How Much are you Hearing?

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We all know that listening is central to ensemble music - the participants listening to each other, and in bigger ensembles, the director listening to the whole. And if you asked any member of an ensemble if they were listening, they would reply that of course they were. But equally there may be all sorts of stuff that's going on that they're not hearing. Why is this?

  • They may be focusing so carefully on their own part that everything else is shunted to the very edge of their attention. Another, involuntary, version of this is when a dose of adrenaline induces tunnel hearing
  • They may have got so used to how the ensemble sounds that they have ceased to notice things that could be improved. Persistent tuning or synchronisation errors are often in this category. Combine these first two experiences, and you start to grow some flaming pink hippos
  • They may not have the perceptual categories to identify an issue, or their scale of perception is not sufficiently fine-grained to make the distinction.

(I say 'they', but of course I mean 'we'. I've a decent pair of ears on me, but I am under no illusion that there is loads more available to be perceived yet. I'm pretty sure there is no such thing as a 'finished product' when it comes to detail of hearing.)

Another variant of the last of these is where people identify a problem, but only in terms of the symptom, which they then try to fix without diagnosing the underlying cause. Tuning would be a classic problem in this category, which is one of the reasons I don't write about it in so many words very often, or indeed talk about it very much while coaching. Much more useful to focus on the vocal habits, musical understanding or emotional issues that manifest in squiffy pitch.

Now the reason all this is important - to state the obvious - is that unless and until you can perceive something, you can't do anything about it. Directors are often on the search for new 'fixes', ways to tackle the problems they meet week-in week-out at rehearsal. But looking for 'tools' presupposes that you know what you want to work on.

And in fact, quite often it is the time and effort taken to understand what it is that we hear that sorts it out. Quite often we find we don't need to 'do' anything, as problems propose their own solutions, or even magically fix themselves. At the very least, analysing what's going on gives us the insight to deploy our rehearsal tools with precision rather than force.

So why don't we do this more often? Well, because it's harder than just following our regular routines of course. It demands more of us. It requires that we grow, which in turn requires that embrace our current imperfections as musicians. (Okay, pep-talk to self over.)

And what can we do to open our ears? Some suggestions from previous posts of activities to help:

On the Primary and Secondary Effects of Rehearsal Methods
On Duetting
How to hear your choir more perceptively

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