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Get Some New Ears! Why You're Listening Wrong

practicing Nov 13, 2016

Get new ears? You might need them.

Have you ever been surprised by a comment from someone else about your playing?

Maybe it was an audience member who paid you a lovely compliment, making you wonder just what performance they were listening to.

Maybe it was your teacher who pointed out something you completely missed in your practice.

Did you ever wonder about why they were able to hear that when you couldn’t? Like most of us, you may have been listening incorrectly, or as I like to say, listening with the wrong set of ears.

It’s easy to become tone deaf to our own playing. We hear ourselves all the time, over all the highs and lows of every practice session. Even when we listen to a recording of our playing, we filter what we hear through that same critical web of what we should or could have done better.

What we need is a new set of ears, or actually, two new sets.

First, we must replace our everyday practice ears. They become dulled from over-exposure. That’s the reason that we don’t notice some of the mistakes we make. It’s also why we have trouble with the big musical picture of our music, and even why we don’t recognize the things we are doing well when we play.

The kind of ears we want are ones that will pick up on the details and help us make music from all the bits and pieces that we need to practice. I call these “teacher ears.”

Think back over your past lessons. If you’re anything like I was as a student, you probably experienced those moments when your teacher made you realize that your practice standard was set too low. What we are sometimes tempted to call “good enough” in our practice is not always “good enough” for our teachers.

Your teacher listens with a heightened level of focus, listening for every detail. Which note was over- or under-played? Was that rhythm precise? Did that crescendo really move the energy of the music forward? Was your tone consistent?

While no one can expect to hear every detail every time, when you start to wear your “teacher ears” as you practice, you will be catching more of those elements that will help you play better and more beautifully.

Listening for that level of detail is imperative, but you also need to put on a different set of ears from time to time. These are your “audience ears.”

“Audience ears” are not critical ears. This is how people listen to your music. Even if you never play for an audience, listening to your playing and practice this way will help you truly make music, not merely keep practicing notes.

“Audience ears” listen for the big picture, the musical message that you are trying to convey. They are inherently appreciative, not judgmental. They are ready to enjoy a musical experience.

It can be hard to use “audience ears,” because they require you to be less concerned with being correct than with being expressive and genuine. An audience will forgive mistakes, but they will not engage with someone who is merely playing the notes. Listeners want to experience what you love about the music you are playing.

If you want to try on both sets of ears, I encourage you to try this exercise:

  • Find a YouTube video or recording (preferably NOT one of you – this exercise is tricky enough!).
  • Listen to it first with “audience ears.”
  • Ask yourself the following questions: What did you like about the music? How did it make you feel? What did it remind you of? Where did transport you? Did it leave you unmoved?
  • Write down your answers, being sure to answer in general, musical terms as an audience member would.
  • Then listen again, this time with “teacher ears,” paying attention to the details.
  • Go back to your “audience ear” answers, and for each answer, write down every detail that your “teacher ears” heard that would support that answer. For instance, if you felt using your audience ears that the music was smooth and flowing, your teacher ears might note that the tone was even and the notes played smoothly with a legato touch.

Do you see how your "audience ears" provide you with the reason for each and every hair-splitting detail that your "teacher ears" insist on? Using both sets of ears as you practice will be an eye-opening experience!


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