The Art of Listening

The Art of Listening

Piano Listening

Would you expect to be able to develop the skill of being able to draw artistic pictures of a horse without ever having seen a horse or even another picture of a horse? Of course not.

Most people would agree that a necessary first step before being able to draw a horse would be to first see what a horse looks like. Ask any Disney artist and they will tell you about the depth of study required to fully animate a horse and how each movement must be fully understood before the artist is able to recreate the horses movement in a series of drawings.

The same is true of music. The music the student wishes to play must be fully understood before a meaningful performance can be achieved.

Similar to the Disney artist that needs lots of experience with his subject matter before being able to effectively recreate it, the musician needs extensive experience of actively listening to music before being able to effectively recreate it at the piano. But, amazingly, all too often students expect to be able to learn how to play the piano without ever listening to any piano music and often without listening to any other music at all.

Students should be encouraged to establish a regular routine of listening to music which is both familiar and new to them. Listening to a wide variety of musical styles helps the student to subconsciously absorb the different musical elements involved in being able to recreate that particular style. Repetition in the students listening activities plays just as important a role as repetition during practice.

Listening is essential to building your own internal "sound picture" of music. Hearing music is not enough. There is a difference between listening and hearing. Listening involves giving the music your full and undivided attention. Imagine yourself in the kitchen preparing dinner and the news is on the TV in the family room. You can hear the news clearly but your attention is elsewhere and you are not listening to it. If you are not paying attention to what you are hearing you will not benefit from the experience. You will not know what the news was about and you would be unable to communicate the message of the news to someone else. Similarly if you are not paying attention to the music you hear you will not benefit from the experience. Listening skills are more difficult to master than you may image when learning an instrument.

It is commonly known that music is a language in itself but what is not so commonly understood is the process that contributes to learning this language. In order to understand the news on TV you must first spend many years learning the language the news is spoken in. Similarly in order to fully understand the music you are listening to, in enough detail that you could communicate it to someone else, through performance, then you must first learn the language of music. A good course of lessons will also teach students the essential listening skills required to fully master music as a language, as part of the regular work completed on learning new pieces, and will also include regular time spent on exercises designed specifically to develop the musical ear. A course of carefully graded ear training and aural activities which increase in complexity as the student becomes more advanced is therefore necessary. The development of these skills is essential to becoming a rounded musician and forms and important part of developing a solid musical foundation on which higher levels of performance may be achieved.

The ABRSM is the world’s leading authority on musical assessment and publish a carefully graded course of aural and ear training activities ranging from elementary studies for the beginner student up to advanced levels of training suitable for students preparing for music college auditions. These activities are useful for any music student to follow even if they do not intend to take any musical examinations. I am an experienced ABRSM teacher and offers to include this curriculum as part of regular lessons. The combination of the ABRSM curriculum and carefully coordinated computer based ear training activities provides a powerful and effective approach to developing these essential listening skills. An excellent place to start your listening experience would be to purchase the recordings for the ABRSM piano examination pieces.

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