actively listening to music

If you have spent any time at all in the last few years reading parenting books, or watching parenting videos, you’ve probably heard about active listening. Active listening is a technique that is used in solving conflicts and arguments, and demands that the listener concentrates, understands, responds to and remembers what is being said. Although music is not a disagreement, it also requires listening carefully, understanding and responding to what is heard.

Actively listening to the music we produce is a skill I strive to incorporate into every single lesson. It never fails to amaze me when I ask a student what they noticed about their playing in a piece they have literally just performed for me, and they shrug and give me the classic, “I don’t know?” Sometimes this happens even when I have set them up for success by reminding them before their playing to pay particular attention to one or more components of their playing. When we are performing, we can get so caught up in trying to get the right notes, that other important information gets lost.

You can help develop this crucial skill during home music time. Some ideas are to ask the student—before they play for you—to listen to their dynamics (volume) and have them talk about it when they finish. You can use this idea for any musical component, such as articulation (long or short sounds), tone quality (more for acoustic instruments than digitals), or tempo (speed).

Another extremely useful tool is a recording device. While it may seem as though it will discourage actively listening, it actually improves a student’s listening skill as they hear two very different things—their own ideas of how they played, and the recording of how they actually played. The more they listen to recordings of themselves playing, the closer their actual listening comes to reflecting the real thing.

If you can’t regularly listen in to the student’s practice, you might have time to discuss other people’s performance. This could be as simple as talking about the theme from your favourite shared TV show, watching a music video and talking about the parts you like (ie it got louder in the chorus and that made me feel excited. What part did you like, and why?) or getting them to find a YouTube piece of music that they can talk about in the car on the way to their piano lesson.

Happy listening!

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