The Importance of Listening

children listening to a gramophone, Uzbekistan c. 1920s

children listening to a gramophone, Uzbekistan c. 1920s

As teachers, we are consumed with demonstrating and explaining how to play something. As students, we are consumed with playing things correctly. While it’s important to master fundamentals in learning a piece of music, such as the rhythm, note names, tempo, dynamics, texture, and overall musicality, we often fail to teach and learn by listening. I’m not referring to teaching or playing by rote, or a monkey-see-monkey-do approach to learning. I’m talking about learning by surrounding yourself with music.

Looking back on my days as a serious piano student, there was a lot of direct instruction on interpretation. For example, as a doe-eyed pre-teen attempting Mozart sonatas, my teacher would stop my clumsy playing mid-phrase and say something along the lines of, “More forte on the first beat. The last note of measure nine should be leggiero and release with a gentle lift.” What she was trying to say to my childish, un-elegant self was, “Play that line like a Mozart aria.” I wouldn’t have understood the latter at such a young age, so the specific, micro-managing instructions were necessary for me at the time. However, if it weren’t for the fact that both my teacher and my parents flooded my ears with recordings of Mozart piano sonatas, radio broadcasts of Beethoven symphonies, and live concerts and recitals, I don’t think I would have quite gotten the message even later in life. I learned by listening.

Hearing music allows you to learn sort of by osmosis. I’m not saying that it replaces diligent, careful practice and weekly lessons, but it gives one that boost of understanding as one matures into a finer musician. Young students aren’t expected to be cognizant of style and interpretation, but with steady exposure to music (of all types), one can gain a deeper, more insightful appreciation and awareness of why we play music.

I’m encouraging all parents, students, and teachers alike to go to more concerts and listen to more music. Use the vast numbers of resources online to find music that you aren’t familiar with or to play a piece or song that you enjoy. Kids usually listen to what their parents play around the house and in the car, so spark that fire of loving listening to music from an early age. I feel that teachers should assign listening “homework” for their students to fulfill, especially if it’s in the same vein as the piece they are learning at the moment.

Most of all, savor what you’re listening to. There are so many studies that purport the benefits of learning music (greater academic skills, improved motor abilities, etc.), and while they are all wonderful and true, the significance of learning, playing, and listening to music lies in enrichment. It improves our lives and challenges us. It gives us something to share with each other. You can even say that it gives life some sort of meaning.

I’ll conclude with this quote by Douglas Adams:

“Beethoven tells you what it’s like to be Beethoven and Mozart tells you what it’s like to be human. Bach tells you what it’s like to be the universe.”

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Tips on Staying Motivated During the Summer

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If you’re not planning on spending time away from home (and a piano) during the long summer months, here are some tips on keeping you or your student motivated to keep up their piano chops!

  • Enroll in a music camp or class outside of the normal private lessons. My best memories were at the Aspen Music Festival and School, a summer-long classical music program. I was lucky to earn scholarships to go twice when I was 15 and 20. I loved the nature-y atmosphere, the free concerts performed by both students and the world’s best, the friends I made, and how much I learned by simply being surrounded by music day and night. The practice rooms were right off a bumbling brook, and you could hear the water rushing by as you played.
  • Go to summer concerts! Sometimes you need to see and hear someone inspiring to get inspired. The Hollywood Bowl, The Greek Theatre, and your local community orchestra – even free street music – can offer experiences that stay with you (I remember the awesome time we picnicked to the music of Andrew Bird when we won free tickets). Check out this summer guide for the latest concert highlights in Los Angeles.
  • Enroll in more than one private lesson per week. Summer can be a time of catching up, as the school months are hectic and filled to the brim with after-school activities. When there is the pressure of having two lessons per week, students are more likely to amp up their practicing in order to be ready for the next lesson.
  • Observe or participate in a master class. It’s sometimes a rewarding opportunity to have another musician or pedagogue critique your work in front of a live audience. Masterclasses are held throughout the year and usually are a part of summer music programs.
  • Form a chamber music group. What better way to learn to listen than to play with others? There are so many possibilities: piano duos and duets; multi-instrument trios, quartets, quintets, sextets; and collaborating with another instrumentalist or singer. Grab a few friends and play!
  • Organize a recital. This can be an informal event held at a local school or church, including friends, family, and the local community. You could even share the program with another musician (and your chamber music group!). Sometimes having a deadline is the best motivator.

Happy practicing!