By: Konner Scott
In the music world, we have this paradigm of practice as a very active endeavor. Practice to us often constitutes repeating passages, playing with a metronome, running scales, and doing the physical & mental legwork necessary to level up on your instrument.
Of course, these things are crucially important. They’re the cornerstone of an effective practice routine. But I’d like to suggest that we expand our cultural understanding of “practice” to include active and passive listening.
Imagine, if you will, a world in which accomplished concert pianist Evgeny Kissin knows how to play piano, but has never actually listened to music. All he knows is how to read the symbols on the sheet music in front of him and replicate them on the keyboard. He can play the proper notes for the correct lengths of time, and perhaps even add the appropriate dynamics and articulation.
Do you think that he’d be able to take that information and apply it in such a way that he could deliver a world-class performance? Would he be able to rouse people to their feet and bring a tear to their eyes? It’s entirely possible, sure. With his particular musical genius, maybe he finds his way to that level of skill without ever actually listening to music. But I think it’s far more likely that something is lost in translation between the sheet music and the keys on the piano.
A music performance, in some sense, is a synthesis of inspiration. Every single high-level performer on Earth has a list of influences who have both consciously and subconsciously influenced their style. Things like feel, tone, emotion, tempo, and phrasing don’t exist in a vacuum. We take on an understanding of these through listening to the works of those who came before us.
This is why I believe that listening is a critical component of being able to play your instrument at the highest level. The more we indulge in our influences, the more the best characteristics of those influences work their way into our playing. And by expanding our musical tastes and interests, we can enhance and synthesize elements of our playing in novel ways.
The difference between active and passive listening is an important one, too. Passive listening is what we do when we’re singing car karaoke with our friends, or listening to heavy metal to get pumped up before our football game. It’s how we listen when we just want to enjoy our favorite music and allow it to elevate us above the material world. This type of listening gives our subconscious minds a chance to process the emotional weight of our favorite music and integrate it into our understanding of the world around us. It’s the reason why you may tear up in the grocery store aisle when an old favorite you haven’t heard for years starts playing over the radio (or maybe this is just me).
Passive listening is useful for being able to deliver a smooth performance. It helps grant us a deeply intimate understanding of what makes music powerful so that we may replicate it in our own playing. Active listening, on the other hand, is important for understanding the fine details of what makes a performance great.
Active listening is a far less common type of listening, and requires much more mental effort and attention. Some questions active listeners may ask themselves while listening to a performance are: What are the differences in dynamics throughout the performance? How does the artist play with subtle tempo changes and what effect does that have on the listener? What is the particular rhythm that holds the performance together? What motifs and themes are incorporated into the melody to make it memorable? Active listening involves listening to the details of a performance with full attention and observing how those details contribute to the performance as a whole.
Both types of listening are incredibly important and should not just supplement a practice regimen, but should be incorporated as a vital component of that regimen. These oft forgotten techniques are simple to employ and can enhance our musicianship in drastic and unforeseen ways. At the very least, you’ll be able to rest easy knowing that your time spent stuck in traffic with the radio on is actually improving your musicianship!