Monthly Archives: March 2012

Get out of your head!

In my last post I talked about the importance of listening in playing music. In this post I’d like to expand more on the process of listening. At this point you may be thinking “What process? Surely listening just happens?”.

Well, maybe not. We can’t close our ears to sound, but whether we actually listen to it or not is another question. In her coaching work, Heli uses a concept called Active Listening which distinguishes different types of listening. One type is listening to your own inner monologue. If you’ve ever had the experience of being in conversation with someone and realising that you have no idea what they just said, then you’re familiar with this voice. Instead of listening to the person you were talking to, you slipped into listening to your own thoughts. This can happen for different reasons – we may be bored of what’s being said, or we may be so interested in it that we start thinking up responses before the other person even finished speaking. Whatever the reason, we miss out on what the other person said and our response to it will be incomplete as a result.

This can happen when playing music too. It can be surprisingly easy to ‘drift off’ during performance, especially when we have the music committed to memory and can play it on autopilot. Experienced musicians can often do this and give a perfectly passable performance, a bit like the way we can sometimes get through a conversation simply by smiling and nodding in the right places. It’s not really good music-making though, just like smiling and nodding isn’t good conversation.

Alternatively, we may get so engrossed in playing our own part that we stop listening to the other musicians we are playing with and listen only to ourselves. Even though this involves external action, producing sound with our instrument or voice, it’s still internal in the sense that our listening and responding forms a closed loop that doesn’t involve anyone else.

My point is not that our inner voice is always bad and something to be suppressed. Sometimes it says useful things, like “Hey, we just skipped eight bars!” or “This doctor seems OK, but maybe I should get a second opinion”. The thing to notice is that in both these examples, the inner voice is reacting to something outside of ourselves and suggests actions which we can take in the outside world. Keeping these reactions internal is of no benefit to ourselves or others; we must communicate or act on them to produce any results.

In ‘The Inner Game of Music’, Barry Green and Timothy Gallwey talk about ‘noticing’ various aspects of playing. Simply noticing what is currently true about tone, intonation, rhythm, tension in your body, or any aspect of playing and performance, can provide valuable information about how to improve it. The same is true of listening. Noticing what you are listening to, noticing where your attention lies at any moment, can help you to direct your listening to where it will be most effective. When I apply this really effectively, I’m astounded by how many things there are to listen to, at every level from the ting of a hi-hat to the swells and falls of the whole group. It presents me with a huge array of choice about how to listen to, experience and respond to the music. And, out of all these things, the least interesting choice is always what’s going on inside my own head.

Our quest for Musicianship

Whilst Ben & I keep exploring different elements of Musicianship in more depth in this blog (and I will pitch in later on!), I wanted to give you a bit more rounded take on the purpose of this project.

1. Defining Musicianship

What we are looking for in the Loving & Living Music project is a definition or a description of musicianship that includes all aspects of musicianship across all genres and instruments. Having this definition will enable discussion of musicianship to take place on a wider scale than is possible today.

Talking to people we know or have met and looking around the web reveals all kinds of opinions on what musicianship is, including things such as musical phrasing, creating a beautiful tone, being able to play by ear, or being able to imagine music without hearing it first. In addition, most people approach the subject from their own background, leading to differences in the way that, say, a classical musician and a jazz musician think about musicianship.

There are also differences between instruments; for example, a pop drummer’s idea of musicianship may be skewed towards rhythmic accuracy and dynamics, while a classical flautist may be more interested in tone and expression. And of course even all this is just our own interpretation!

The questions we are asking in order to find Musicianship:

  1. What is musicianship?
  2. Why is musicianship important?
  3. What’s the impact of having it & not having it?
  4. What would be a good way of teaching musicianship?
  5. What are you own strengths & weaknesses in terms of musicianship?

2. Musicianship in Education

We see a gap in the way that music is commonly taught. With the Loving & Living Music project we are looking to provoke awareness and discussion among the music education sector about how Musicianship is and could be taught.

For many students, particular beginners, the measurement of success in musical performance is often skewed towards simply getting the notes right. This is, perhaps, natural for the beginner student, who may feel overwhelmed by the new information and practice required to get to grips with their instrument. It is also natural to focus on the aspects of performance, such as playing the right notes, that are easily measured, rather than measure our success with more subjective indicators. However, such measurement is vital to a rounded musician, as it requires the player to have an opinion about the sound they want to make, as well as listening carefully to make sure that their goals are being reached.

Encouraging students to listen and form opinions in this way not only raises their ability to make a good sound, but transforms the act of music-making from one of the mechanical playing of pre-determined notes into one of active engagement with the music on an aesthetic and emotional level.

Why do we care?

In our respective professions (musician, coach) we see the difference that communication skills have on people’s professional and personal conduct and fulfilment, on stage & off stage. Even though we come into the concept of musicianship from different angles, the effects of having or not having it play an important part in the work that we both do.

In a nutshell, this is our way of being a contribution to the things we love and care about the most: music and people.

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Cheers, Big Ears

Carrying on from last week’s post, I want to talk about listening. For me, listening is a fundamental element of musicianship and, judging by what’s written elsewhere on the internet, it is for many others too.

I was recently reading an interview with Primus bassist and vocalist Les Claypool where he talks about his bandmates having ‘big ears’. It’s a phrase I love; I imagine a huge pair of ears hungry for sound, sucking in the different strands of music from the air around them. For me, this is the first and most fundamental step towards musicianship, simply being aware of what is happening around you. A simple example is something that I’ve heard said in different ways over the years: “If you can’t hear the tune, play quieter”. Simple advice, maybe, but something that makes a huge difference to a performance.

Listening, though, is just part of the story – we also need to be able to understand what we’re hearing. This includes understanding what’s happening with melody, harmony, rhythm and dynamics and goes beyond that into texture, form, mood and emotion. It means being able to decode the different elements of what we’re hearing into a something that we can use to inform our own playing. It can be working out a chord sequence by ear, or noticing when a another musician is trying to affect the mood of the music.

As the ABRSM definition says, thinking in sound includes imagination. This is where the magic happens, imagining the sound we want to hear and producing it with our voices or instruments.

When our imaginings come in response to what we understand from attentive listening we have a profound impact on the music that we’re making. When we notice our fellow performer trying to change the mood we have an opportunity to contribute, to add our own imagination to theirs and create together.

This cycle of listening, understanding and imagination; this constant interplay between the individual performers, is for me what raises music-making from a craft into an art.

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