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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How Young Is “Too Young” to Start Piano Lessons?

early music educationThis is another FAQ that should be addressed. The short answer is that it depends on your child. I’ve seen kids start as early as three and as old as 15. I started when I was five. But here’s the long answer.

Most children begin recognizing and writing letters by ages four or five. They start recognizing rhyming patterns and developing a vocabulary. Reading doesn’t really kick in until ages 6-10.

How does this tie into learning music? If a child cannot see that the letter ‘A’ is an ‘A,’ it will be nearly impossible to teach him or her how to read musical notes and symbols. There is an extra step beyond just recognizing the letter ‘A.’ He or she would have to translate that from the space or line on the musical staff which is the musical note ‘A’, and then find the corresponding ‘A’ on the keyboard. That process would include three steps of translation in all!

Very young children naturally listen to and imitate new sounds. They have fun saying and singing these sounds repeatedly, and then they stick. Most children begin to learn to read when books are read to them out loud. Shouldn’t we teach music to non-reading children in a similar fashion?

Instead of having non-readers painfully decipher one note from another on the staff, they could listen to different musical melodies and rhythmic patterns and attempt to sing or play back what they hear. Children love games, and this could be an easy way to capture his or her rapt attention while exposing them early on to music education.

I find that young non-readers excel in group lessons that are short, fun, and aurally-based. It’s difficult to pursue private lessons for this type of child, as one-on-one sessions can be rather intense and lacking in the social interaction department. Children love being around their peers and can learn from them in this type of environment. It’s more about ‘play’ and less about ‘work.’

In order to pursue private lessons that cover a comprehensive curriculum (including note reading), not only does your child need to be a reader (or at least have the ability to recognize letters and numbers), but he or she must have the ability to focus for short spurts of time. It’s natural for children to get distracted by the smallest of things (and believe me – they have no filter). But if your child is consistently interrupting the lesson and is unable to play through a short piece without a disturbance, he or she might be too young. If your child is still in the squirmy stages, it may be beneficial to hold off for another year or so.

With all of this being said, it’s crucial to recognize that everyone learns in a unique way. Learning milestones can occur earlier or later from what’s considered to be ‘average,’ so don’t worry if your child isn’t following the typical route. Even if your child is too young to start taking private lessons, expose him or her to music by having them listen to music. Play a recording of your favorite song or piece while you do the dishes or drive the car. It’s a powerful yet simple way to ignite the spark!