Written by Laurie Niles
Published: October 13, 2014 at 8:59 PM [UTC]
It's so effective that it almost feels like cheating. Do you need to memorize something this week? Listen to it 10 times and witness how quickly that eases your assignment. Need to learn your orchestra part? Same thing: listen. Need to figure out a new piece? Listen. In fact, some teachers argue that listening to learn your music IS cheating!
Well, it's not. And also, it is. Allow me to explain:
Here's how listening helps: If you look at musical learning as mirroring language learning, listening is absolutely crucial to early learning. Does one learn to read before one learns to speak? No, the sequence goes: one is immersed in hearing language, then one learns to form words, then one strings phrases together while speaking, then one strings together sentences. And after one learns to speak, then....one learns the alphabet, phonics, words, phrases, sentences. Long process! One starts speaking words around the age of one; one reads them around the age six.
That's a long lag time, and usually it doesn't take quite as long in music. But the sequence is instructive, and so is understanding the volume of language that a person hears and internalizes, before beginning to read it.
To have a good feel for various kinds of music, you need to hear it and internalize it as well. That takes a lot of listening. But once the music is in your ear, it is much easier to match pitches, to know when you are playing a wrong note, and even to feel the groove of various musical styles.
When does listening becomes a problem?
I'll tell a story that some teachers may find familiar: I once had a student come to me after finishing the Suzuki books -- she played her solo repertoire beautifully. And she couldn't read well enough to prepare an etude every week or to figure out her orchestra music; she wanted a recording, she needed to know "how it goes."
This is less a problem of listening and more a problem of neglecting reading. It was a criticism in the early days of the Suzuki method, which uses listening extensively, and has been largely addressed by Suzuki teachers, most of whom now start to teach reading very young.
But it's not just Suzuki students who sometimes avoid reading; it's anyone with a good ear. And sometimes the problem isn't an inability to read, it's just neglecting to look closely at the score.
In a recent interview with Philippe Quint, he related an amusing story from his younger days, about learning to play the Tchaikovsky Concerto after having listening to the piece since early childhood. When he finally got to play it, he excitedly learned the whole thing in one week, after which his furious teacher sent him back to the practice room with instructions to stop listening and study the score! So even in the finest players, the ear can't always decipher all, and the score is essential to the process.
Listening may be the crutch that people use when they can't read (or don't), but that doesn't mean that listening itself is a bad thing. It just means that students need to work on reading, away from listening. Listening is not a way to learn reading, reading is a way to learn reading. The early phases of reading require some pain-in-the-neck "figuring it out." Like playing, reading takes practice: one first has to figure things out slowly many times before figuring them out quickly, and to do so without the "cheat" of someone telling you how it goes and carrying you along.
Beyond the reading question is the question of interpretation. Beginners will imitate their teachers and the recordings they hear, just as beginner-speakers will imitate their parents' speech patterns (for better or for worse!) This is a healthy and natural part of learning. But the more advanced student or artist will try to avoid over-listening to any specific recording, so they don't "ape' any particular artist. Listening to various recordings, instead of just one, can help in this regard.
But back to the benefits of listening: I'm convinced (without scientific evidence, I'll admit) that if you are learning a piece and listening to it simultaneously, the sound prompts the brain to work out specifics of fingerings, bowings, string crossings, etc., away from the instrument. Even having the music repeat in your mind as an earworm can prompt your brain to work on the playing aspects as well.
I tend to think that it's a rare student who listens too much these days, honestly. Listening takes time, and in the fast-paced, over-booked, multi-tasking, noisy environment that is today's world, listening is a slow and singular process. So don't take my word for it; try it for yourself. Seek out a recording of your current piece, or the piece your orchestra is playing. Find a a new artist who inspires you, or an alternate interpretation. Listen to the period baroque version, a differently-orchestrated version, or a popularized version. See how listening works on your mind and on your playing.
I welcome your thoughts in the comments below.
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I refer you and readers to your June 17, 2014 article The Science and Art of Practicing with Molly Gebrian and Shelly Tramposh in which you provided a link to the very interesting paper "?What Musicians Can Learn about Practicing from Current Brain Research" by Molly Gebrian (http://mollygebrian.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/what-musicians-can-learn-about-practicing-from-current-brain-research.pdf).
