Listening is practicing too

Let’s have a look at how actively listening can elevate your playing, refine technique, and deepen musical expression

It may seem like an obvious statement, but listening forms an important part of being an instrumentalist. However, it so easy to forget that we need to include active listening in our practice time. We are told over and over that we need to focus on our tone, work on our scales and learn more repertoire, so we concentrate our energy on these things.

But tone, scales, repertoire, etc, require well developed listening habits! How will we know if our tone is lovely without knowing what we’re listening for? Scales might be a muscle memory building exercise but their also important to how we hear and perform a piece of music, and repertoire can’t be learned fully unless we completely understand the music and know what we’re trying to say with it. And these are all skills we develop when we add active listening to our practice routine.

So let’s have a look into what active listening means and how we can add it to our regular practice.

What does active listening mean?

The most often way we engage with music in our everyday is passive listening: music playing in the restaurant where you’re having dinner, a busker playing as you walk down the street, or maybe you’ve just put some music on in the background as you get on with your work. We love to listen to music, but we don’t often actively engage with what we’re hearing. That’s what active listening means – to directly engage and focus our attention on the music. 

My old teacher used to call active listening armchair practicing, which I love. It’s the idea that we can still be doing valid practice work without our instruments, from the comfort of a big plushy armchair.

While that may make this sound like a passive activity, armchair practicing actually requires extremely focused attention and deliberate engagement with a piece of music. It involves paying close attention to what is happening in the sound, analysing the nuances, and making creative decisions for your own playing.

Just like any other technique or skill we learn, armchair practicing is something that gets better with practice. And being able to engage with what we hear and exercise excellent listening skills, we can reap a huge range of benefits for our flute playing.

Why is active listening important to our flute practice?

Active listening is a way for us to elevate our playing. Performance is not just about hitting the right notes; it’s about understanding music and the story or emotions we’re trying to convey to our audiences. Active listening helps us tune in to the nuances of our performance and encourages a deeper engagement with our music.

Active listening helps develop a keen sense of musicality. When you actively listen to other flute performances or recordings, you are able to shift your focus away from the technique and pay much closer attention to all the other elements. What is the overall mood or story? How do other performers manage to project these moods or stories? How are motifs and themes treated; how do they change and morph? Stepping back also helps you spot larger phrasing that we can sometime miss when we’re so concerned with each individual phrase. By starting to think about these elements, you can start to find and develop your own unique artistic voice as a flutist.

Active listening helps improve your technique. As you listen to more music by professional flute players you improve your ear. As your ear improves, it is able to better detect places in your own playing where you need work. Bad intonation will sound out of place the more familiar you are with how the piece should sound, and messy fingers that you previously might not have noticed become a sign of areas where you need more slow technical work.

Active listening helps you better understand the flute as an instrument. By exposing yourself to a wide variety of flute music, you’ll gain better insight to the flute’s capabilities and range of tonal palette. The flute is an extremely versatile instrument, so listening to other genres of music outside of your main musical genre of choice helps expand your ear to the possibilities. What jazz flutists or Irish flutists are able to do with the instrument is wildly different than classical music virtuosos, but no less interesting or informative. This may help you push the boundaries of the instrument and find your own little niche in this beautiful world of flute.

Active listening helps you hear the differences between players and interpretations. The more you listen to different players – from the big names like Jasmine Choi, Jean Pierre Rampal, Sir James Galway, Emmanuel Pahud or Amy Porter to the newer faces on the scene like Melody Shen and Nikka Gershman or fellow players in your local area – you’ll start to notice a range of interpretations and sounds. Each artist has their own voice, and by recognising that range of voices you’ll start to understand what you like or don’t like of each.

Active listening helps remind you why you love what you do. Hopefully you play the flute because you enjoy the instrument and the piece of  music you’re working on. Active listening is just an excuse to listen to that music some more! And let’s be honest, because you are always your own worst critic, it can be soul crushing trying to play one of your favourite songs and you just can’t seem to play what you hear in your head. Listening to that music without the pressure of performing it perfectly allows you to dive back into the joy of the piece.

