On Teaching

March 4, 2015

Listening carefully

It seems to me that there exists a set of challenges and opportunities that arise from questions about how to listen to one’s own playing while playing, both when practicing and while actually performing. This is only one way of framing or organizing those issues, some of which might otherwise seem only loosely related, if related at all. I think that this is useful and interesting, however, and it helps me think both about aspects of my own learning, playing, and performing, and about ways of inviting students to approach all sorts of aspects of their work that are not directly about note-learning or other basic, practical things. I will focus on different sides of this range of questions this month and next.


Listening during playing

This is a good thing—something that everyone who creates music tries to do most of the time, I would think. Almost no one would say (again, at least within my experience) that we should all just learn our pieces very solidly, physically, and then play them physically without paying attention to the sound. Thus it would be arrogant and silly for me to claim to have come up with anything brand new here—just a few ideas about how to think about it or to apply it. 

At the same time, being honest about it in my own case (which I think does generalize to many other players), I realize that I don’t always listen to what I am doing while I play—at least not with real focus and/or not in any great detail. If it is an ideal to do so, then it is one that I don’t live up to. And I think that this is sort of a mixed bag. Some of the time when I am practicing or performing and I notice that I have gone a few beats or a few measures without really registering anything much with my ears, I realize that I have just spaced out. This is certainly not best for keeping my playing sharp or for avoiding technical pitfalls. And it is dangerous: carried to any sort of extreme it can lead to full-on falling apart. It is a normal human thing to do, however, and the main thing to say about it is that it is a good idea to gain some experience noticing it and keeping playing through it.

Sometimes, it is a practical necessity to quit listening with real attention (obviously we always hear what we are doing, at least out of the corner of our ears) on purpose and focus hard on something technical and difficult, or something that seems about to go wrong. If a passage suddenly seems to be slipping away in performance, then it is important to take whatever emergency rescue action seems likely to work. (This happens to just about everyone from time to time.) This is unlikely to include listening carefully to sonority or acoustics, or anything of that sort. It is more likely to include things like redoubling focus on reading the notes and remembering fingerings and pedalings, possibly glancing at the keys, being careful not to speed up, and so on. 

Furthermore, there are moments during a performance (or just while playing through a piece) when everything seems to be flowing easily, comfortably, and naturally. During some of these moments, the listening that I am doing is somewhat detached—not close or analytical. And this is probably OK at those moments. The important thing is to make sure that this sort of calm, “in the zone” not-really-listening does not shade over into a spaced-out lack of paying attention.

It is also important not to listen with a kind of misdirected focus that involves any hesitation or stopping to think. If we are listening carefully—especially during any sort of performance, but also during practicing—then we should be listening in order to react and to learn, not to analyze on the spot. Analysis has to be done afterwards from memory, otherwise it can lead to hesitation or a sort of timidness about going on. (This works out differently from one person to another, and it is important not to become hung up on listening in a way that causes hesitation—if you sense that you are having a problem of that sort. I sometimes do myself; some people will, some won’t.)

But what might we be listening to or listening for when we do listen carefully to our own playing—on organ in particular?

With any way of making music, there are things that the musician can control, and things that he or she cannot. This profile is different for each type of instrument. On unfretted bowed string instruments, for example, the player can set pitch freely and change pitch freely during the course of a note, and can also shape dynamics fairly freely during the middle of a note. Changes of timbre are possible over a somewhat limited range, either at the beginning of the note or across the note’s duration. The player of a fretted string instrument can change pitch slightly, and can set the initial volume of a note, but cannot change the volume of an ongoing note freely—only by determining when and how to end the note. He or she can adjust the timbre of a note at its beginning over a fairly wide range, but cannot adjust that aspect of the sound during the note. A harpsichordist cannot change the sound of an ongoing note in any way at all until it is time to release the note. On organ, the player can mostly not influence a note once it has been started, again, that is, until it is time to release it. There are some exceptions to this—changing stops during a held note, for example, and changing swell pedal position, which does not change what the pipes are doing but changes the way that the sound reaches the listeners. There is also the somewhat specialized but occasionally important phenomenon of influencing wind pressure during a sustained note by playing other (faster) notes. 

Still, in listening carefully to our own playing, we are mostly listening to an established sound for the purpose of reacting to that sound, not for the purpose of changing it. One thing that it is important to remember about this act is that we should develop the habit of listening to the whole sound, not just the beginning of the note, and also not just the beginning and then the end. It is the beginnings of notes that almost define “playing” as a physical act on keyboard instruments. We have “played” a note on the organ when we have initiated it. When the note reaches its end we “release” it. The part in the middle is non-active for the player. These circumstances create a constant pull not to pay attention to that middle part. 


