Listening to music can take many forms. I enjoy having music on in the background while cleaning the house, washing the car, working on my bike, and many other everyday activities. Often I have symphonies pumping into my ear, or solo recordings, but often it’s non-classical music as well. As enjoyable as this kind of listening can be, no matter the content, there is another type of listening that we should be engaging in as musicians: active listening.
Active listening takes place when you are completely engaged with the music you are listening to, giving it your full attention and noticing as many intricacies and details as possible within the music.
As an example, I enjoyed this recording of Mahler 7, with Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra while relaxing in my living room one evening last week. For much of the last movement I listened with my eyes closed, experiencing the subtle artistic nuance with which this orchestra performed this amazing piece of music. I heard the slight differences in accents depending on where in the measure they fell, the dedication to sustaining every last note of a slur, the passing of melody from section to section and player to player. All of which would have been lost on me if I was also trying to answer emails or wash dishes at the same time.
In order to create music at a high level, we have to have the ability to create in our minds our desired sound. This ability comes from our own experiences making music, but can also come from listening to great performers, drawing inspiration and musical ideas from their artistry. Some of the best performers I know spend a lot of time and find a lot of enjoyment actively listening to great music. Rather they are intentionally drawing inspiration and musical ideas from this activity or not, I am sure their own musical performance is enhanced through this activity.
Pick one of your favorite pieces of music, or one movement, or just five minutes, and plan an active listening session this week. Find a time when you won’t be interrupted and use the highest quality listening system you have access to, such as full-size speakers or good quality headphones (ideally not earbuds). Listen for whatever you want: details of articulation, phrasing, accents and emphasis, or slight changes in tone color. Afterwards, reflect on what you heard and think about places in your own music where you can apply this level of artistry. This experiment might just change the way you listen to great music.
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