Molly wrote "every time you practice or learn something new, you’re actually changing your brain...when you learn a new skill, especially something like the extended techniques used in contemporary music, there is a necessary period of days or weeks that your brain needs to rewire itself and for new neuronal ensembles and circuits to form...The other amazing thing that happens in musicians’ brains as new synapses form is that our motor cortex gets connected to our auditory cortex...if a musician listens to a recording of a piece they know and play well, not only does their auditory cortex light up on a brain scan (called an fMRI), but the portion of their motor cortex devoted to their fingers does too. Furthermore, neuroscientists have shown that the motor cortex isn’t just lighting up as a whole unit – the areas that control the individual fingers light up in the order and timing they would to execute the correct fingering (Bangert and Altenmuller, 2003) [Molly did not provide the publication, but it seems to be this: http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2202/4/26]...The opposite happens too: if you tell a pianist to play a piece silently on a tabletop, their auditory cortex lights up as it would if they were actually playing (and hearing) the piece."
Molly also discussed the role of sleep in learning, stating "a very important component of motor (and auditory) learning is sleep...The primary thing that improved with sleep for the people in these studies was speed (at least that’s what the experimenters were measuring). Since the amount of daytime improvement and learning after sleep aren’t related, spending hours and hours on a really tricky fast passage on the first few days of practicing isn’t as efficient as getting it fluent at a slower tempo and then just leaving it until the next day. The next day, not only will you be able to play it faster, but you’ll spend much less time getting it to a faster tempo than you would’ve the day before."
As one who learned to sing/play almost exclusively by reading notes on a page, I appreciate my lack--where others have trouble reading, I still sometimes have difficulty translating what I hear into my own fingers because my brain 'sees' music more readily. The songs I learned by memory before I could read music are the ones most deeply imbedded in me, but that's partly because everything I learned that young is.
Consider that the only reason that that "notation" exists is because there weren't any recordings in 1870, or 1780 etc!
Are violinists to be Copyists or Artists? Are violinists to be Academic Interpreters or Artistic Innovators?
Is Excellence judged by Accuracy of Duplication or by Beauty and Persuasion?
And do Gentlemen must needs be competent horsemen?
At this stage, if I go back and read the score, I can fill in the little details I may have missed or gotten wrong. Reading and listening, when taken together, give the most comprehensive way of learning a piece.
I not only play in a local orchestra, but regularly attend bluegrass jams. Many bluegrass musicians - some quite accomplished - can't read music at all. As the joke goes:
Q: How do you stop a classical musician from playing?
A: Take away his sheet music.
Q: How do you stop a bluegrasser from playing?
A: Put sheet music in front of him.
Being able to learn from both reading and listening gives me the best of both worlds.
But, relying exclusively on listening without (first) properly comprehending the text, reading its many important clues, no matter how basic (notes, rhythms, dynamics, bowings and fingerings, tempi) and then referring to the source for deeper awareness and understanding is the real crutch, in my opinion. That's where inaccuracies develop and get assimilated: made up stuff and bad habits ushering in frustration and disappointment.
This topic ties beautifully to the recent post on note-reading fluidity, the all-too-common way of teaching and learning, eg, "D3" = the note G on the D string (as opposed to saying, thinking, teaching and learning G3 is the note G played with the 3rd finger on the D string). This is a prime example of building wrong, confusing and detrimental mental models of what the music says, how its building blocks are related, and what/how to play (to say nothing of inadequate future readiness for sight-reading, ensemble playing, or flexibility of learning related instruments...).
What can be worse than experimenting with fingerings and not knowing what NOTE you play because you're too used to the real crutch of thinking in fingerings! One must know first WHAT (note) to play and then know HOW (fingering, string, position) to play... How can notes, intervals, keys, modulation, harmony and counterpoint, score-reading and analysis make ANY sense when one is brain-washed from the beginning into thinking in terms of body mechanics (fingerings) rather than the rudiments of music, playing an instrument vs. making music?!?
Drives me crazy when I get transfer students that can "play" fingerings and bowings like one-trick circus bears but have NO clue WHAT note and rhythm/bowing pattern they're supposed to be playing, no basic understanding of the essential building blocks of music and no awareness of what the text in front of them actually says... They're the victims of the worst approach - an insult to students' intelligence, the worst disservice from a music teacher, and the REAL CRUTCH, long term...
So, yes, ALWAYS listening, but having a clear mental picture of what the music says...
Philippe Quint's experience with the Tchaikovsky VC reminds me of my first experiences in attempting portions of the Brahms VC. Like Philippe, I was in my mid-teens. I imitated by ear portions of the first movement. A few years later, when I had the sheet music and was actually studying the piece, I realized right away that my mind hadn't registered all I had heard on recordings. For instance, what I had heard as a series of double stops, quite early in the movement, the printed page revealed to be triple stops.
The lesson I drew from this: Listen -- but get the score, too. No substitute for knowing the score.
Much can be gained if we all use those wonderful things called ears!!
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