Friday, September 22, 2006


A large sign used to hang behind the podium at all rehearsals of the Eastman Wind Ensemble. It read "LISTEN". We shrugged, "duh", and gave it little or no thought. Listen to what, and for what? How do you listen? It was so general it had no impact. Some of us were thinking only "listen to me!"

Imagine the high-tech version of that sign today, like a scoreboard automatically posting violations and remedies with flashing lights, singling out the guilty! "THE SECOND BASSOON IS SHARP . . . BY 6 CENTS. VIOLIN RHYTHM IS QUESTIONABLE. THE HORNS ARE LATE. TROMBONES TOO LOUD. PERCUSSION IS RUSHING, AND THE TRUMPETS ARE OUT OF TUNE WITH EACH OTHER". I'm sure we would have found a way to permanently disable that sign. Either that, or we would have quickly learned to prepare our ears for life in a first rate ensemble. We would have learned to listen or else!

Some 40 years later that one-word message still remains a challenge. The skill of good listening is often neglected in our training. Usually in too much of a hurry, we fail to evaluate what we have played or to compare it with the highest standards. It was said by one of my teachers, "you spray the air with thousands of notes of highly questionable value!" So it is quality of notes, not quantity. Good practice must include and be preceeded by good listening.

How about some hearing aids? Targets for our listening: consistent high quality of sound, sensitivity to balance (in ensembles), intonation, the right kind of articulation, projection vs. blending (ensembles), dynamic contrasts, and the style and impact of the music. Attention to details and impeccable control of technique are goals worth striving for, but it all begins with the ability to hear. Serious listening to great recordings and performances as a steady diet will yield the valuable fruits of mature musicianship. Casual attention to these essentials will not get it done. As it was said in Revelation, "he that hath an ear, let him hear."