Listening Days

Teachers, do you incorporate listening into your private lessons?  This is something that I would do on occasion, but not with purposeful intent… until the fall of 2012.   That summer, we got a scary look at the state of classical music here in the U.S.:  Minnesota, the NY and Philadelphia Phil's financial problems, Chicago missing a concert because the musicians went on strike, and the weeks of bitter contract negotiations while musicians of the Indianapolis and Atlanta Symphonies were locked out.  Many orchestras were struggling through their seasons, desperately looking for ways to increase ticket sales and funding.  But it's not just orchestral - 60 Minutes aired an article on how more and more pianos are ending up in landfills.  That year, piano sales took a dive, sending some retailers out of business.  It really bothered me - after all, this is my chosen profession.   I spent quite a bit of time thinking about it, about the why's and the what-to-do's.  

I'm not going to take the time to go over all my thoughts on the subject.  But, I would like to bring to you one facet of my overall conclusion that I could do something about: people don't listen as much anymore.  Whether they feel disconnected or intimidated or impatient, it all boils down to the audience, which over the past couple of decades, we have not been developing.  Even in terrific music programs, the students don't listen.  They play, but they don't listen to music made on their chosen instrument.  They themselves tell me so.  I decided to make it my job to supply the opportunity for my students to learn listen, and began an experiment that was intended to last a semester.  I started scheduling "Listening Days" into my lessons.  Every few weeks, I took out my phone and played a song.  The same song for every student, in every lesson, every day, all week long. 

And after we got into it a bit, we started talking about it.  I asked open questions like, "What does it sound like?" and more focused ones like, "What instruments do you hear?"  The students told me about what they heard, and why they either liked it or disliked it.  Afterward, I talked briefly about the piece and its composer.  Weeks later, I chose another piece and we did it again.   And then again.  And then again.  

8th grader on Eric Whitacre’s “October”:
It sounds kind of happy and sad, like remembering the summer, but also exciting, like something new is starting.

I was surprised and very pleased with the results I had that semester.  So much so, that I’ve kept it going for the past four years.  I don’t tell the students ahead of time, and most students, when I pull out my iPhone and say, "it's a listening day" respond with enthusiasm.  I've had NONE so far respond negatively.  If it’s been a little too long between listening days, students will ask if we’re having another one soon.  One time, of my little ones even got out of her chair and started dancing around the room along with the music - and that's ok for the little kids.  (Although maybe not for your teenagers!)  We then pepper in some discussion on how to find music like this, where to look for it.  I'm surprised that students genuinely don’t think to look this stuff up - and most of them have a music-playing device connected to iTunes, Pandora, Rdio, YouTube, iHeart, or Spotify right in their pocket!

Private teachers, please give this a try.  Choose short pieces, and yes, it will take 5-7 minutes of one lesson every several weeks.  But, you are more than an instructor of technique - you are a window that can broaden someone’s perspective on the musical world.  Through your instruction on how to listen, a student may be able to better relate and enjoy a piece of music that they may not have paid any attention to otherwise.  It’s worth the time.

A few tips for you:

1. Do choose pieces that are short, or listen to just a section rather than the entire work.  Listening is important, but we do only see them once a week.  Plus, the longer the piece, the more difficult it will be for them to talk with you about it, especially the younger students.  

2. Choose a variety of pieces.  I've used symphonies, chamber music, opera, concertos, jazz… Make sure to include pieces that feature the student's instrument, but don’t feel limited to just that instrument or family or instruments.  In my studio, we listen to lots of works for woodwind instruments, but not always.

3. Sit quietly and just listen to the recording with them for a minute.  Then, ask your students what they think BEFORE you give any insight, explanation, or opinion.  I was amazed at some of the things my students had to say.  Ask questions that will let them tell you what they hear before you tell them what you think they should hear.  When you do start talking, answer your own questions: “I love (this) about this piece,” or “It makes me think of (this) because ____.”  Make it more of a conversation than a lecture.

4. Ask if they liked the piece, and tell them it's ok if the answer was "no."   Ask what they like about it, and if they don't seem to like it, ask what they don't like about it.  We’re trying to get them thinking about the music.  You don't like every piece you hear, and they shouldn't think they have to, either.  Which leads into my next point:

5. Make it clear that you are not telling them they should ONLY listen to classical or jazz.  My students know that I listen to lots of different kinds of music, including punk… yup, punk.  I like it - and that's ok.  But do encourage them to work classical and jazz into their musical diet.

Teachers, please try this.  You have uninterrupted, one-on-one time with them, and this seems like such a basic, trivial thing, but it's already making a difference with my students.  They're talking with me about music and musicians without me always being the one to bring it up.  They’re telling me how they used to think classical and jazz were boring, but now they hear so much more in it.  They’re relaying discussions they have with their peers about music.  We need them for the future of classical music, and we already know the medium is worth preserving.  They just need someone to teach them to listen.