The Forgotten Skill

There is one important part of practicing and learning any musical instrument or musical style that many players are unintentionally missing. A necessary skill that’s so obvious it often remains hidden in plain sight. It seems to be the same across the board from absolute beginners to college music majors. It doesn’t matter if you are studying classical music or are working on improvisation.

This essential piece of practice often gets overlooked, taken for granted, and sometimes even skipped altogether. Yet it’s an activity that can be one of the most beneficial and enjoyable things you can do for your playing. If done the right way, it can entirely change your conception of music and even speed up the learning process.

So what could this “thing” be? You practice your technique, you play some etudes, you do a few ear training exercises, you’ve studied your theory, you run through some tricky chord progressions, you review a few tunes you’ve learned…but you’re still missing it.

Any guesses? It’s listening.

Now you may be thinking I listen all the time. I listen when I’m walking to class, I listen to music at the gym, and I turn on a record when I’m reading or studying. However, are you just hearing music in the background or are you actually listening to it? (…and yes, there is a difference.)

Furthermore, is listening a part of your daily practice routine? Do you set aside time each day to listen to a tune that you are learning or a solo that you want to transcribe? If not, you should consider making some changes.

Why listen?

Many people trying to learn how to improvise aren’t listening enough, plain and simple. Much of the confusion in learning the fundamentals of improvisation can be traced back to a simple lack of listening. An average day of practice for most players includes etude books and technical exercises and scales and tunes and play-a-long tracks, but the one thing that’s missing is serious listening.

Listening somehow doesn’t even fit into the picture of practicing. It’s more of a secondary background activity done as an afterthought outside of the practice room rather than an essential piece of learning this music. Sure you put on a few recordings throughout the course of your day, but what about listening during the time you are actually trying to learn this music?

Listening should be an integral part of your practice routine, no matter what level you may be at in your musical development. You may be learning to hear a 12 bar blues for the first time, working on your articulation and time, or studying V7 chord substitutions. Rather than shooting blindly in the dark trying to learn these concepts, follow a guide. Instead of learning from definitions and vague descriptions, put on a record and you’ll hear the sound these devices in action.

“I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.”~Ernest Hemingway

When you listen, you define the fundamental concepts of musicianship and improvisation in your mind and your ear. What does it mean to “swing”? How do you articulate? What is a good trumpet or saxophone sound? What does a ii-V7 sound like? How do you play over a blues? As you listen, the answers to these questions will begin to form in your mind.

Ultimately improvisation must come from an internal source of understanding and if you’re only relying on a tenuous mental grasp, you’re going to continuously run into difficulties. Your understanding of these fundamental concepts starts with listening to great recordings or live performances: ingraining solid time, a good sound, phrasing, feel, articulation, harmonic tension and release. This is the main reason that you should be listening.

Think about your own practice habits for a moment. Have you ever tried to play a standard from a lead sheet without listening to it first? Have you ever worked on your sound or articulation without listening to the masters? Have you ever tried to memorize a chord progression or study a harmonic device without even listening to it?

Sure you can try to describe these concepts with words: “Swing with a triplet feel, tongue on the up-beats, play a melodic minor scale from the seventh scale degree, aim for the #11…” and you can memorize the names of chord progressions or the notes to a melody. But all this vague terminology is just describing the real sound and the truth is, we can only understand sound one way: listening.

Do yourself a favor, don’t learn the fundamental concepts of improvisation away from the music itself. What takes many words to produce a vague description can be understood in seconds with a little focused listening.

A musical history lesson

So is the only benefit of listening to gain a mental conception and aural understanding of the fundamental concepts of musicianship and improvisation? Not at all. One of the greatest benefits we get from serious listening is an in-depth knowledge of the history of this music.

There are hundreds of essential records out there that you need to know to be an informed, aware and relevant improviser. You’re not going to learn this musical history through a Wikipedia page or by watching a DVD series on the history of jazz. The only way you’re going to get familiar with the stylistic history and lineage of this music is through listening – hours upon hours spent with hundreds of recordings.

And with the thousands of records out there, this means a lot of listening.

Have you ever been around great improvisers while a record comes on? They all seem to have an in-depth knowledge of all the great recording and can usually sing along with the solos. You can easily tell how much listening a musician has done through how much they know about the music, so make sure you’re not left behind.

