Jennie Khan

Freelance Cellist and Teacher

Jennie Khan is an Auckland based cellist and cello teacher. She has a variety of experience performing both here and in Europe and has been teaching students of all ages for many years.

Are you Listening?...Now I'll begin

If you have read my previous posts, you will know how crucial listening is. Of course we are talking about music, so this might seem obvious, but listening is a lot different from hearing.

I've been playing all sorts of different things recently with lots of different people; good musicians, students, a whole mixture. The common thread of whether the ensemble and the music works is the level of listening that is going on. A bunch of people playing instruments at the same time does not an ensemble make. 
Small groups, especially when talking about classical music, are often referred to as an 'ensemble'. This comes from the French meaning 'together'.  When everyone is listening, and reacting, the music comes together, it becomes music not just notes, the different parts bounce off each other and blend,  and a musical energy is created. Essentially all the feeling and emotion from music can be thought of as energy.

The word there that makes the difference is 'reacting'. When we really listen to music, we are paying attention, it's not just going on in the background while we think of what we are having for tea or ticking things off the To Do list. We notice the rhythm and harmonies, changes in key or tempo.
When you are playing the music, you must be aware of all these things as well as create them.
It takes concentration:

  • Listen to everything that is going on around you (in the music that is)
  • Fit in with the rhythm, pitch and dynamics of the other players. If you have sheet music it should all be written there for you, but it is often elastic, especially tempo and dynamics.
  • React to what you are hearing, if another part has the lead (or tune), follow, if you have it, lead the others.
  • Anticipate the changes, you can hear when things are building, harmonies often lead into one another. When reading music always be looking a bar ahead.

Think of it as a jigsaw puzzle where each person has only some of the pieces, everyone must put the right pieces in the right spot for it to all join together and make a picture.
Each players pieces are made up of their own intonation, tone, rhythm, dynamics, expression etc. even lyrics.
When all the pieces fit, you have some great music.

As I mentioned in an earlier post Ear Training Part II what you hear and can react to depends on what you are familiar with, there are so many different rhythmic patterns and harmonies that are involved in creating the right feel for any given piece of music. Classical, pop, jazz etc all have different rules and conventions that make up the texture and style of the music.
If we are not familiar with that particular style it can be very difficult to fit in with it. You can be listening and concentrating but it can still be difficult to slot your part into the puzzle.
It takes time, in the same way as learning a new language. If you have ever been in a foriegn country, even having studied your phrase book, you can't differentiate where one word ends and the next begins. After a while your ear becomes familiar with the sounds and you can start understanding more of the words.

Listen to recordings, listen to the other parts, listen to how your part fits in with the other parts, listen out for cue notes, beats or words. Take notice of the harmonies, where are the parts working together, where are they doing their own thing, where are they heading?
Pay attention to the changes in energy, it would be dull if it were the same the whole way through. there are ups and downs, louds and softs, angry parts, peaceful parts, happy and sad parts, take note of how these make you feel and then replicate it.

For musicians who don't often play in a group, there is not always the same need or opportunity to develop these accute listening skills. For example;

  •  A pianist can play in his own style and the feel will be consistent, he can always keep in time with himself,
  • A singer can have one or more instrumentalists accompanying her who will follow her, and how she interpretes every phrase.  

In my opinion every musician should hone their listening skills, being aware of everything going on, to be able to react and fit in with the other parts. I do admit it is a case of practice, and it is hard to do that if you are not putting it into practice, so to speak.
But you will become a better musician for it.

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