The middle portion of notes

However, the middles of notes actually constitute most of what a listener hears: more so with organ than with most other means of music production, since the middle portion of a note does not die away. This, in and of itself, seems to suggest that it is important to remember to listen to this part of what we play. What do I think that we can achieve by paying more conscious attention to that part of our sound? When it comes to really long notes—say half-notes or longer in a contrapuntal texture that has a lot of eighth-notes—the presence of the sustained sound of those longer notes might influence how we play the faster notes. The articulation and timing of those notes does not take place in a vacuum, but rather against the sound of the sustained notes. There is an ebb and flow of dissonance and consonance between the moving notes and the held notes. This might especially influence choices about timing—rubato and/or agogic accentuation—but also articulation. With what we might call “medium-sized” notes—notes that do not even approach seeming like pedal points, but are long enough that a subconscious tendency to short-change our attention to the middle part of the note might kick in—the middle forms an integral part of the overall shape. A more conscious attention to that middle might affect decisions about articulation and timing, or, on sensitive mechanical action instruments, even about how (as opposed to just when) we attack and release notes.


Room acoustics

Another thing that we can listen to more consciously than we sometimes do is acoustics. The importance of room acoustics to organ sound and organ playing is well known. At the simplest level it is essentially this: the more resonant the room, the more it is possible for notes with articulation between them to sound effectively legato. Or, to put it another way, the more resonant the room, the more space you need between notes to achieve any given level of detached or articulated sound

However, something more technical and specific also takes place. The sound of the beginning instant of each note lingers in the room for a length of time determined by the acoustics of the room. The sound from each subsequent instant of the sound does the same. Thus the sound of each note will continue to grow until the lingering sound from the first instant of that note has died away. From that point on the sound will remain constant until the note is released. That means that the specific timing of the resonance of the room actually helps to create the specific shape of notes. Since this acoustic timing is, for a given space, defined in absolute time—not through anything about the beat of whatever piece you are playing—its relationship to the notes that you are playing varies with tempo and note length. This effect is most noticeable with medium-length notes. Quick notes are likely to be over before this acoustic accumulation has peaked; very long notes have most of their duration after the sound has leveled off. Of course, “quick” and “long” are not rigorous terms. The point is that, in any given space, you can systematically listen to the bloom of sound created by the acoustics. The best way to approach this is probably the most direct and simple. Play an isolated note and listen to the first few seconds of it carefully. Can you hear it grow and then level off? Can you hear this better with your eyes closed, or facing one way or another? (Those are probably just tricks to shift the focus of your listening, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t work.) Does this effect seem different with a note of different pitch, volume, or sonority? 

You can also practice listening directly to the acoustics of a room by playing notes, releasing them, and listening to what happens after you have let the key up. Can you hear the sound linger? Does the dying away of the sound seem linear, or does it die away in waves? What is the longest-out point from releasing the note where you can convince yourself that you still hear something? Does all of this vary with pitch, volume, sonority, how long you have held the note before you release it? 

One side effect of doing some of this sort of listening is that you will begin not to consider your pieces over until some little while after you have released the final sound. It is not at all uncommon for students to behave as if a piece is over as soon as the last note has been “played”—that is, initiated. Sometimes someone will press down the keys for the final notes and begin talking about the piece before releasing those notes. Of course this is not a terrible sin: any such person knows perfectly well not to do that in performance. Still, there is something to be gained by listening until the sound is really, entirely gone. For one thing, the shaping of a final cadence or other ending gestures should be based on a timing that includes the post-release effect of the acoustics on the sound.

Focusing one’s listening on specific elements of a piece can be a useful practice technique. This applies to identifiable motives: for example, once you know the notes of a fugue (or other piece with melodic motives) rather well, you can play through it focusing on listening only to the fugue subject whenever it comes in, or to a particular countersubject, or to more than one such melodic component, but not consciously listening to the whole texture. Or, you can even go through a passage or piece only playing one particular melodic component—or more than one, but not the whole texture—listening carefully to it/them and hearing everything else in your head as best you can. After you do this, when you put all the rest of the texture back, see whether your overall listening and hearing experience has changed a little bit. 

Many questions revolve around the project of listening for the overall impact of what you are doing. This is a large subject, and one which involves questions that are hard to tackle: How much and in what ways can you experience the emotional or affective content of your playing while you are playing? Should a performer even be trying to do so? If so, why, if not, why not? What are the risks to letting yourself listen as if you were one of your own listeners? Does this set of questions shed any light on the relationship between players and listeners, perhaps by seeming to have different answers for different performance situations? And, at a more concrete level, what about listening for your registrations, balance, and so on?

Next month I will muse further about some of this.

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