On Listening

This week I’d like to talk about listening. Very often, we are caught up in working on the physical details of playing, or in some sort of deadline (“I’ve got to memorize this piece before my next lesson,” or “I have to get this ready for the recital performance”). This kind of work is certainly necessary for us to feel as though we’re making progress and it helps us to meet very practical goals. However, there are many other elements which influence our playing, other than the “nuts and bolts” work we do in the trenches of the practice room. One of the most important of these things is listening to music.

It could be said that music is a form of communication. It has it’s own conventions, syntax, dialects, grammar, etc. We could not expect to learn a foreign language without hearing it, nor should we expect to learn to speak the language of music without spending some time listening to it.

What does this mean for a classical guitarist?

Obviously, we need to listen to other guitarists, as many as we can get into our ears. Everyone has his or her favorites, and often these performers inspired us to start playing in the first place. Listening to guitarists is also an excellent way to find new repertoire. In addition, listening to guitar recordings helps us to build good tone. If we don’t have a clear idea of what a good sound is, we can hardly expect to develop it in our own playing.

Not so obviously, we also need to listen to other musicians. Sometimes, recordings of guitarists are the only classical music a student listens to. This is a very narrow view of the world of classical music, and the language was developed by composers who wrote symphonies, operas, string quartets, piano concertos, etc.

Finally, we need to listen for style. Articulation, dynamic shaping, phrasing, tempos, and countless other interpretive decisions can vary widely depending on when and where a piece was conceived. By listening to recordings of Baroque music when we are working on Bach, or by listening to Haydn and Mozart when we are playing Sor or Giuliani, we can develop a deeper appreciation of how these pieces should be treated.

When listening, it might not be so important to draw absolute conclusions about what it is that you are hearing. Just listen all the time and let it sink into your mind. Turn on your local classical music radio station, check out some CD’s of symphonic music from your library, go to free concerts at your local college and learn to hear the language that you are trying to speak.

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