Monday Matters: Practical Practice Tips

April 14, 2008

Today’s Practical Practice Tip: Listen.

A lot of people think that listening is a total waste of time. Those are the people who have to spend several extra weeks (or months) on a piece because they never quite “get” what it’s supposed to sound like. Some people also think it’s cheating or copying someone else, but it could be that they view the recordings as a crutch instead of a very powerful tool in learning. I’m usually pretty flattered when someone — a student, another violinist, a colleague — adopts something I’ve done well. I’m more flattered, however, when a student actually takes my advice and listens to the Suzuki recordings the way I ask them to. Very few of my students take me seriously when I tell them that they should listen twice as much as they practice, and unfortunately, it shows in their playing. They are missing a very important point, but I can only ask so much. They have to eventually figure it out for themselves. Of course, I’m not above using sneaky means to make my point, like posing it as an “official studio experiment” or some other way that makes it seem like I need their help for some very important studio business. After all there is only one of me, and several of them.

Sight-reading is a wonderful skill to possess but it takes time to learn to be able to do it right, much as it did in learning to read books. Musical notation is a language, just like English, French or Swahili. Or math. Or HTML. Yeah, you can pick up on the basics of how to learn them from a book. But for most people, the natural way to learn them is to listen to someone explain it. The recordings of the pieces in the Suzuki books are someone else explaining how they should be played. Most of the music in the world is not written down on paper. People learn it by passing it down aurally. Hard to believe, I know, but there are other types of music than Western classical. And to be even more blunt, the Suzuki repertoire books were not written for three-year-old students. Or fifty-year-old students. They were written for parents, so that the parent would have something to follow along with (after being instructed in what to look for and how to interpret the notation by the teacher).

Listening benefits a student several ways. A student should listen to the pieces: the one’s he’s already played, and the ones that are coming up shortly. This “sets” the tunes in the student’s inner ear. It gives him an example of fine playing to emulate. It helps him start the notation reading process, if he follows the printed music while listening. It teaches critical thinking and listening skills, by providing a measuring stick of sorts: the student learns to compare his performance to the one he hears on the recording. Diverse listening also helps the student mature as a musician, when he listens to “motivational pieces”: pieces that are considerably beyond his ability level. This could be a concerto, or a piece of non-classical music. Listening can be an extremely powerful motivator.

Listening is easy to fit into life. All you have to do is push “PLAY.” There are many different ways to accomplish any type of listening. The most effective listening is done while you’re doing something else — getting ready for bed, doing homework, or fixing dinner, for example — because it tends to stick in your subconsciousness better when it has to filter through other brain activities. Active listening can be done with the music in front of you during a practice session, or whenever the mood strikes. Load the pieces into the trusty old iPod, or the hard drive or hit repeat on the CD player. Turn it on in the car when you’re driving down the road. Try substituting some of the times that you would normally turn on the radio or your favorite drive-time CD. The most important thing is to do it, at least some, every day.

Listening is probably the single biggest thing a student can do to improve his playing, without even trying. It doesn’t take a conscious effort. But it pays huge dividends that will be heard in very short order by the teacher, the parents and the student.