“Be sure to listen!”
This was my teacher’s final piece of advice before I played my first orchestra rehearsal. I was only 12, and I was playing with a local community orchestra. I was a little nervous. All the other players were grown-ups. The part I was playing was unfamiliar, but back then every orchestra part was unfamiliar. Adding to my discomfort was the conductor’s heavy German accent and the fact that he addressed me only as “leetle girrrl.”
I would have loved to listen, but I was too uncomfortable and inexperienced to do more than pray that I would come in at the right time.
Unnerving as it was, the whole experience taught me to listen. Even better, over time I learned the skills I needed to become a constant and reliable ensemble player. I learned to listen like a superhero.
If you’re a Marvel Comics fan, you know that the superhero Wolverine is a mutant who possesses a set of amazing retractable claws and ultra-keen senses, including a fantastic sense of hearing. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we all could listen and hear like a superhero?
If Wolverine played the harp (how would he manage with those claws?), he might be an outstanding ensemble player. Then again, he might not. Certainly, he would have the ability to hear everything he needed. But would he know how to interpret what he heard?
I think musicians develop a special kind of superhero hearing. I often call it “outside ears”, a way of listening to others while keeping track of what you’re playing yourself. Listening this way allows you to integrate your playing with what is going on around you. It’s not a mutant talent, but a skill that any musician can develop.
Superhero listening consists of three steps: hear, predict and match.
Listen to Hear
Sherlock Holmes memorably admonished Watson, “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.” Similarly, we musicians often listen but don’t really hear. Superhero hearing depends on listening with the intent to understand what is happening beyond your music stand, outside of your own playing.
Listen to Predict
It isn’t enough to hear what has already been played. Each note that you hear leads to the next. Your job as a superhero listener is to glean, from the note you just heard, when and how the next note will be played. Are the other players slowing down, speeding up, playing louder or softer? Your own musical intuition will usually lead you to the correct decision, if you trust it.
Listen to Match
Once you have heard and made your prediction, you should be able to match your playing to that of the other ensemble members. The goal is to act, not react. This is often called playing “on top of the beat” or “playing on the front of the beat.” Correct predicting will enable you to get to the beat at the same time as everyone else.
One of the best ways to practice these three steps is to work with the metronome. This is an excellent way to develop your listening skills away from the pressure of playing with a group.
The easiest way to start is to practice your scales with the metronome. Concentrate on the sound of the metronome and predict each click so that you can accurately match it, not playing after it clicks, but playing exactly with each click.
Play your scales with one note to one click, then two notes per click, then three notes, then four notes. Make listening to the metronome your priority; don’t try to worry about tone or technique during this exercise. Listen to the metronome and feel that steady pulse inside you. Use the pulse to predict the next click and then match your playing to your prediction and of course to the click.
Who knows? Maybe the next comic book superhero will be a harpist? You, perhaps?