On Listening in Perspective

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My brother tells a story of taking a photo of a mountain on a family holiday. Knowing that his wife considered pictures of nothing but landscape rather dull, he asked his then young daughter to stand in the foreground. The camera's autofocus produced a lovely picture of her, with the mountain an indistinguishable blur behind.

The happy sequel to this was how useful the picture became when he was teaching Music Technology A Level. He would show the class the photo and ask them what it was a picture of. ‘A little girl,’ they’d all say. ‘No,’ he’d reply, ‘a mountain.’ And then he’d go on to teach them about how microphones don’t give you an objective representation of the sound they pick up, but bring out certain aspects of that sound, depending on the mic itself, the space it’s used in, and what the recording engineer does with the settings.

I was reflecting on this story the other day, and noting that it’s not just the mechanisms we use to record the world that do this, our senses do too. To take an example of the kind of listening we’ve been doing more of than usual in the last year, if you are listening for balance in a recording project, after a while it becomes hard to hear if a part is popping out because it is too loud, or because your ear has locked onto it and is bringing it into particular perceptive salience.

One of the reasons it can be useful for performers to go through external assessments – grade exams, festivals, competitions – is to get a fresh pair of ears onto your work. A teacher or coach can get habituated to attending to those things you have been particularly working on together, and tend as a result either to think that the performer is doing better than they are (failing to notice something else that needs attention) or worse (so focused on this specific development goal as not to notice other achievements). This is of course also the source of the disappointment and/or anger should these external assessments come back with a poorer result than expected.

It’s not that these external assessors are any more ‘objective’ – they too are listening through filters formed by their experience, training and indeed prejudices – but they do have a greater sense of perspective than those close to the performer. This is in part because of the formal conventions of the process (assessment criteria etc) structure how they direct their attention so as to align with other assessors in the same institutional context, and in part because they don’t have the performer-specific expectations that someone who has been closely involved in developing the performance will have.

So the question then becomes: how can we refresh our ears to allow us to hear mountains as well as little girls?

  • Rest and come back to the work after a break. Simple, but always a good answer.
  • Seek other opinions. In choral contexts, I love to have different singers step out to listen and give feedback. It’s great for them to hear the overall sound, but it’s also great for me to have that reality-check of what leaps out to others as the most striking impression. And one of the most useful things you can get from external coaches is the ability to hear new things you were previously unaware of.
  • Listen to other performers. They will have different strengths and weaknesses from you, and will thus put both what you are already doing well and what you can usefully work on next into relief.

None of these, you will notice, are very surprising answers; they are all things we know are useful to do anyway. But it is useful to remind ourselves of them, as when we forget that we listen through filters is the time that our filters get clogged up with the minutiae of our immediate concerns.

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