Until very, very recently I understood the art of listening to be a passive, almost reflex action. Something we don’t have to think about, something that occurs naturally just like looking or feeling. I didn’t expect to have to keep a specific awareness of the sounds and messages around me- I expected them to come to me. I expected my hands to play the Haydn Cello concerto and my ears to judge each performance and tiny mistake.
It may be obvious to many that this is in fact not an advisable method of becoming a professional musician. I realise that i never really listened with a whole awareness to the sound I was making, just judged and criticised without careful thought and deliberation.
The first time my teacher mentioned my absence of listening was many many months ago just before a concerto competition. I felt ready despite some injury setbacks and had just played the whole piece to her in an accompanist rehearsal. I thought it went well. I couldn’t remember much of the performance but I couldnt remember many slip-ups. But my teacher wasn’t quite so objective or reassuring. ‘You can play it’ she said, ‘but you didn’t listen to a single note that you played’ This hit me quite hard so I went on a quest to discover what it really is to listen and respond without judgment, especially in a performance situation. The Alexander Technique would say that if the primary control (awareness and release of head, neck and back) is in place, the ears are able to have a heightened awareness as the body feels balanced. I’ve certainly discovered that I require balance in my body to be able to play well and ultimately listen to what I’ve played. I almost view the ability to listen and feel balanced above the ability to play in tune. I certainly feel much better about myself if I’ve felt balanced and comfortable, even if I don’t play every note in tune.
I’m still searching for this ideal of being able to be both the performer and the audience member but will admit that I still feel in the dark. I know I’m not alone when I say that I find listening in concerts a challenge and listening specifically in my practice.
I have observed two things however- first is that I am completely engaged as a listener in a concert if I have either played the piece I’m listening to or listened to it many many times. I have also observed that as soon as I know someone may be listening to my practice I immediately turn my ears on and am aware of exactly what I want and what parts of my piece that I’ve been mindlessly playing through.
Perhaps these discoveries give a reassurance that it’s a similar awareness I have when people are listening to my performance to when people (potentially) listen to my practice. It is useful to have this judgmental awareness in practice, but not quite so useful in performance. Perhaps in performance I need to imagine myself much more as the listener. How would I want someone to hear this piece? How do I want to hear this piece? In a performance, it’s too late to listen judgementally. A performance is when you can share what you’ve practice with both your audience and yourself.
As for the being able to listen better if I’ve played the piece, perhaps this shows me how prepared I am to listen attentively. I know how the piece is going to sound and, most of the time, I know I have the capability of playing it well. It’s very easy to forget your knowledge of a piece and brilliant preparation when you’re forced into a stressful situation. I think it’s important to trust your hands and ears to listen and play to make the experienced relaxed and enjoyable, just as it is in practice.