Here’s a thought for the day: Music is about listening. Ok, so it’s not earth-shattering news, but sometimes we get so caught up in making music that we forget to listen. We practice, play and practice some more. But if we are not listening, we are not using our best resource for correction and inspiration.
So how do you listen while you are practicing, and what should you be listening for?
The “how” is the easy part. You simply have to pay attention. This means not taking a mental nap while you’re doing ten repetitions of a passage. It means staying focused every moment you are practicing, not thinking about what you need to do later in the day. It means being present as you play. It isn’t easy, but the good news is that it will make your practice more efficient and productive.
Here is what you should be listening for:
1. Mistakes. This is without a doubt the first thing we listen for, and so it should be. To catch those note mistakes and rhythmic errors early before they become a habit, you need to be on the alert. Keep your eyes and ears open. (Side note – this is where aural skills training is especially useful. Your eyes and ears learn to work together.)
2. Even fingers. Technical issues are also fairly easy to spot. Listen to make sure your fingers are playing with an equal volume and tone, and that you don’t have buzzes or unwanted muffles.
3. Balance between the hands. This is a little trickier, but it is important that your right and left hands have an appropriate balance. Most often, you want a fairly equal sound between the hands. Occasionally though, one hand will need to be more prominent. Whatever the situation, just be certain your hands are balancing the way you want.
4. Dynamics. Read them from the page and then be sure you are playing them, not just in your mind, but audibly. Remember that dynamics always sound more obvious to the performer than to a listener. So add a little extra to that dynamic and listen to the result.
5. Phrasing. Hear your melodies and phrases sing. Sing them yourself, if it helps you. We often concentrate on the vertical (how our hands work together) at the expense of the horizontal (how the melody flows). Watch the phrase groups and make your melodies come alive.
5. Tone color. We harpists have so many tone colors at our disposal. Experiment and choose something that is just right for the mood you want to create in each piece you play. Change it up, and create a different mood.
6. Pacing and flow. Each piece may be made up of measures of music, some easier and some harder, but that doesn’t mean we want a listener to hear it that way. We want to convey the impression of the entire piece, with its particular narrative flow, from beginning to end. In order for this to work, we have to hear each section, each measure, as part of the whole.
7. Vision. What does this piece say to you? What do you want it to say to someone else? Does everything that you are doing contribute to that vision? Does anything detract? Listen as an audience would.
Speaking of which, listening to someone else is a great way to practice your listening skills. When was the last time you sat down and really listened attentively to your favorite music?