Hear It First

Improvising musicians often talk about playing what they hear, or about trying to play what they would sing. When a musician does this, he steps away from the sometimes restrictive world of the intellect, the world of words, the world of analysis. He involves his innate sense of musicianship in the process.

We’ve all been hearing music since we were children. We have a deeply innate, almost intuitive sense of the language of our musical culture, the same way we have an understanding of the language we speak. However we often step away from this understanding through the processes we undertake to become trained. We learn how to think about music in terms of right and wrong ways to play, we spend alot of time learning how to read printed music, we analyze how we hold the instrument, how we move our hands, what kind of strings to use, how long our nails should be, what kind of instrument is best, etc. A balanced approach takes all of these very important considerations in stride and then puts the conclusions drawn there in an alliance with the deeper concerns of how the language of music is spoken.

When approaching a new piece of music, when working on a trouble spot in a familiar piece, when trying to dust off a piece from the past, or when trying to memorize, the first step should always be in the hearing. Step back from the trying to scratch the music out from what’s on the page.

Here’s a step-by-step:

1)  Break the music apart into the largest bit that you can fully comprehend, intellectually, technically, and musically. Sometimes this is a few phrases, sometimes it’s a few measures, sometimes it’s a few notes. Be honest with yourself, be patient, and choose a smaller bit.

2)  Describe the music as specifically as you can, as many different ways as you can. For example: “It’s part of the introduction, and there’s this descending bass line and it ends on this chord that is the same fingering as the first chord, but is only the bottom four strings. There’s a decrescendo, and I have to drop my left elbow to reach that c# on the third beat. It sounds dark and brooding, and really sets a mood of an almost uncomfortable kind of anticipation.”

3)  Imagine how it would sound if you played the passage perfectly. This is the most important step. Use a recording to help you, if necessary, or have your teacher or another student play the passage for you. Don’t even think about playing until you have a crystal clear, loud mental-sound-image of the passage.

4)  Sing it, directing your attention to how the music feels in your body. Don’t worry about how accurately you sing the pitches or how appealing (or not!) your voice sounds. Get the energy right. Sing all of the parts separately, especially if it’s contrapuntal. It takes more energy than you think to make music. If you sing hesitantly with no movement or energy, you will play the same way.

5)  After you do steps 1-4 a few more times, and then a few more, play. Don’t let yourself play anything that you can’t hear.

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