    As you practice listening, notice what you are focusing on. It might be musical ideas, whether you are hearing the correct notes, mood, expression or feeling. See whether you can identify as many aspects of the performance as possible – the sound, musicality, precision, technique, dynamic range, articulation, breathing, and tempo. Above all, keep thinking about how the music sounds. 
    Listening intently will hopefully create questions of curiosity and wonder. Think about how the performer did something. If you get distracted or lost, make a mental note. Try to figure out whether it was your listening skills or something in the performance that led you away.  
    Try working both with and without a musical score. Notice whether you can hear the bass notes, Think about the texture. It might be full and luscious or come across as sparse or thin? 

Repeat the Process
    Listen to recordings more than once. It has been said that people retain only 10% of what they hear, so listen ten times or more. Find different recordings of the same piece and compare them. Music is more than the correct notes on the page with good technique. It should inspire listeners and performers and make them feel something. 
    This type of listening practice is especially important for aspiring orchestral players. Understanding the sound of an orchestra and the perception of the flute sound within it is an essential part of securing an orchestral position. Not only is the sound of a particular orchestra as a whole important, but the principal flutist and section within that orchestra will have a distinct flavor. 
    Because conductors and tempos fluctuate widely, it is essential to compare and contrast recordings. If you are not playing in a professional orchestra, try performing with a favorite recording. With Anytune and other apps, you can even slow down the recordings to a desired tempo without sacrificing pitch and key. 

Evaluation and Reflection
    It cannot be overstated that listening is a practice similar to practicing an instrument. There are no correct answers to “do you hear what I hear?” Musicians can exchange ideas about what to listen for and how to listen, but it is ultimately an individual experience. Reflect on your listening to establish what sounded good to you and how it made you feel. Try to verbalize or write down aspects of the listening experience as that will help you become more aware and conscientious. Were you distracted and why? Did you fall asleep with your eyes closed because your mind turned off when your eyelids closed? Did the recording give you chills, goosebumps, or inspiration? What did you learn from listening to multiple recordings of the same work? 
    Listening will help you grow as a musician and artist because hearing the possibilities of sound allows you to imitate it more readily than any instruction or method. The human ear encodes sound waves directly onto the brain. By instinct, and almost instantaneously, people know what sounds they like and dislike. The question for musicians is whether they have spent time listening for those sounds that they like and then figuring out how to recreate them. This effort will also allow you to record yourself and truly listen to and evaluate what you hear. Hopefully, with more focus on listening to music (and not just to flute music), you will be able to produce on an artistic level that which you wish to express.