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I also talked about ignoring the sound quality of the recording to focus on phrasing. Both of those tie into what I want to talk about today: stories and narrative.
As humans we always try to find meaning and narrative from everything we see and experience. It’s no different when it comes to listening to music, which means if we’re focused on listening to phrasing, it’s good to be aware of any stories we have around what we’re hearing and try to ignore them.
I’m not talking about, by the way, stories we might make up about what the music itself is saying (“and here we go deeper into the wood as the birds are singing“) but narratives around the performance/performer or anything that is not the music.
For example, I had to include this version of the Chopin Nocturne when I saw the photo:
I’m immediately intrigued and I want to like the performance – before I’ve even listened to it…
Visuals can create narratives; watching someone young perform we might have the narrative of a prodigy (whatever that means to us). Watching someone who seems totally involved/immersed in the music also creates a narrative. Or a beautifully filmed video/performance. All can add to the experience, but are also distractions if we’re trying to work on our ears.
I mentioned that I can be moved by, and learn from, phrasing even on old, scratchy, recordings , but there is a narrative trap here, too – many of my favorite musicians are from the period of the LP, and so when I hear that distinctive sound of an old record, my mind may auto-complete a story of “oh, this is old, it must be good!”
The reputation, the story, of the performer can have a big effect – a famous musician, whom you recognize, might “sound” better to you than someone unknown.
It’s not to say that these stories or narratives aren’t real or worthwhile. The way you experience something is real and valid – if something is deeply moving to you, in a way it doesn’t matter why. And I will often talk to students about hand and arm motion and how that can help “create” the sound/mood/narrative that we want, for example.
But at the same time, as far as training our ears, ignoring the “story” is helpful – closing your eyes, trying to forget who it is that is playing, or what other people think of it, etc. and just focusing on the shape and transition from note to note!
I will return to the Chopin Nocturne from part 1 with a video looking at a very small section and three interpretations of the same short sequence of notes. But for now, let me leave you with another playlist.
This time of the Prelude (and in most cases, the Fugue) No. 4 in C Sharp Minor from Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier. Interesting to contrast the different interpretations, but mainly shared because I love the music and hope you will, as well :)
Would love to hear your thoughts on listening and phrasing!
Stay well, Josh
(this was originally sent out to my email newsletter subscribers – join my list here)
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.
I recently published a music video of the tremendously fun Alla Turca Jazz and then yesterday I published a video of a performance from 2018 of the Prelude and Clair de Lune from Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque. Hope you enjoy! :)
Some recent videos, including my 2020 New Year’s Improvisation:
A music video and Harp Tuesday episode on Salzedo’s Concert Variations on ‘O Tannenbaum‘:
And a couple other recent Harp Tuesday episodes:
A lost masterpiece restored; a long-held dream achieved. Bochsa’s Harp Concerto No. 1 at the World Harp Congress.
I’m very excited to share with you that I’ll be playing Bochsa’s Premier Concerto at the World Harp Congress in Cardiff, Wales, on July 30th, 2020. [Now August 12, 2021]
[EDIT: The World Harp Congress has been moved to 2021]
A formative part of my early years learning the harp was listening to a Lily Laskine recording of harp concertos that included Nicolas Charles Bochsa’s Premier Concerto pour Harpe in Ré mineur, Op. 15. Sheet music for the rest of the works on her recording were easily available, but the Bochsa proved elusive – there is no currently published edition.
It became a bucket-list goal for me to somehow find the music and perform the concerto. Last year during my time in England I tracked down the solo harp part in the Zabaleta collection at the Royal College of Music and later I was able to obtain scans of both the harp and orchestral parts from the British Library. Many hours at the computer entering and correcting the parts into Finale and I now have a readable, playable edition of the concerto!
Not only do I finally have the sheet music, but I’m thrilled to be performing my chamber setting of the concerto at the World Harp Congress this summer. The World Harp Congress takes place every three years at a different location. It’s a week long celebration of the harp featuring some of the best harpists from around the globe.
I can’t wait to perform the Bochsa Concerto there. I’ll be in attendance the entire week of the Congress (July 25-30, 2020). As well as performing I look forward to connecting with fans and Harp Tuesday viewers in person during what looks to be an outstanding week of music and events.
Learn more about the Bochsa concerto at www.joshlayne.com/bochsa
Come study with me in Bulgaria August 2-9th, 2020!
Right after the World Harp Congress I’ll be in Sofia, Bulgaria to teach and perform at the 8th International Summer Harp Academy and Festival. Organized by Harp Corner/Angela Madjarova, this is a week long event with a chance to study with me plus Branka Crowder and Daniela Iolkicheva. Open to all ages and levels – more information. I had a wonderful, but too short, visit to Sofia in 2018 and I’m looking forward to getting a chance to spend some more time here!
Christopher Newport University Harp Festival, March 28th, 2020
I’ll be giving a masterclass and performing at the upcoming 2020 edition of the CNU Harp Festival (outside of Richmond, Virginia, USA). This day-long event features performances, masterclasses, vendors, and a competition for young harpists. More info here. See you there!
Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for more events to come in 2020… :)
I’ll be performing a 40 minute lunch-time concert in Victoria 12:10-12:50pm on Wednesday, Dec. 11th. St. Mary’s Church on Elgin Road in Oak Bay.
And a longer evening concert on Wednesday, Dec. 18th at 7pm at St. Andrew’s Church on 4th Street in Sidney, BC
Both programs will include this classic :) See you there!
My blog has been quiet but I’ve been busy! My November email newsletter caught up on some of what I’ve been doing. Read it below, and if you’re not already, make sure to sign up so that you’ll be able to read future newsletters!
I can’t believe it’s November already. Somehow August through October went by without me writing anything to you! I hope you’ve had a good several months :)
I’ve been keeping busy with playing and teaching plus various projects. I have some exciting announcements to share soon, but for this newsletter I just want to catch up on the various videos I’ve released since I last wrote, plus let you know about two local (Victoria, BC, Canada) concerts I’m doing in December.
Catching up on Harp Tuesday:
(just finished uploading this one!)
(some beautiful autumn colors in Victoria!)
Two December concerts in Victoria:
Music Monday update:
Music Monday is on vacation at the moment. I think it’s always important to pay attention to feelings of burnout – and in this case trying to release a new video every week ended up feeling a little bit too much. I’ll share some further thoughts on this at a later date, but for now, enjoy these six videos that I posted since I last wrote:
Thanks for reading!
I’ll leave you a photo of a close encounter with a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk. Check out my Instagram @joshlayneharp for other photos from the last several months.