About Listening as the Route to Musicality

The Musical U team tackles the topic of active and deliberate listening, and the benefits it brings to your musicality.

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Christopher: Hello and welcome to the Musicality Podcast.

Today, I’m joined by Stewart, Andrew and Adam from the Musical U Team. To follow up on our recent episode 100 celebration and talk about one of the themes that came up among several of our guest experts on those episodes.

We’re gonna be talking about listening as the route to musicality and it’s interesting because that is to me an obvious idea at this point, you know, the way I’ve been immersed in ear training and musicality training over the last decade this is just front and center in what I think about.

But, it was fascinating to see the different guises that came up in among our experts. So, for example Andy Wasserman, noted that the music inside of you is what makes music appeal to you. When you hear a song you like that is it resonating with your inner musicality.

Fiona-Jane Weston talked about listening for the message in the music.

Forrest Kinney and Bill Hilton talked about exploring in an improvisational way, and listening to yourself to see what you’re coming up with.

Katie Wardrobe recommended this as her top tip to listen actively all the time to develop your ear.
Gerald Klickstein gave the fantastic advice to record yourself when you are playing or practicing and listen back because that’s an amazing way to accelerate your learning.

Matthew and Jeremy from Music Student 101 talked about listening as one of the activities you can do to level up your musicality and finally Kendra McKinley stood out to me as someone who talked about not focusing all too much on your contribution and the importance of listening to the other voices around you. For example, if you’re in a band, being aware of everyone else that’s playing, not just your own notes.

This was a core idea that came up in a lot of different ways, so I was really looking forward to getting together with the team today to talk about what this means to each of us listening as the route to musicality.

Before we dive in I’ll just ask everyone to introduce themselves. Stewart, why don’t you kick us off? If you could just say a little bit about yourself and your role in the Musical U team?

Stewart: Hi, my name is Stewart Hilton and I am the Community Conductor inside Musical U and outside that I play guitar, teach guitar in a few groups. There you go.

Andrew: Hello, I’m Andrew Bishko. I’m the Product Manager at Musical U. Helping to write new materials and organize them and talk with members.

In addition, I’m the Content Manager for the Musical U Blog.

Outside of that I’m a music teacher. A multi instrumentalist playing woodwinds and keys and I have a Mariachi band with my wife, I play accordion in that band.

Adam: Hello everyone, I’m Adam Liette, I’m the Communications Manager here at Musical U.
I’m a trumpet player. A guitar player and lately started singing in the church choir.

Christopher: Very nice. How’s that going for you?

Adam: It’s absolutely wonderful. I love it.

Christopher: Andrew, why don’t you kick things off for us? I know you’re someone who’s thought a lot about listening in the context of learning and playing music.

Tell me, what comes to mind when I talk about listening as the route to musicality?

Andrew: Well. I don’t know if you’ve ever been around those kinda guys, some guy comes to a session, he gets out his guitar and he’s like aaaahhhh, you know, and it’s like it doesn’t matter what else is going on in the room, he’s listening but he’s just listening to himself and it’s like if you would breathe out, you know you are breathing out, hoooooo, and you never take an in breath. Listening is the in breath of our music.

You focus sometimes, we get so much into our playing, we’re playing, we’re doing this, we are making this sound but [inaudible 00:05:12]take an in breath.

The other thing is that many of us listen to music casually. Music is going on in the background and with recorded music, music’s going on everywhere all the time but, it’s very important to develop the skill of act of listening. Not only is it important, but it’s really fun.

So, listen deeply to the music that your on. Personally I can’t do anything when music is on. If music comes on it just grabs my attention and I can’t have background music but, other people can.
The idea is to focus on one instrument or you might want to focus on the interaction between two instruments on a dynamics at any musical element and you’ll learn so much from it and it’s so enjoyable to see how all the parts come together to form the whole. This can even happen listening to one single melody line, focusing on listening to that.

Listening, it’s kinda like this, okay, let’s say you are asking someone on a date and you say, first there’s two guys gonna ask a girl on a date and guy one says, wow baby, you’re hot, let’s go out and guy two says, oh I really like the way you parted your hair on the other side today and the color in your blouse really brings out the color of your eyes and what you said to Jimmy over there, that was amazing, I really liked the way you responded to him, I’d like to get to know you a little better, let’s go have some frozen yogurt, you know, who’s gonna get the date?

