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Turn Listening into Playing

In my previous two posts I mentioned how important I believe it is for musicians to develop their listening skills, both to recognise styles and to be able to build the sound of their playing.  This is where the rubber meets the road, and in this post I hope to show how to turn listening into playing.

Playing Along:

In terms of making the connection between listening and playing, a terrific way of using listening in your daily practice is to play along to your favourite recordings without sheet music. Doing this is an excellent way to develop your ear and technique.

When you play along with a recording, in a way you get to experience what it feels like to be surrounded by the musicians on the recording. With no sheet music to follow you need to rely entirely on your ears to learn the pitch and rhythm of the music. Continuous practise in this way trains your ears to be sensitive to everything that is going on inside the music and it encourages a connection between your ears and fingers (in fact, your whole body). In other words, you learn to play what you hear.

This skill is extremely valuable and will enhance every aspect of your performance and will build confidence. As your ear develops you will be able to play along with more and more sophisticated music. Ear training will also have a positive effect on your skills as an improviser.

Style:

Listening is how we interpret the artistry of great musicians. They express their unique talents through their sound and style. Have you ever marvelled at the sweet tone of your favourite player and then tried to isolate as many things as you can about what makes them sound so good? Is it their tone? Is it bright, dark, broad or warm? Does it project through the ensemble or does it cover the band like a warm blanket? Is it a powerful sound or do they blend and achieve a perfect ensemble balance? What about the use of vibrato? Some players have a fast vibrato, some slow and others use none at all. Sometimes you can tell what era a piece was recorded in by listening to the way vibrato is used.

I like to listen to the greats of days gone by but these days we can also watch our favourite players on YouTube and other visual media. Watching is cool too, but sometime it’s easy to get caught up in “they make it LOOK so easy”. What music looks like should not be high up in the priority list, in my opinion. So watch them, and then play along with them to connect what you hear from them with what you play.

Balance:

Balance is an interesting one. When we listen to our favorite recordings they have generally been compressed, mixed, mastered and put through all sorts of weird and wonderful things before making it to our ears. So what we hear may not be the truest representation of the ensemble or player.

It is important to experience live music to get the best idea of balance. Take note of what goes on inside the music. Try not to listen to just the lead voices. How harmony parts balance and support is imperative to achieving a great ensemble sound. It is a skill that is overlooked by many education programs.  Many of the great lead players have attributed much of their success to the section players that support and follow them.

For instance, I enjoy hearing great lead trumpet players – they amaze and inspire me to keep at it and work harder to improve. I LOVE hearing great trumpet sections ringing with all voices of the chord resonating around the room. Here is a quote about lead playing from one of the most recorded lead trumpet players of all time, Bernie Glow. He said, “Sticking out in an ensemble is making people come in and say ‘Oh, isn’t he great?’ It’s not your function. Your function is to have people walk in and say ‘Oh, listen to that band, doesn’t it sound wonderful?’ ”

This is another skill you should practice when you are playing along with music or other musicians. You can vary your tone, volume and even phrasing until you can recognise the whole ensemble in the way you are playing.  When you get this right, it’s an amazing sound.

Here are two excellent examples of balance and blending.  These are two very different styles, yet highlight just how effective good listening can be.

In the first example, this trumpet section show a spread of horns where, despite being in different octaves, they sound as one unit.

The second example (the US Army Field Band sax quartet) show that, despite their differing melodic and rhythmic parts, blending tone can yield a whole sound that is singular and united.

Great trumpet blending, even spread across octaves

Saxophone quartet blending tone

Technique and problem solving:

So what if you have developed great listening skills but can’t express your sound the way you want to? In other words, CHOP PROBLEMS!

That’s an area that challenges us all at some stage in our career and can be ongoing. I recommend getting out there and searching for a teacher who speaks your language. What I mean is that most teachers say pretty much the same thing, except in different words.

Find a teacher that you feel comfortable with. Sometimes it’s not what a teacher says but how they say it that will get the message across. Listen to what teachers and other players have to say regardless of what you may think of them or have heard about them. They have had different experience to you and all experience is valuable.

Sift through the information and study it. Work on the ideas and concepts. Over time you will be able to make an educated decision to either hold onto the advice or let it go. You can learn from everybody! Again, the emphasis should be on LISTENING!

All of this serves to connect what you hear (both through your ears AND in your head) to what you play through your instrument.  Once you have developed your listening skills, you will find that as you listen and play your sound will begin to change.

Once you are at this point, you will find ways to be as creative as your mind allows.

Happy playing.

– Shane Gillard

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