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Laurie Niles

Look and See, Listen and Hear

September 15, 2010 at 2:12 AM

“Draw this,” said the art teacher, plunking an apple next to a coffee mug. “Do it any way you like and then we'll talk about it.”

I was taking a trial art lesson with my daughter, and the topic at hand was sketching. He wanted us to first try it, then he'd talk about technique.

Sure, why not? I'm not too bad at drawing, though my last class was a long time ago. I took the sketching pencil and drew a long, sideways oval, the opening of the mug. Then I drew lines on either side, then the curved base of the cup. Next to it, a circle. A stem. Okay, done. I looked up. What now?

Obviously the teacher wasn't exactly expecting me to finish this in two minutes, he was on the other side of the room, attending to other students. I looked at my little drawing. I looked at the apple and the mug. I looked around. My daughter was sketching in the shadows.

Oh right, the shadows. I looked at the apple again, and the cup. I squinted. Yes, shadows! I see them now. So I started drawing the shadows. Then I noticed that the indentation for the stem of the apple made a rather interesting shadow, a bit elusive to draw, but maybe if I looked at it longer...I began to see the inconsistencies on the skin of the apple – a scratch here, bits of color here and there. How to capture that in black and white? Then there was the mug, it also had some texture to it – different from the apple. How to convey that?

By the time the teacher came back, I was completely immersed in all the fine details of what an apple looks like, and what a mug looks like.

I realized that one of the most important assets, for a person creating visual art, is the ability to see. After that comes technique, that is, the ability to competently render what you see. Equally important is judgment and restraint – you may see every detail, but the best kind of artist knows how to suggest without painstakingly drawing every last thing. You show the viewer what you want them to see, and suggest the rest.

These were my thoughts, and I do believe that there is a parallel in music. When I wrote last week about the importance of listening, many agreed it was important, but others thought that listening would somehow corrupt a person's interpretation.

Not so. A person who doesn't do anything but imitate was not ready for an “interpretation” anyway, that person is still learning technique and learning to listen. It is important to listen, and it is important to hear – hear everything!

The more you look, the more you see, and the more you listen, the more you hear.

Recently I've been listening to Julia Fischer's new recording of the Paganini Caprices. Before you dare tell me that there are too many recordings of the Paganini, listen to it. There are some beautiful revelations in there. For example, the opening of Caprice 20; she does it completely sans vibrato. Whatever her intention, I suddenly felt I was standing on a hillside in Scotland, listening to a bagpipe, just for those measures. What an effect, but one that necessarily comes from a knowledge of sound.

Listen to music, yes. But listen to everything around you and embrace it for your music. How does your heart beat, when you are falling asleep? How does it beat when you are walking, but then realize you are late? It never beats like a metronome. But how does a metronome beat? Take it all in.

How does a baby laugh? How does an insane person cackle?

Music is expression. Expression is when one person conveys something that is meaningful to another. You can't do that without a vocabulary of sound, and for this you must listen, and hear, and imitate, and experiment.


From Drew Lecher
Posted on September 15, 2010 at 4:32 AM

 Hi Laurie, I miss too many fine articles, but THIS one I am sending to all my students.

Beautiful:-) Drew


From Emily Grossman
Posted on September 15, 2010 at 8:14 AM

I like your thoughts here, Laurie.


From Frederic Moerth
Posted on September 15, 2010 at 8:50 AM

very nice metaphorical text....I absolutly agree!


From Jeewon Kim
Posted on September 15, 2010 at 5:31 PM

Great article Laurie!

Even a Mozart, Beethoven or Einstein for that matter has to start with what already is. Only gods can create ex nihilo...


From Pauline Lerner
Posted on September 16, 2010 at 7:58 AM

Your description of drawing a sketch resembles the way I take photographs.  I like your analogy to playing the violin and listening skills.  I've been teaching one piece to a student for a few weeks, and I've found lots of recordings on Youtube for him to listen to.  At his lesson yesterday, I played another CD of the piece.  I was surprised at how many fine details of the performance he noticed and commented on right away.  He is developing an "educated ear," and I think that's a great skill for any musician.

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