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A Day of Listening

John McMurtery | May 2019

    One of the aspects I enjoy most about the lifestyle of a college professor and orchestral flutist is the intense, focused listening both require. Listening intently, and the awareness of what to listen for, are skills musicians use and develop every day. The type of listening changes depending on the musical context. The following example from one of my typical busier days illustrates some of the similarities and differences.

8:05 AM
    In my office preparing for the first practice session, I spend about thirty seconds listening to my breathing, not trying to change it, just letting it be. It is a way to clear the mind of any distractions and connect with the silence within. Remembering that music is born from that silence, I imagine the most radiant, resonant flute sound, filling up first the inner space and then the entire room. Once the flute is assembled, I want the first notes to be an extension of that concept. By going through this process, these first notes of the day are usually much better and more satisfying than thoughtlessly playing any old warmup lick.
    The first practice session is the time to listen intently and critically to one’s playing, to reconnect with the sound, and ask questions. Can the articulation be clearer here? What happens if I lengthen one note in that run? Will it sound cleaner? One of my favorite professors (an accomplished pianist) once told me when I struggled with a certain fast passage, that I should “listen with the fingers.” It helped slow down my listening and hear every note, even at top speed.

10:00 AM
    Rehearsal begins with the Camerata Woodwind Quintet, one of our university’s faculty ensembles. I am fortunate to work with accomplished colleagues for two hours today, as we refine Samuel Barber’s Summer Music for an upcoming performance. The score places many demands on each player, but the real challenge is being aware of what everyone else is doing all the time. This is the real work as well as the joy of playing chamber music. We all follow the beat of our inner conductor while trying to synchronize our dynamics, rhythm, and phrasing with the group. A successful performance requires arriving at a group concept, which we can only do through the painstaking rehearsal of details, often bar by bar.

12:00 PM
    As a student arrives for her lesson, I switch roles from chamber musician to teacher, focusing on her playing. The degree of listening focus is just as intense as if I were the one playing– it is just redirected. I find myself asking the student some of the same questions I had considered in my practice session earlier in the day.
    So much of flute technique, especially tone and articulation, occurs inside a flutist’s body and therefore cannot be seen. It is one thing to see a student’s hand position and suggest improvements, and quite another to hear an unfocused sound and identify the position of the tongue, for example, as a possible culprit. Sometimes it is helpful if the teacher purposefully tries to sound like the student in order to diagnose what the problem might be and then provide a good model for more resonance and ease of playing.
    During the week, I often ask students to listen to recordings of the pieces they are working on. I want them first to get a general impression of the work. What sorts of feelings does the piece conjure up for them? Is the work similar to compositions they have heard before? 
    When listening to something in an unfamiliar style for the first time, it sometimes helps to mentally sing along and try to guess where the musical line will go next. Composers often rely on a delicate interplay between meeting a listener’s expectation and thwarting it. If music conforms to expectations too often, listeners are bored. When the opposite occurs, people are put off by the randomness and crave coherence. Careful listening and attention to your reactions as you hear a piece for the first time can help you assimilate and internalize it more quickly.
    I ask the students to find other recordings and compare and contrast them with the first one they heard. How are the performances different? What can they learn from each? Do they prefer one to the other? If so, why? 

4:00 PM 
    With the afternoon teaching finished, I launch into my second practice session of the day. I again take a few seconds to reconnect with silence, listening to the breath, imagining the most beautiful, singing tone. In this session, I may be learning notes for an upcoming solo recital or reviewing the pieces for tonight’s orchestra rehearsal. Some of this practice entails listening to recordings and studying the scores of the works I will be performing. 
    I want to know what is happening in the music and with whom I am playing at any given time. If there are solo passages, I want to know what is happening in the music immediately before and after the part I play, as well as any accompaniment. 

7:00 PM
    Orchestra rehearsal begins. The kind of listening required here is similar to the woodwind quintet rehearsal earlier in the day, but on a broader scale, and there is added visual element of the conductor. There is always a danger in orchestral playing of following a conductor’s motions too closely instead of listening carefully to the other musicians. This is always a balancing act. This evening we are rehearsing Beethoven’s First Symph-ony, a work that is already well known to almost every musician in the orchestra. As we rehearse details, I find I am listening more to my colleagues than to myself, but we must continue to listen carefully to match intonation, articulation, and balance, never forgetting the role we play at every moment. 

10:00 PM
    On the way home from rehearsal, I often turn the radio on. If I am lucky, I find a classical music program like Performance Today that is already in progress. If the work playing is unfamiliar to me, I try to figure out who the composer might be. If there is a flute solo, I try to guess who is playing based on sound, phrasing, and vibrato. I am wrong more often than not, but it is fun, and I always learn something in the process.

11:00 PM
    After a long drive home, there is silence. This is one of the most important parts of my listening day. The ears need time to reconnect with silence in order to recharge and process all the sounds of the day. After a good night’s rest, they will be ready to function at full capacity again tomorrow.