I mean maybe the first guy’s more honest and the second guy’s a serial killer but at least the second guy was listening in a way. He’s looking, he’s observing, he’s taking it in, he’s taking an in breath.
It’s the same thing with music. It’s so much more nuance, so much more dimensional and so much more enjoyable and musical when you’re listening, listening to yourself, listening to others and when you make the practice through active listening through your day, through taking some time to do that.

Christopher: Terrific, well I was expecting to call this episode “about listening” but I think it’s going to be “About serial killers and froyo”.

I think for me, it’s been a funny one because with my marketing hat on I’ve always struggled with whether people care about the really important point that improving your ears helps you enjoy music more.

Like that, to me, is a really powerful thing that when you learn to recognize notes or chords by ear, or you learn to hear parts in parallel or identify instruments or audio effects by ear it transforms the way you enjoy music.

If you’re passionate about music and you love listening to music, what could be better than hearing it ten times more clearly and more vividly?

I think I’ve struggled with whether anyone else gets as excited at that as I do and it’s a lot easier to talk about, you know, you can play chords by ear so you don’t need to look up chord charts anymore, that’s very specific and tangible but to me, a big part of what’s exciting about developing your musicality are these inner skills of music is, as you describe there, the ability to relate to the music around you and the music you enjoy and hear in a very different way.

How about yourself, Adam, what are your thoughts on this as listening to the route to musicality?

Adam: That was really inspiring thank you.

I’m gonna go a completely different direction though.

One of the things we talk about here at Musical U is how powerful it is to play with others. Get different musicians together and that was something we did back in the conservatory too. I studied trumpet at the conservatory and we were in this [inaudible 00:09:45] the Bill Adam, no relation to me Adam. Bill Adam, who was the legendary trumpet professor at Indiana University and part of his philosophy was, you need to spend 50% of your time resting in between the notes and that was just to allow your muscles to recover, all your facial muscles, keep your brain focused cos we were playing four, five or six hours a day.

One of the things that my professor told us we had to do was find a partner to play with cos trumpet players typically have what we call daily routing and it’s very rudimentary stuff, it’s all your long tones, your standard exercises, stuff from the Arban Method Book.

It can be a bit monotonous after a while, especially when you are talking about these hour and a half, two, three hour long practice sessions. But, like I said, we were told to find someone else to play with. So when I was an underclassman I would find the best trumpet player to play with and when you’re playing with the partner, it’s literally like a synchronized dance. Where the upper classman would play the note first and then I would repeat it, then he would play the next note and I would repeat it and it would go on and on for two, two and a half, three hours like this.

What I figured out later on, was that, by doing this I spent a full 50% of my practice time listening to the other trumpet player, mimicking his sound. Ingraining that sound into my mind and over time I was then able to make that sound as well.

It was really kind of crazy after a while, you could walk through the hallway with fifteen trumpet players all playing and you could walk through with your eyes closed and be like, there’s Rob, there’s Zak, there’s Heather. We all knew each others’ sound. It was ingrained in us.

I just think, we talk about listening a lot and listening is very important when learning [inaudible 00:11:47]new songs doing audition training but personally I found the most transformative part of my music education and experience came when I applied listening to the very fundamentals of music.
That’s what I miss most about the Conservatory is that I play alone now and I need to get some more trumpet players in my life and I definitely look forward to that in the future.

Christopher: That’s very cool, wow. That’s such a great example to of, how something that can seem like a magical ability actually just takes time and practice.

If you had said to someone, oh yeah, I can identify five or ten trumpet players just by their sound, they’d be like, what, no, all trumpets sound the same. Are you kidding? You must be some kind of magic man.

But, as you describe it there, if you spend half your time listening your ear is gonna get as good as your fingers and that kind of skill is within reach.

I think Andrew and I did a talk about it when we did an episode on playing multiple instruments, it’s that thing where learning to play and instrument means you hear it in a completely different way and you just described that vividly the trumpet. I think any instrument you get within a mediocre standard on, when you hear that in a recording you have a visceral response to it.

Adam: And the other added benefit to this is that we were close, we were brothers and sisters. There’s always competition in a studio. But, you genuinely cared about your friends’ progression. We are still close to this day and that came because of all those hours spent just dancing note to note, back and forth from note to note, exercise to exercise.

Christopher: Nice. How about you Stewart? How has this come up in your musical life?

