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.

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