Have you ever thought about the difference between hearing and listening? The two words are really quite different. One is passive, and the other is active. When you step into a store or elevator, there is often music in the background. That is, you are aware of it at first, but soon you no longer pay attention to it. That, to me, is hearing, and therefore passive. You know it is there, but it is not important enough to focus your attention on it.
Listening, on the other hand, is an active response to auditory stimuli. For example, people listen carefully when speaking with someone from another country because if they do not, they might not understand correctly. We listen to phone messages, hopefully to professors in lecture classes, and yes, even to music, although it is entirely possible to hear music without actually listening intently to it. By the way, it is completely probable that you spend a good part of your practice time hearing rather than listening, but that is fodder for another article.
Most music schools have concert attendance requirements. My remembrance of these requirements is that I would rather have been practicing, and you may feel the same way. However, you might want to rethink that attitude. A huge part of performing is listening to the other players in an ensemble. Where better to learn that skill than at a concert?
Flutists generally listen to music from the top down. They hear the melody first; everything below the melody takes a back seat in the listening process. When I was studying organ at Northwestern (read lots of J.S. Bach), my organ teacher discovered that I was listening to what I was playing from the right hand down. Baroque music, however, is based upon a fundamental bass line, in my case, what my feet were playing. It had never occurred to me to listen from the bottom up, and it took a good bit of practice to remember to do it from that point on.
I remember attending an Aspen Festival Orchestra concert one summer and being amazed at what I heard. I actually remember the piece being performed – Dvorák’s Cello Concerto played by Zara Nelsova. She was an amazing cellist with an extraordinary tone resulting from her incredible bow arm strength. She was captivating to watch as well as listen to, and I began to follow the cello line first rather than listening from the top of the orchestral sound. That is when I discovered listening from the middle out.
Give it a try. The viola line is a good place to start. Hone in on the middle of the texture and try listening from the inside out in both directions at the same time. You will be surprised at how different the musical experience becomes. You will get lost from time to time, because you are not used to working in the middle of the orchestral sound, but pick the line up again and continue. See how long you can focus on that particular voice.
This ability is essential when you sit in an orchestral flute section. In order to play in tune with the rest of the woodwinds, you have to be able to pick out the voice with which you are paired and tune to it while playing. This is not the tuning done at the beginning of a concert but rather adjustments done while playing – directing the air stream higher or lower to match the pitch within which we are playing.
I played a lot of section flute as an extra with the Chicago Symphony and remember vividly focusing in on the clarinets seated behind me. That voice in the texture was the line my part was paired with most often, usually 2nd clarinet or even sometimes, E-flat clarinet. Tuning to the first flute in those moments didn’t make sense, because I was in thirds or unison with a voice coming from behind me – the clarinets, not the principal flutist.
As a second flutist, my part often played with the first violins; when it was, that was the line I listened to most intently to match their pitch, bowing, and phrasing.
Listening is an important art to which you should apply yourself. Teachers encourage students to practice their flutes diligently, but I don’t think anyone ever suggested to me that I should practice listening. Everything flutists do on the instrument, however, is subject to what is going on around them. Learn to be more than peripherally aware of those sounds. Try to become plugged into them in order to become one with the sounds.
Take advantage of every student recital or ensemble concert you must attend, and use it as an opportunity to practice listening. Find a voice in the middle and follow it throughout the evening. You may soon find that you are hearing music in a new way.