On Teaching

April 30, 2019

Students’ Listening II

Why should anyone ever listen to music?

That is, of course, a ridiculous question. It is obvious from history that listening to music is fundamentally human: a desire or even a need, and maybe a definitional part of human experience. Yet, I think it is important to continually remind ourselves that recordings, in addition to live performances, help us to strive to become better musicians. Musicians are often subject to self-doubt. (There is a cartoon that I see once in a while that shows a pie chart of the mind of a musician. The section labeled “crippling self-doubt” covers about 90% of the space.) That self-doubt comes from several questions, not the least of which is: “is this all worthwhile?” Yet, listening to great music provides us with an affirmative answer. The sort of self-doubt regarding the quality of one’s own playing can be exacerbated by listening—something that I will try to grapple with below.

One concrete reason for listening to music is to gain familiarity with diverse repertoire. This was the point of that “listening test” I encountered in college that I referenced last month. What repertoire? There are expanding circles ranging from music from a specific time period written specifically for our instrument to the entirety of written music. It is potentially frustrating and, for me, quite liberating to realize that it is impossible to know all of the music that is out there. Frustrating because of the inevitability of missing things that are wonderful. Liberating because, if we cannot experience everything, then we do not have to aspire to have experienced everything. We can hope to experience a substantial and meaningful subset of what there is.

How should any given student navigate the world of listening for learning about repertoire? Listening to music that you already know and like is a wonderful thing to do, but that’s not really part of this process. Going out in circles is always a good idea: if you love and listen to Brahms symphonies, try his chamber music; try symphonies by someone who influenced Brahms or whom he influenced. Then try their chamber music, piano music, and so on. If you like Schütz, listen to Gabrieli. If you like Beethoven, listen to Albrechtsberger. There need not be anything obscure, complicated, or subtle about constructing these circles. Fruitful connections can be found by perusing Wikipedia articles or CD booklets.

This is fairly obvious, and we all probably do it normally as we seek out things to listen to. But still, you should encourage your students to follow the process consciously, maybe in ways that are partly teacher-guided, perhaps with a written outline to keep track. But another idea is to seek out new things to listen to not by affinity but by opposition. If you love Brahms, listen to Wagner or Liszt. If you love Debussy, listen to a selection of music by Les Six, who consciously rejected his influence. If you love Bach, seek out the music of Marchand, who was apparently intimidated by Bach and fled from a possible competition with him. Or, if you have not already done so, listen to Handel, whose life, career, temperament, and music were so different from those of Bach.

Keeping a distance

Another way to find things to listen to is to search for music that is completely different from your norm. Whatever you have just been listening to and enjoying, move as far away as possible. If you have been listening to the Telemann Paris Quartets, find some late nineteenth-century Russian choral music. If you have been listening to a Bruckner symphony, find a clavichord performance of early seventeenth-century dances. This is a controlled randomness and guarantees avoiding ruts.

If a friend, teacher, critic, or scholar says that particular music is not worth getting to know (boring, pedestrian, unpleasant, lacking in importance), then try it out! This suggestion is not based on the notion that that friend or critic is someone of bad judgment or likely to be wrong. It is just a way of shaking things up. People of equal discernment and experience end up reacting differently to artistic experience as often as they end up reacting similarly, and that is just as true when they agree that they are people of similar tastes.

Some of my most important, rewarding, and long-term fruitful listening as a youngster came from LPs that an older musician had discarded as being of little or no interest. And the musician in question was someone from whom I learned a lot and whose taste and judgment I admired. We should never base our exploration on the assumption that any two people see things the same way.

When we talk about listening to music to broaden or deepen our familiarity with repertoire, we are mostly talking about listening to recordings. We expect to be able to find recordings of just about anything, whereas the concert offerings in any one locale can only cover a tiny amount of music, even over several concert seasons. The changes in the ways in which we encounter recordings that have taken place in the last several years are interesting to consider, especially as they influence the experience of students.

The revolution in the listening experience

In my experience, I would say that for at least five years now, 85% of the time that a student has come to a lesson and told me that they have listened to a piece, that listening has taken place on YouTube. A lot of listening is now done without any money changing hands. That opens music up to more listeners, though the effect on creators of performances is more problematic. I remember spending several days while I was in college agonizing over whether to spend, I believe, $4.99 on Ralph Kirkpatrick’s LP of four Bach harpsichord toccatas. I vividly recall going back to the Princeton University Store several times to look it over. (I did buy it.) Now anyone can find many performances of those pieces on YouTube.

When a student comes to a lesson and tells me that they have been looking into a particular piece by listening to a YouTube performance, I always ask who was playing. And never once in that situation has anyone been able to say who the performer was. Of course, that information is usually there to be found. And furthermore, all of the students in question have been extremely smart and clever people who pay attention to the world around them and care about artistic matters. It is just that expectations have changed; the ethos of how we listen has changed. YouTube is seen, for purposes like this, as a sort of neutral encyclopedia of music. It isn’t any more obvious that you would check on who was playing than it would be to dig into the question of who wrote a given encyclopedia or Wikipedia article.

Is this good, bad, neither, or both? I am not sure. I have an extreme interest in performers. Probably too extreme, in that it can get in the way; if I do not know who is playing, I have trouble feeling comfortable listening. But that is a foible of mine. If listening is being done only or mostly to learn something about what music is out there, then the identity or background of the player is perhaps best thought of as only one piece of information about what is going on, not necessarily more important than information about instruments, acoustics, recording technology, edition used, and so on. If a piece seems less interesting or compelling than you had hoped that it would be, it is often worth looking for a different performance before shelving your interest in that piece.

