I’ve just discovered that I have never listened

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.

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Why I’ve started to listen to the charts again

If you told me I would be getting down to Uptown Funk at the sixth form social 6 months ago, the likelihood is that I would have spat in your face. Pop music and I have never had the best relationship. What I despise the most are classical musician covers on pop songs. You may call this unbelievably snobby, but I find it difficult to wreck the C string of my cello whilst covering Smooth Criminal.

Because of this snobbish hatred of cross contamination when it comes to music genres, I am finding that I really enjoy pop music in its raw form. The cello wasn’t designed to bust a gut on Rhianna or Beatles covers and so I respect and actually enjoy pop music when it’s melodies are not leaked into the classical genre. I follow many cover sites on Instagram all of whom have many thousands of followers because they feel they can connect to the younger generation who perhaps scorn the idea of classical instruments. I don’t deny that this is a sound method of relating to a wider audience, I only find it sad that classical music cannot be proudly exposed in its raw form!

Stop covering- start uploading your favourite excerpt of the Elgar or Rachmaninov Sonata. Spread the beauty that is the classical repertoire!

Why poetry is the music in words and my obsession with half rhyme

Am I embarrassing you? I’m in Paris with you.

I don’t know why the sounds of half rhyme excite me so much. My favourite poems appear to be those that follow no set pattern and adopt a more imperfect tone and rhyme scheme. Perhaps it’s the predictability of perfect rhyme that loses my attention- I like this abstract idea of manipulating words. It’s a similar idea to the expressionist and modern composers. The idea that no rules need be followed, but through the half rhyme the poetic quirkiness is not lost! 

Because I know I’ve changed and that’s what matters

In a musicians life, it’s surprisingly easy for your life to turn on its head and in 6 months. You are faced with a different person with changed aspirations and views on life.

That is a short description of the past 6 months for me. From mid January I have sustained an ambiguous music-related, RSI injury thingy that no one can completely define or solve with one treatment or set of stretches. It’s been a journey of huge ups and downs, recoveries and flare-ups that has caused strains on my relationships with my family, friends and faith in almost anything but I’m writing this post because I know that I’ve changed. I might not be certain how or in what ways but I know there’s a lot I will never do again and understand now. I have the faith that I’m on the way out finally. Suddenly I realised that I’m not scared of a flare up anymore or the possibility of letting people down or embarrassing myself in a performance class, having only done (or been able to do) two hours a day of playing. I came to accept what’s happened and see so many positives in it suddenly. I found I could be the most fantastic player in the world with minimal practice and absolutely no knowledge of whether I’ll be fit enough to perform or practice. The depression, pain and doubt were a reminder of how important it was to find a method of playing the cello again. I was determined that it didn’t matter how little I played or how long it took, I knew I had to play because the shit of not playing was killing me.

I don’t want to bore with a history of my injury but in short; it began very suddenly in my left forearm, then the tip of my left index finger, then my neck and back, then my right elbow, then my left elbow, then the outer-joint of my left wrist, then the carpal tunnel area of both wrists and now a mid way between all of them, each area flaring up mildly every few days but not to a disabling degree. It’s clear that I’ve really had it all and It’s been physically crippling for many months. Although physio, life coaching, yoga and acupuncture have been really helpful ways to manage my injury and self, as the last of the crippling pain was going, the Alexander Technique appeared the perfect maintainable plan.

In the early stages of my injury I was completely ready to admit that it was “all my fault” and that “If only I had not done…, I could have won…, been…, played to…, played in…” This blame and guilt surrounded everything whilst I was attempting to recover and caused a nasty bought of depression to set in. My Alexander teacher really helped me through this explaining how, “Don’t feel angry that you’ve noticed an area of repeated tension Hattie, It’s just so fantastic that you’ve been able to identify it. Keep an awareness like this and just notice what your body does, having a focus on the neck and back relationship”. I began to realise that this awareness rather than blame was a way of keeping faith through recovery and an excitement that very soon everything’s going to be fantastic. Without the pain, I would have certainly neglected much thought towards the Alexander technique. I wish I hadn’t got to that desperate stage of pain before I listened to my body and kept an awareness. I have the reassurance that I am now always becoming more aware and have the potential to become a sensitive, organic musician.

I’m finding many aspects of Alexander work difficult. It’s easy to become completely obsessed with its teaching but that goes against everything it stands for; a balanced awareness of the head and neck in order for the arms and hands to complete their role with as little pain or restriction as possible. This idea is great in performance as much of the technical work is under control and the Alexander technique can provide the faith and reassurance that the effort if minimal. I’m still surrounded by this mentality of practice meaning ‘hard work’ and ‘results’. It’s difficult to let go of this judgement and criticising and only have an awareness. My teachers ideas are all based around this idea of awareness also. She can always tell if I’ve practiced something in a critical mindset. She says “Hattie, don’t take it too seriously make it into a game”. My teacher speaks out her observations as she demonstrates certain techniques. She may miss a shift if she’s playing on my cello and so analyses it without being critical “Ok, that was too far. Next time, narrower”. She invariably hits it the second time, explaining to me how you should always have a reason for repeating something and know exactly what went wrong and how it can be corrected. I’ve had my teacher since last September but it’s taken me until now to realise that her methods of practice and performance are admirable and make total sense. Once again, I’m not irritated that it’s taken me until now to realise, I’m glad that I have realised and that I can begin to act on it.

I know I may still have some pain and discomfort with this injury but so much can be achieved through merely having faith and being aware that it takes so much less time and effort to be fantastic and lead a fantastic life. I know I need to keep listening and develop my awareness skills but I KNOW what I need and I’m beginning to know how to get there.

Hattie.