Learning to listen to yourself

Here’s a frequent cello lesson scenario: a student will play something and then shrink in shame, saying that it was bad. Okay, I’ll say, so what exactly was bad: intonation, sound, phrasing? The answer is often: everything. Those who are most critical of themselves usually also have the least clarity about their standards and ideas. As a student, this is the worst possible place to be in; it is a vicious cycle that begins with the pressure to succeed without clear directives and results in poor performance and lower self-esteem which lead to greater pressure to be better. I can’t help students in this cycle until they decide a few things: a) that it’s okay to make mistakes in lessons, and b) that enjoyment is a far better motivation than fear. All I can do is to suggest these changes and make space for them to happen. For me, every difficulty a student encounters is an interesting puzzle to solve, not a reason to chastise him or her. However, it usually takes quite a while for new students to dissolve the old classical music equation that usually goes like this: bad playing = bad person, mistake = deep personal shortcoming. As long as there is no differentiation between self and action, there can be no real progress; it’s too close, too personal, and therefore too painful to try to change.

The two things I try to address in every lesson are how something should sound and how it does sound, and by ‘should’ I mean the ideal concept in the student’s imagination. Many of us have a very nebulous idea of what exactly we are going for and are at the same time unable to hear ourselves objectively, sometimes despite the aid of audio and video recordings.

At the beginning of our musical development, we need people to copy. Even throughout our lives as professional musicians, we need role models to study and occasionally mimic in order to feed the inner ear and its idea of what is possible and desirable. My own deepest, most important impressions were formed when I was bumming around in Berlin between my Juilliard degree and the years I spent studying with Boris Pergamenschikow. During those years, like so many other resourceful students who knew of secret entrances into the Philharmonie, I went to concerts every night of the week without ever spending a pfennig. (Sorry, concert presenters! I consider it the greatest scholarship I ever got and hope I’m paying it forward by sharing performances and knowledge with the next generation…) This was by far the best education I could never have dreamt of. Not just hearing but also seeing great musicians play day after day made me understand music better (and more of it) and demand more of myself.

I watched cellists’ bowarms, observed how chamber musicians and orchestral sections communicated with one another, noted their stage presence, body language, posture. It was more than I ever could have learned from a single teacher, recordings, videos, or all of the above. Standing there at the back of Block H, I went from timid spectator to passionate participant; as time went by, I began to identify with the musicians on stage and to believe that I, too, could do those things. Another factor that may have played a role in my identification with those musicians was that my friends and I used to hang out in the backstage canteen, which was also the musicians’ foyer. We saw and often greeted orchestra musicians, chamber musicians, and soloists, and the gap between the stage and the audience, often so glaring in classical music concerts, disappeared. My favorite educational writer John Holt says that in order to do something, you have to first be able to imagine yourself doing it. To continue that thought, I’d say that the closer you can get to your role models, the better you can put yourself in their shoes.

Once your inner ear has been fed, you still have to be able to hear what exactly you are doing and how other people perceive it. This is an ongoing challenge for most people and also what I see as perhaps my most important task as a teacher, one that extends far beyond music. Self-perception and self-reflection are extremely valuable tools in any area of life. If I could impart to all my students just one ability, it would be to perceive what they are doing and to know what to do with that information.

Some people can hear themselves and are so critical they are unable to constructively work with what they hear. Others are so busy producing sound and/or emoting that they can’t hear themselves. Very few musicians (and I include professionals here) are in productive dialogue with themselves, listening, striving, listening, reacting, listening. Sometimes you can’t hear yourself objectively and have to rely on colleagues, friends, teachers. Then you have to feed that information back into your constructive inner conversation and take one step closer to hearing yourself as an outside listener.

Learning to listen is harder than it sounds. People do all sorts of weird things to avoid listening to themselves. But when they do, that’s when it starts to be music.

7 Responses to Learning to listen to yourself

  1. Very insightful I do the same with Tennis and Paddle. Instead of listening I observe and try to understand my observation. It took me many many years to dissect my observation also by watching hundreds of hours of professional tennis

    • Thank you Ally! For some reason I only saw this now. Next new year’s resolution: get better at keeping my website up to date!

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