This modern paradigm has the effect of taking away some of the feelings of authority that we have traditionally bestowed on those performers who were invited to make recordings. Part of the dynamic of record listening over the twentieth century was that we assumed, by and large, that the recording artists were the most talented players and thoughtful interpreters. No matter how inspiring it can be to listen to great recordings, it can also be limiting. This limiting tendency has its feel-good side: getting accustomed to a certain undeniably effective performance approach and experiencing the satisfaction of absorbing and then perhaps recreating it. I would argue that the limiting nature of this outweighs the good feeling that it engenders. But even worse, there is the outwardly discouraging side: feeling intimidated by the reputed greatness of the recording artists, not just by liking their performances better than you anticipate liking your own, but being daunted by their celebrity and publicly heralded greatness. It is possible that the more democratic performance model that has taken hold now will have the psychological effect of freeing students to include themselves more easily in the universe of those whose performances are valid.

Listening to interpretation

In former days, a student might ask, “how can I hope to play as well as Marcel Dupré, Helmut Walcha, Fernando Germani, Marie-Claire Alain, etc.” Now we can say “you don’t even know who that player was. It could just as easily have been you. You can do that just as well!” This is an over-simplification, but not an unrealistic or inapt one, based on what I have seen.

This brings us to another major aspect of listening: to learn interpretation. As anyone will know who has read this column over the years, I am a strong believer in encouraging everyone to feel free to play as they want. This includes students, to such an extent that I want even beginners to make their own interpretive decisions. That is a big subject, and this is not the place to go into it fully. The role of listening to recordings in shaping interpretation or in learning how to think about the art of shaping interpretation is essentially two-fold. On the one hand, anyone’s playing can be a direct source of ideas about playing. There is nothing wrong with listening to someone else play and thinking about what that player did, the choices that he or she made, the effects that those choices seemed to have, etc. If a student is doing this as a conscious choice then it can be used in the ways that the student wants, with whatever guidance from the teacher seems useful. The teacher might do well to remind the student that anything heard in someone else’s performance is just one person’s choice.

But there is only so much that we can do by taking hold of this sort of listening consciously. To a greater or lesser extent from one person to another, but to a significant extent for almost everyone, performances heard repeatedly exert a subconscious influence, sometimes a very strong one. If we have heard a passage or a piece exactly the same way over and over again, our minds can define the piece as being what we heard as much as we define it by the notes on the page. This is true not only as defined by performance gestures—tempo, articulation, timing, etc., but also about registration or the often-irreproducible effects of acoustics. I recall an earnest conversation that I once had with an organist a bit older and more experienced than I was about what the registration “should” be for the middle section of a certain piece. I was arguing that the nature of the music called for something clear and light; he was equally sure that it needed a more “quinty”-rich sound. It turned out that each of us had had as our favorite recorded performance of that piece one that led us to these diverging conclusions. The point is not that we each liked the sound we were used to, but that we had absorbed it so deeply that we were prepared to argue that it was part of the definition of the piece.

As another example, I love the piano music of Schubert. However, I have lately realized that I so deeply absorbed Alfred Brendel’s approach to that music growing up that I have a hard time listening to anyone else playing it. For years I have sought out records or occasional live performances of Schubert by pianists whom I admire greatly. But I always react as if something is just not quite right—an interpretive/rhetorical analogue to pervasive wrong notes or bad tuning. I consider this a loss for me, and it may fade or otherwise change someday. It is not a big deal; rather, it is part of the give and take of life. But if I were trying to play that music, I would have the following bad choice: either I would play in a way that was a copy of someone else, or I would not like the way I played.

So the first antidote to getting one performance approach stuck in one’s head is to listen more or less equally to multiple performances. If you have heard each of five or six performances of a piece approximately the same number of times, then it is quite impossible that one of them can have established itself in your mind as the very definition of the piece. But this is also part of the give and take of life. If we listen to half a dozen performances of every piece that we might want to play, then we have that much less time to listen to other things. It is a question of managing what we want to do. I personally focus on pieces that I am actively working on or feel sure that I want to play some day. I solve the problem for those pieces by not listening to them at all. That is the opposite solution to listening to multiple performances. They both work for this purpose. For other music I sort of let the chips fall where they may.

Most of us spend much less time listening to live concerts in person than we do listening to recordings. Probably the major advantage of live performance is that when all is said and done, the sonorities, the effect of acoustics, and the spontaneity are simply different. A recording is not an “I couldn’t tell the difference” recreation of a concert or other live performance, and it is at least a common experience that concerts at their best are even better than recordings. This is kind of a cliché, and in this case it is only sometimes true. A given concert even by a great performer can happen to be uninspired, or something can go wrong: noise, tuning, acoustic. But there is a particular advantage to live concerts. If you hear a piece in concert and are intrigued or excited by it—a piece of the sort that you might want to play—then the chances are that you will not remember all specifics of the interpretation well enough or in enough detail to be overly influenced by them. They certainly cannot imprint themselves on your subconscious with the weight of authority that comes from repetition if that repetition has not happened.

There is a lot more to say about all of this, and I will come back to it. For the next column, I will turn to J. S. Bach’s The Art of the Fugue. Some of the features of this piece that make it particularly interesting inspire me to think and write while working on creating a performance of it, as there are some important things about the work that we do not know. For instance, we do not know the order of the movements, what instrument or instruments it was intended for, what title the composer meant for it to have, or, since it is incomplete, how it was meant to end. We do know that Bach worked on it for years, right up to his death, and that his heirs worked thereafter on getting it published. As to all of these things that we do not know, we can make highly educated guesses or assumptions—enough to make it interesting to discuss and to be getting on with for performance.

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