Listening is a real skill and one that is so easily overlooked as we can all listen, right? Well, to be honest listening is not just a case of hearing what is going on and it is such an important skill.
When talking about listening in this blog I am referring to a process that I will call active listening. By this I mean hearing exactly what you want and responding or adjusting what you are doing so that you are completely aware of what is going on around you.
This is important when playing in an orchestra, brass band, quintet, wind band or in fact any other group. It will sometimes be necessary to hear the melody that you provide a counter melody for, or to tune into a member of the group who may be sitting several feet away from you. Listening out for the structure of chords and how what you are playing fits into the ensemble is a real art.
So how can you achieve this? Simply lots of practice at listening will help. Focus on listening to the radio, CDs or music that is downloaded or streamed. Try and pick out individual parts and work out what they are playing. Try to pick out the notes from a solo on any instrument and play it (changing the octave as necessary). Listen for the bass line and think about where the bass moves in steps or jumps up and down. Try to focus on the harmony or counter melodies and exclude, or block out, the parts that you are not trying to hear.
A good listening technique that works for isolating sounds is to have two completely different sound sources playing simultaneously and trying to listen in to just one of them, almost blocking out the sound of the other. You could use a portable radio and a mobile phone, or a mobile phone and a television. It is best not to try this technique with your partner and the television (if of course you are deciding not to focus on your partner) as this may well cause unnecessary consequences! Try and swap between the two sound sources, moving back and forth from one to the other.
Practicing with a score can also be of great use. Get a miniature score of a piece that you would like to listen to and follow just one of the parts. Following the music can sometimes help to hear what is happening, and could be a good way of listening to instruments that you would not normally single out.
Listen to how the part you are following is sometimes playing a melody, a part of the harmony or a bass line. The music will often flow seamlessly from one to the other and think about the way in which you would react and adapt to the music.
These exercises are best started off with simpler music for smaller ensembles such as duets, trios and so on. This can then be moved up to full symphony orchestras or symphonic wind bands. Try listening to how one line interacts with other instruments and follow the music in the score. This will also provide a useful awareness of orchestration and how instruments are often used in different ensembles.
Try singing different parts of the melody. This will help you internalize what you see but also give you first hand experience, in a very immediate way, of what you are listening to. Work out how you sang it differently to the way in which it is played on the recording. Can you justify the differences between the two? Focus on interpretation, style and not just the notes!
Listening and reacting is an important part of playing in any group and will allow for much better ensemble playing. It isn’t an easy thing to do but this will certainly enhance your ensemble playing and give a greater overall satisfaction in performance.