Active Listening

Active listening is a skill I often find lacking in my students. I tend to blame the soundtracking of our culture for this: we have so overloaded our ears with constant background or mood music that we have trained our brains to not pay attention to what we’re hearing.

Here’s how I talk about it with my students.
Active listening is asking questions as you listen. There isn’t one right question, either – you can actively listen to any number of aspects of a musical performance.
Here is a recording I frequently use for a listening exercise in rehearsal.

Here are some of the questions you might ask while you listen.
Overall questions
Did I enjoy the performance?
Would I listen again?
When was it recorded?
Who is the performer?
Performance questions
Did the performance feel like the right duration?
Was I engaged for the entire piece?
Vocal questions
What is the tone of the singers?
Is the tone dark or bright?
Vibrato or senza vibrato?
How does the tone reflect the character of the piece?
How do the singers blend?
Arrangement questions
What is the character of the arrangement?
What is the form of the arrangement?
Did material repeat or was it consistently new?
Was there an introduction? How did it set up the sound of the piece?
If this is an arrangement, how does it enhance/change/elaborate on past versions of the song?
How would I describe the arrangement style?
If there was a soloist: how did the solo integrate into the piece? How does the arrangement support the solo?
The most important caveat is that all questions require open-ended responses. “Did I enjoy this performance” cannot have a simple yes or no. My students must say “yes, because…” or “no, because…”. If they are really working at active listening, they will automatically have justificiation for their opinion.
We may also talk about how some pieces or performances make demands that can’t be met on the first listen. (Consider Rite of Spring or Caroline Shaw’s Passacaglia from Partita)
While I usually leave my active listening open ended, occasionally I will ask them to focus their listening on one particular thing, or else listen multiple times to one recording, focusing on different aspects of the performance.
Then I encourage my students to carry active listening with them outside rehearsal. Not all the time – there is too much music in our lives to actively listen all the time. But take a little time to tune in and listen for a little while every day.