Active listening is a great way to still get in some practice if you need to be quiet. If it’s late and you’re worried about disturbing the neighbours, this can be a great way to feel like you’re still getting valuable practicing done, without making any noise, assuming you’ve got headphones, of course. (Check out some of my other suggestions for quiet practicing here.)

Here’s a perfect example of the last point. In college I was working on Prokofiev’s Sonata (that fourth movement… ooh the drama!) and that is one of my all time favourite pieces of music, flute rep or not. But it’s difficult and I was really stretching my technical ability at the time. I was working so hard on the piece, but just couldn’t make it sound like I wanted it sound. I started to dread practicing it. But every time I went back and listened to the music, I just couldn’t help but be filled with joy and renewed enthusiasm. 🙂

Now that you understand why armchair practicing is important, let’s discuss how you can incorporate it into your practice routine.

5 ways to actively listen 

Actively listening entails more than simply hearing the music; it means consciously engaging with the music, nuances of phrasing, and techniques. So here are a few suggestions to help you add some valuable armchair practicing to your routine:

1. Create the appropriate environment for focused listening

Active listening requires setting aside time to solely engage with the music without any external distractions. Find a quiet place for your listening. Use headphones where possible as they help hear nuances that may be harder to hear on speakers. Turn devices off or on airplane mode – how many times do you shift our focus away from whatever you’re doing as soon as an Insta notification pops up?? This practice time is just as important as your more traditional practice time and should be treated as such.

Either keep a notebook or journal, or a version of the score that you can notate. This will help you track and remember all your observations, notes and reflections.

2. Listen along with the score

It’s good practice to listen with the score in front of you – preferably the full score, but certainly at least your part. Follow along with the music, notating both micro and macro phrasing, markings and dynamics. Tap your foot to better feel the pulse throughout. As you listen, note the overall structure, the way the different parts interact and respond to each other.

And for technical passages, visualise playing the part as you listen and follow along. Studies have shown that blending mental and physical practice can be more beneficial than physical practice alone. When we visualise the movements of playing a passage, the same brain synapses are activated as during physical practice, aiding in the development of muscle memory similar to actual practice.

3.Analyse what’s happening as you listens

Approach the listening with a critical mindset, trying to dissect what’s happening in the music. Chart out the dynamics, the intricacies of tempo changes, and the emotional undercurrents driving the composition. Listen for harmonic or tonal changes that aren’t obvious in your part. As flute players we don’t always recognise important chord progressions due the nature of our instrument – we can’t play more than one note at a time, so we’re often thinking horizontally (melodically) rather than vertically (harmonically). Ask yourself how the piece of music is organised and pay attention to any recurring motifs or melodic variations, which may guide you in interpreting the music.

This analytical listening not only offers a deeper understanding of music but also guides you in replicating these nuances in your own performance.

4. Listen to as many interpretations as possible

Compare multiple interpretations of the same piece performed by different flutists. This exposes you to various styles, artistic choices, and nuances. By comparing and contrasting the performances, you can identify various phrasing ideas, ornamentations, artistic decisions. By exposing yourself to various interpretations of the music that you’re working on, you’ll start to figure out what speaks to you as a musician, what artistic decisions you agree or disagree with, and start to develop your own voice.

5. Exercise your imagination!

Your imagination is a powerful tool in your performances. As musicians our job is to convey moods, characters, emotions, or stories to our audiences. Ensuring that we can imagine, and embody, these is crucial to a moving performance.

As you listen to a piece, try to form mental images. Imagine you’re an animator at Disney working on the next Fantasia. What does the music conjure for you? Landscapes? A strong emotion? Or maybe a whole dramatic story?

This idea is that this will help you connect with a piece of music on a deeper level and helps you incorporate the appropriate emotions and moods into your playing.

Apply what you’ve learned to your playing

Hopefully this has shown you how valuable active listening skills can be for your playing. It offers a richer, more nuanced approach to your musical journey. It can help gain deeper understanding into tone, technique, and musical expression. 

What insights have you gained by adding armchair practicing to your flute practice routine? What discoveries have you made about your playing? How has it changed your approach to the flute? I’d love to hear! Drop your stories and thoughts in the comments below or send me a message. Let’s continue learning from each other and elevating our flute playing together!

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