Listening and making
Last week I presented a talk at the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM), attended by students and staff of the Academy and members of the public. I spoke on The role of an elite musician in the community. It went pretty well, I felt, with some good discussion at the end that various members of the audience weighed into.
I’ll post my paper here very soon, but in the meantime some interesting points were raised that I felt required further discussion, in which two questioners made a distinction between music-making and music-listening. The first questioner suggested that these were two separate things (in particular when thinking about music education and the kinds of community-based roles elite musicians might play) . The second person, a student, made the comment that, while she loves to play, she doesn’t really like listening to music, and doesn’t enjoy going to concerts.
Both comments took me by surprise. For me, listening and making are very intertwined, in fact totally integrated. The more I listen to music, the richer my musical vocabulary (in terms of expression, composing, devising…) becomes. The more music I make, the more my listening develops, becomes more sophisticated, attuned, critical, aware. When I create a project with other musicians or with young people, I am hoping to develop both aspects of musicianship concurrently. One should feed off the other.
I listen to music in different ways. The way I listen to a familiar piece – especially one that I have played myself – is different to the way I listen to a new piece. The way I listen to contemporary music is different to the way I listen to older music from the Western Classical tradition. I think of it as finding or creating listening pathways. Even with a familiar piece, I can choose well-worn pathways or new approaches in my listening.
As I listen to anything, I am engaging my musical memory, following structure, and the way transforms and develops musical ideas. I am listening with my musical imagination at work, considering the decisions the composer has made – the way different instrument voices have been combined to create colour, the decisions that surprise me, the hooks that grab me, and what it is about them that makes them so effective. Sometimes I am connecting with my musical knowledge, other times my response is purely instinctive, and I am carried along by the music, held by it.
In a music project where improvisation plays a major part, learning to hear the music and trust what it is telling you is essential, and a skill that can thrill you as you start to develop it. It involves knowing where the music has come from, honoring where it needs to go, being sensitive to what should happen next. This kind of ‘intuition’ isn’t really intuition at all, it is rather experience, that comes from playing, and working hard to get under the skin of a piece; and from listening, and building up an extensive deep understanding of the language of music and what makes it work.
Probably it is not just in improvisation where this counts. One of the most powerful chamber music classes I took was one where we explored musical phrase. Each of us in the class chose a single phrase from our repertoire to explore, and together we workshopped what was musically required to make the phrases ‘speak in their truest voice’. Midway through explorations I suggested that the power in the phrase was not up to me at a certain point, it needed to be carried more by the pianist (a sonata for clarinet and piano). My teacher emphatically disagreed, saying, “But if the pianist isn’t doing it then you must make them do it! From the way you play the lead-up!” I thought I understood the point at the time, but later, throughout many years of further chamber music study and performance, I really learned what that meant, to hear the music and be true to it, and guided by it. Which is all about listening, in the end.