Last time we talked about the importance of listening while playing and this time I’d like to mention a few things you can do to strengthen your own skills in this area.
When I work with young kids using the Suzuki Method, our first task is to teach the child how to listen and observe carefully. We play games like Follow the Leader, Simon Says, and Red Light/Green Light. The kids of course think it’s great fun but it’s an important part of their musical development. Each time I “trick” them into messing up, you can see their attention get more focused as they try to follow what is actually happening rather than what they think will happen.
As they develop, we transfer this skill to the instrument. The teacher may play a passage and ask the student to repeat it back exactly. Or the teacher may ask the student to play the NEXT phrase that comes after it. The student maybe be asked to drop a few measures of a tune and then come back in at the right time and place. Or the teacher and student maybe begin playing together and then try to stop and start at exactly the same time at random intervals.
One of the skills an active musical listener must have is the ability to continue playing while listening or thinking of something else. If your entire attention is absorbed in playing, you will miss what is going on beyond the end of your instrument. So we also play games like asking the student to play a familiar tune while telling a teacher what they want for their birthday or to name the members of their family. (I admit I still find this pretty difficult to do, although my friends who perform regularly seem to get really good at talking to their bandmates while playing!) If you can talk while playing, you can probably also pay attention to what is going on around you while playing.
So all of this is pretty straightforward for young children who are first learning but what can adult learners or traditional musicians do to learn these same skills?
The first step might be to take a well-known tune and try to do other things while playing it. Walk around the house, count to 10, read the paper. (Kevin Burke once told me that as a kid he practiced his rolls while reading the sports page!)
Once you can keep a tune going while doing something else, take time at your local session to do some active listening to other players. Try to notice who is listening to others and who is just playing along to the tune. What does the leader do right before he or she changes to another tune? Do they do anything with their body? What about with the music? Sometimes players will indicate a change by adding more chords or long notes to indicate a “slowing” into the next tune. Or maybe a player will shout out a key or tune name just before the change.
Then watch for more subtle body language. What does it mean when that player over there looks up? Is he trying to signal the accordion to play the variation they both know? Or what about when this other player takes a big breath in? Is she about to do a rhythmic variation? Does that player always raise their eyebrows and play more softly when they are playing a “sweet” section of the tune?
What about audible changes in the music? Can you tell when someone is going to go for a longer note or a chord? Can you tell when someone is digging in to play a fast bit? Can you hear players getting louder or softer with various passages?
Now, can you notice all these things while still playing along? If not, try to just take short breaks from your playing to try to notice the player next to you and what they are doing. Eventually you’ll be able to relax and pay attention to others for longer periods of time.
If you find someone who is interested in learning these same skills, you could also have a practice session or two together where you take turns playing parts of a tune or playing each other’s variations on the tunes. Try to follow each other: play loud or soft when your partner does, try stopping randomly together and then starting again, start a tune by taking a breath together before launching into it. It might feel awkward at first but it can be really useful if you play with someone regularly or would like to start performing together.
This sort of careful listening leads to better musical and even social experiences with your fellow musicians. Your music will sound better and you’ll have more fun once you catch all the great things your fellow players are doing (or attempting to do!).