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The Art of Listening

One of the most important skills to have as a musician is listening. However, when we start to concentrate on our own playing, we can often lose sight and sound of what is going on around us.

Of course, listening is not just limited to music and one of my favourite quotes on listening comes from the Dalai Lama, who said:

“When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.”

As a teacher, I seldom go into a lesson knowing what I will teach the student. Each time a student plays, it is a new opportunity to hear them with fresh ears. I listen to their sound, articulation, rhythm, phrasing, breathing, intonation, and other aspects of their playing before thinking about suggesting anything. There is so much valuable information available when we simply listen. It is then a two-way discussion where the teacher and student exchange thoughts and ideas. We listen to each other, giving time for the student to hear what I'm saying and me giving time for them to process it in their own way. The student can then take time to listen to their body and breathing before trying out any suggestions, taking care of themselves before jumping straight into doing something.

When trying something new, one can do a small chunk of a phrase with both ears open, without any expectations. After playing a phrase, the student can then report back what differences they heard. What was good, what wasn't so successful etc

When playing chamber music, we can listen to how our sound/intonation/articulation fits in with others in the ensemble. If we keep our heads down and focus inward, we might think we are "concentrating", but we actually lose the main purpose of playing with others: finding joy in making music together. Whether it's a duet or a symphony, we are part of a whole and the only way to know how to play together and bring out the music as a whole is to listen. Learn something new from your fellow musicians every time you play with them.

When listening, to yourself or others, it is important to do so without judgment. Listen with curiosity, being present. Just as we take in the wide view with our peripheral vision to avoid narrowing and tension in the body, aim to listen by taking in all the sounds around you. Hearing how your colleague spins a particular phrase, or articulates a passage of notes can inspire you with a new idea on how to play your phrase (or how not to play it as the case may be!).

“The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.” - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 

During my studies, I often observed masterclasses given by many leading musicians. One could tell when a teacher not only heard what the student was doing, but really listened. Their advice was always a result of careful listening and so made a huge impact on the student. Other times, a student might play a phrase in a way that went against a strong belief held by the teacher and the teacher would react very strongly. This happens in discussions too, where someone's opinion might clash with another's. It is difficult to do, but when listening to a different point of view, we can choose how we react to it. We can give the other person the time and space to be heard completely without judgment. We can choose to react in a way that shows empathy or interest. Instead of "I can't believe you think it goes like that!", try "Oh, how interesting! I've never thought of it like that before!"

"Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply." - Stephen R. Covey

In the practice room, try to cultivate a non-judgmental way of listening to yourself. Think of it as teaching yourself. Would you talk to a student how you sometimes talk to yourself? I used to give myself a very hard time whenever I made a mistake or played out of tune. One can still self-critique, but with a kinder voice. Try saying "Ok, that note wasn't in tune. Let's figure out a way to improve that", instead of "Oh, you idiot! How many times are you going to play that C sharp out of tune?!"

Listening Skills specific to practising the flute

Listening to your intonation

If you pitch bend a note from very sharp to very flat, you can hear when the note is more pleasing in the middle. This is where the harmonics are in tune. Don't be afraid to play "wrong" and play sharp or flat, because you are training your ears to identify these inaccuracies of pitch and then you know what to do. When you have found a sound that is good in the middle, test whether the octave is in tune. If the octave sounds narrow, your fundamental is probably sharp. If your octave is too wide, your fundamental is probably flat.

Practice intervals with a drone or pedal note, listening out for the difference tone.

More information can be found in my book: "Mastering the Flute with William Bennett".

Listening to your sound

It is very common for students to pick up the flute and, without a moment's thought, they try to create a good sound. Unfortunately, it's not always successful! Give yourself a moment to listen to your breathing and your body. Give yourself time for the following directions/wishes. Are you breathing calmly? Is the neck free, allowing the head to be poised on top of the spine and allowing the back to lengthen and widen? Are the knees soft? Once you have organised that, just breathe and don't think about playing. Just hear the sound in your head whilst keeping all those nice directions going. Then after that, have a go! Listen to the sound as you are creating it. Try to resist judging it straight away, but just listen. Take a moment to see how that was different to the sound you heard in your head. What could you change to improve it (or perhaps it was better than you initially heard!).

I hope you find this useful and happy fluting!

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