Imagine learning French without ever hearing it spoken. Imagine next that you travel to Paris to test out your new skill. Will you be able to manage in French? Will your pronunciation and inflections be correct? Unlikely. You might be able to read a bit – signage in shops, names of things – but as far as genuine communication with other people, to speak even rudimentary French, you need to hear it spoken. That is the only way to absorb the nuances, tone, and other sound-based qualities of the language.
Dr. Suzuki applied this idea in Suzuki Method, and called it the Mother Tongue method of learning. One of the core principles of Suzuki Method is that there is enormous value in providing an environment that is as rich with music as it is with language. He based his method on the assumption that students need to listen to their own repertoire and to other music in order to become fluent in the ‘language’ of music. Since music is an auditory art, it would make sense that we need to hear it in order to be able to produce quality music ourselves.
Listening to recordings of your pieces also provides a holistic knowledge of the piece that you can’t get from reading just the solo part. I remember learning the flute part of the Hindemith Sonata for a high school exam. I was not familiar with Hindemith’s style or harmonic language at all, and I didn’t have access to a recording. A few days before the exam, I had my first rehearsal with the accompanist I’d hired, and I was completely confused. The piano part was far more dissonant than I expected. The harmonies were not what I had invented in my head! It felt like a completely foreign piece of music. If I’d had a recording, I would have known the piano part, the harmonic language, and the emotional character of each section. The Hindemith would have been a language I understood through learning by osmosis.
Listening is not ‘cheating’
It has been my experience that outside of the Suzuki world, there is some resistance to the idea of listening as a core tool of music learning. For example, one of my Suzuki students became a music major, and her university flute teacher was insistent that she not listen to recordings, in order to develop originality in her interpretations. This surprised me! When my student asked why she wasn’t supposed to listen, she was told it was cheating, that it would prevent her from becoming a good sight reader, it would squelch her creativity as an artist, and that it was a short cut that was not permitted.
My perspective is the opposite. Rather than being a short cut, hearing a recording is often our first connection with a new, exciting piece. The only thing better is hearing it live. I have chosen most of my new repertoire through hearing it, because that’s when I feel connected to the music. “Oh, wow, what an amazing piece! I want to play that!” Hearing is how we make the emotional connection. Plus, ‘knowing how it goes’ is not a shortcut, it’s a benefit. Imagine preventing a child from hearing his mother tongue, to make him more proficient at decoding the written word. Crazy!
If a young flutist isn’t showing expressiveness, I focus even more on the auditory elements of musicianship. I demonstrate boring and lovely phrases, and ask the student “What is the difference between
24July 2009 – Flute Focuswww.flutefocus.com
Pandora Bryce teaches flute methods at the University of Toronto and is a researcher in the fields of music education and adult education. She has taught Suzuki flute for over 25 years, and is a Registered Teacher Trainer with the Suzuki Association of the Americas and the European Suzuki Association.
the two phrases I just played?” I have her listen to more recordings, different recordings of the same piece, in order to learn to hear the distinctions between interpretations. We listen to the phrasing, nuance, and tone colour in several recordings until I am sure she can hear some differences. Then we work on the ‘pronunciation’ in the student’s own playing. I can’t expect her to be expressive when she can’t hear the difference between gorgeous and drab.
Listening Informs the Other Channels
Given our three primary learning channels – visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic – we need them to work together. It’s much easier to decode written symbols when you know what they sound like. Of course it’s important to read well, but without mental models of the sounds, the reading will be mechanical, like a young child reading aloud: “The... dog... sat... on... the... mat.” When young musicians learn primarily with the visual channel, the playing tends to come out as very ‘by-the-book,’ rule-bound, playing the markings in the music without actually expressing them. In my experience, students who are tied to the music are often not really hearing themselves when they play. The visual channel has become so dominant that they might as well be computers, generating notes one-by-one like the computer- generated voices at Customer Service call centres. At some point, it’s time to get off the page and really listen to yourself. In Suzuki Method, we do this earlier rather than later. Students memorize a piece, and only then do they start to polish it musically.
Listening and the Body
Listening is a kinaesthetic activity, too. It brings us into the physicality of the sound – the way the phrases move, the amount of energy we hear. It provides a model for the kinaesthetic part of the mechanics of music-making, too. A recording helps us hear a model for clean technique, the flow of air in a phrase, the power in the articulation. Listening can bring us into our bodies, moving with the music, feeling the beat, and feeling the music. It brings us into a relationship with the physicality of the sound.
Why Develop Listening Skills?
Great listening skills increase musicianship and raise a student’s ability to learn subtle musicianship elements by osmosis, to analyse and differentiate musically, and to understand nuance and timbre more deeply. Listening develops a deep understanding of musical styles, and a kind of musicality based on knowing a composer through experience rather than book-learning. A fine recording provides a model for accuracy combined with expressive flexibility. It’s inspiring to hear fabulous tone, tone colours, different timbres, all qualities that are virtually impossible to describe in words. Listening is experiential learning. Knowing a recording well means learning the accompaniment part so well that you don’t need to count rests. It means recognizing complex structures and patterns such as the harmonic rhythm of a piece, even if you’re not completely conscious of them. In short, because music is an auditory art, listening is a requirement for fine musicianship