Today we have access to nearly any recording we can think of practically anywhere we may be. Learning the history of this music through the many great recordings available isn’t a dull chore or a dry history lecture, it’s a truly enjoyable activity that you should be doing every day.

Learning to listen

Take a listen to the tune below:

Now let’s take a quick test:

  • Do you know the time signature of the tune?
  • Do you know the form of the tune?
  • Is there a bridge?
  • How may bars is the tune?
  • What is the chord progression?
  • What is the name of the tune?
  • Who is the tenor player?

If the answers to these questions flew by you unnoticed as the recording played, you probably weren’t focused enough in your listening.

Now, these questions might seem like overkill for the first time you’ve ever listened to a tune, but look at it from a different perspective. Imagine that you met a few friends for an informal jam session and it so happened that you’ve never heard of the first tune that is called.

If you want to improvise successfully over this tune you need to have great ears and you need to get the answers to the above questions very quickly. Focused and informed listening skills are necessary for any serious improviser.

Lucky for us listening isn’t a static activity that stays the same for the rest of your life, it’s a skill that can be developed and improved on a daily basis. If you’re a musician, listening is how you take in information whether you’re in the practice room or on stage performing. The more adept you are at collecting this information, the easier you’ll be able to navigate any musical situation.

Hearing music is a passive reaction to sound, while listening requires action on your part. Everybody can hear music that is being played, but not everybody can listen to it.

6 steps for better listening

Listening is an enjoyable activity, but as a musician you also must listen to get information. You can easily sharpen your listening skills today with a few simple steps. Here are a few tips for getting more out of your next listening session:

  • Ensure that 100% of your concentration should be on the music. The number one reason we’re not getting enough out of listening or find ourselves lost in the form when improvising is that we’re not entirely focused on the music. When you turn on a recording, make sure to turn on your mind as well.
  • Pick a quiet place with no distractions like a practice room to do your listening. If you only listen when you’re driving to work, cooking your dinner, or walking to the store then you’re not truly listening.
  • Clear your mind for a few minutes before beginning your session. With a fresh and uncluttered mind you’ll be much more productive.
  • Turn off the lights to heighten your sense of hearing. You’ve probably heard that if you take away one sense, your other senses are heightened. This absolutely true when it comes to listening. Close your eyes or find a dark room to double your concentration.
  • Stay on task and don’t let your mind wander or daydream. Our concentration is constantly trying to get away from us and the hard part comes in sustaining this focus for long stretches of time.
  • Repetition. Listen more than once or twice to ingrain all the subtleties of that musical information.

It is often said that the answers are on the records, but they are not just going to come to you without any effort. You have to seek them out and slowly get these answers one by one. You may be searching for the melody to a tune, an unconventional chord progression, or even a ii-V line.

To get these answers you must listen to a very specific part of the music. You must use selective listening. When you are totally focused as you listen you hear subtleties and details that are passed over by the untrained ear. A few measures or a single line can give you the answers that you’ve been searching for.

Focused listening should be an everyday part of your practice routine. If you are trying to learn a tune listen to it at least 3x’s. If you want to transcribe a solo or line take a few measures and listen to them 10x’s in a row until you can sing the line. If you are trying to learn how to articulate, pick out a great recorded example and ingrain that sound.

Hearing or listening?

Music is all around us in our everyday lives. It’s streams from the TV, it’s pumped out as we go grocery shopping, and lingers in the air as we sit in the waiting room at the dentist’s office. We get accustomed day after day to hearing this background noise, but not actually listening to it. This isn’t totally our fault however, the majority of this music isn’t produced to be listened to, but rather to affect our emotional state.

Technology has also had a role in our declining listening habits. iPhones and iPods and other portable music players are great for taking your record collection with you wherever you go, however they inadvertently turn the important recordings in your collection into the background music for your life.

We’ve got a soundtrack for our commute to work, for our study breaks, and even for our daily workout routine.  We’re not exactly listening, rather taking in this music as a pleasant accompaniment to our daily activities.

Gone too are the days when you had to be in a room with a record player and speakers to play a recording, where you came with a singular purpose – to listen. As a result a lot of important musical information is passing us by unnoticed on a daily basis.

If you’re serious about learning to improvise then you must make the extra effort to ensure you are listening the right way. The next time you put on a recording don’t just let the sound go by subconsciously. Take a moment and ask yourself: “Am I simply hearing or am I truly listening?”

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