Focused listening – part one

(this was originally sent out to my email newsletter subscribers – join my list here)

Hi all,

We’re often surrounded by music; it can be a soundtrack to everything we do (exercise, work, cooking, reading, watching movies, etc.) and yet it can be very rare to actually sit down and just listen to something, focused solely on the music.

Focused and intense listening is immensely helpful for developing one’s ear. It can also be a calming and meditative practice; in these stressful time, a way to quiet one’s mind and live in the moment.

For me, when I do focused listening I’m listening for phrasing – the way that a musician moves from note to note; the space between the notes that creates magic. You hear a note, and then another one – was the second exactly in rhythm? Perhaps it was little earlier – did that work? Or was the first note stretched a little and the second comes a little late – did that work? Was there a crescendo or decrescendo between the notes? Are we getting more intense? Less? So many possibilities!

As I listen I’m almost re-creating the sound again in my mind’s ear – it’s an active listening, rather than letting the sounds wash over me.

This can be more challenging than it seems – to listen, hear, and taste every note of a four minute piece, to say nothing of a twenty minute piece, without the mind starting to wander, can be difficult! But so worth cultivating.

It can be an interesting experience to carve out time each day to just sit and listen to something for five minutes – maybe a favorite album or maybe a new recording to which you’ve not really had a chance to listen.

And if you want something to bring your mind back from wandering, or if you want to improve your own playing and ear, try listening for phrasing.

One way to work on listening to phrasing is to listen to the same piece, or even just a section of the same piece, performed by many different musicians. Listen for what you like, and what you don’t like. Really try and hone in – if you love how someone plays a phrase, why? What did they do that was so effective? How does it sound different from a phrasing that you don’t like as much?

To get you started, here’s a playlist. 11 performances of Chopin’s Nocturne, Op.9 No. 2. Some great, some so-so.

As you listen, try not to focus on the sound quality. The location, the equipment, and the post processing can all have a huge effect on how a recording sounds. There are recordings where you might listen just for the pure aural pleasure of how amazing it sounds. But for our purposes, we can learn from and be moved by phrasing from a bad quality live recording or scratchy LP, as well as a beautifully engineered recording.

Try listening with your eyes closed to remove visual stimuli and let you focus just on what you hear (I find using headphones can be effective for this as well).

I will write next week with some followup thoughts. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you, and I hope that the idea of spending a little bit of time just listening to music can help bring some peace in these anxious times, regardless of whether you try this particular exercise.

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