Stewart: Well Adam, I just wanna let you know you’re gonna be living closer. I have played trumpet, however, it’s been thirty years so you will definitely know it’s me playing when I start trying to play.
Anyway, on the topic. I’m someone who wants to sit and listen to music. Especially you know if its on or having a good stereo system in the car and you know, we have two stereos in the house and the basement when we’ve finished it, I told my wife, I want it set up so I can sit and listen to music down here, loudly, possibly.

We have it kinda set up as such for me to do that so, you know, some people think there’s an earthquake going on in the close vicinity to the house at times, but, nope it’s Stew he’s downstairs listening to music.

I enjoy listening cos I think as Andrew discussed this and you and Adam, I like listening to how the music goes and even the little subtleties, like zeroing in on what the guitar does, what the bass does, what the drums are doing in certain parts. Maybe the vocal harmonies, oh wait, there’s other instruments going on that I didn’t realize were there.

We did some contest a while back on Musical U, well not a contest but like a challenge, and it was for people to listen to the song and listen for the different instruments that were going on, and I think it was Beach Boys, Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson, just used stuff that you thought people would’ve never used in a recording session.

But, if you listen real closely you can hear all these little bizarre things going on that you knew were there but, you never really listened and paid attention to what was going on in the recording and it’s just amazing how many instruments you would use, doing some of those two and a half, three minutes songs. It’s like, good grief, these are like orchestrations.

To me, it’s very enjoyable listening to how that goes. Because to me, when I listen, if you listen to some really good music that you like, I always kinda think of it as, I like going driving and it’s like taking a back road through the countryside that you’ve never taken before and it’s seeing all these new things along this road, oh, there’s a barn over here, oh I never noticed this lake over here, and that’s kinda like listening to music. It’s all these neat discoveries that can come.

And to take us to one more level. I’ve done some recording in the past and the last recording I did, we used new school technology to record old school.

We recorded as much as we could live. So, there’s no copy, paste. Every track we did was done, we hit record and let it go.

The bassist and I took a chance to sit back and listen to go, did that work there? Do we need to maybe make more space there? Oh, I wonder what it would be like, which was fun, is to.

I think it was more in the ’70’s you would hear these really bizarre panning things going on in left and right speakers, so we started doing that. We put that into the recording and it just made it really fun because as most people know, if you go into a recording studio, you’re paying some pretty big dollars to be able to do some of that stuff.

Having our own personal recording thing, you can sit back and tinker with, oh you know on this side maybe I’ll just play a regular first position guitar chord, but maybe over here, I’ll take it up fifth position and create some nice little things going on.

Being able to listen and hear how that works is a lot of fun and it brings the joy into the music because not only are you getting to create, but you’re even able to listen and go, did that work? Did it not work? It was exciting to do that.

I look forward to, at some point, to be able to do it again.

Christopher: Nice, well I think it’ll probably be on your next project, which will be a trumpet duo with our own Adam Liette.

Adam: Yes.

Christopher: I wanna wrap things up by laying out a few different types of listening we’ve talked about and as I’ve said at the beginning. This to me, it sounds like a clear and obvious topic, but there’s a lot of depth to it and we’ve talked a bit about listening to other musicians, if you are in a band or if you’re practicing in a partner way, like Adam talked about, and that can really be a powerful way to develop your collaboration skills.

We’ve talked about listening to music recordings, like a CD or an album and the kind of active listening you can do and I’ll link in the show notes to a past episode we did all about that and what you can listen for.

We talked about recording yourself. Gerald Klickstein was recommending this, and again, it’s something we’ve touched on several times on the podcast before so I won’t labor the point but just to say, that is a very different kind of listening and it comes back to these questions of self judgment and your inner critic and becoming objective about evaluating your own performance.

And finally, there’s doing the same thing in the moment. Learning to be present as Andrew often touches on in the context of improvisation. Learning to be in the moment and really paying attention to the sounds you are making because that can be the path to figuring out what you like, what you don’t, what you need to adjust in future.

Those are four different types of listening that I think can each tribute to your musicality development and I just wanted to wrap things up by laying those out and challenging everyone listening to take a minute and just think about how you are using each of those in your own musical life. I’m sure you are using one of them, but I’d be surprised if you were using all four and I know that for myself it’s easy to forget that I should be recording myself or in fact saying, oh it’s easy to get caught up in technique and forget to pay attention to the notes I’m making and so I think it’s just having in mind those four different types of listening and asking yourself, how am I, or how could I be using this in my own musicality training?

All that remains then is to say a big thank you to Stewart, Adam and Andrew for joining me on this episode. Thank you to you all for listening and we’ll see you on the next one!

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