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How Do You Develop Your Students' Critical Listening Skills?

The ability to listen critically to one's own playing and to others, when playing in an ensemble, is very important for musicians. Our students can detect mistakes, produce desired tones, create subtle dynamic shades, project sensitive phrasing and collaborate well with others if they have good critical listening skills. As teachers, we need to consistently emphasize this valuable skill in our teaching. In this column, five esteemed teachers share their ideas on developing critical listening skills with AMT readers.

Siok Lian Tan, NCTM, AMT Editorial Committee member, is associate professor of piano and keyboard area coordinator at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio.

Before we can teach our students the ability to listen critically, we must first impart a more fundamental skill: how to hear music in silence. No, not marveling in solitude at Zimerman's Chopin, but rather hearing music inside of ourselves through our inner ears, and then, through endless internal creation and re-creation, transform it into art out of thin air.

Here's how:

Following along with the score, listen silently with your student to whatever piece they bring to their next lesson. Do it with the Burgmuller Ballade. Do it with the Liszt Sonata (yes, you should absolutely do this with the entire Liszt Sonata). Conduct, if necessary. Carefully observe their body language at changes in dynamics, character and emotional content. Next, ask them what they heard, what they felt and to describe the topography of the musical landscape they experienced. Listen silently again, and this time coach them through the piece: use more pedal; bring out the tenor; sharper articulation! After you have taught the entire piece thus, allow them to play.

When they have finished, ask one final question: is what you played exactly what you heard in your musical imagination?

As teachers, we spend incredible resources teaching our students how to listen sensitively to the sounds that come out of their instrument and then modifying to taste. Try it the opposite way: teach critical listening skills from the inside out, conceive the music internally and then help them make that sound (their sound) come alive.

--Brendan Kinsella, through all sorts of unconventional means, strives to make his students more sympathetic artists and people; he presently serves as associate professor of piano at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley.

The ears perceive only what the knowing mind can understand. Thus, critical listening skills come from both knowing what we hear and what to listen for. For example, in the discussion of dynamics, to know the difference between forte and piano, one must first hear and understand the basic concept of forte and piano. As we develop into more mature listeners, the ears discern not just the difference between forte and piano but rather, they start to examine the relationship between them. Then, perceptions are formed on what is considered stylistically forte and piano, and how various shadings in between articulate different musical nuances.

First, I encourage my students to listen to great performances, which provide aural models that foster the cursory mind-ear connection. Next, engaging the ears to critically discriminate what they hear in performances and practice rooms in search of differing subtleties helps gain clarity and forms aesthetic concepts and opinions. Furthermore, I urge them to listen to orchestral, chamber, vocal and solo instrumental works of composers they study. Listening to works beyond the catalog of one's own instrument develops an awareness for instrumental and vocal timbres, cultivates mental and aural understanding of composers' styles, tendencies and inflections, and expands our musical sensibility to embrace a richer palette of sounds.

Critical listening is a cyclical process that sharpens the mind as much as the ears. A process that enables us to perceive vivid evocations, which after all, are what stir our imaginations and make us good musicians.

--Chan Kiat Lim, NCTM, is Endowed Professor of Piano at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and co-author of multimedia online curriculum eNovativePiano.

Listening skills are obviously fundamental in playing music, so it's important to cultivate them in our students from the very beginning.

Start with basic discernment of things like intervals, chords and dynamics. Here's an example for major versus minor:

1. Have the student identify major or minor in C only

2. Major/minor in D

3. Mix C and D

4. Gradually add other keys

Always start with whatever they can do easily, then gradually increase the complexity.

Besides isolated ear training, students also need to listen to their own playing and assess for themselves things like:

* phrasing

* balance

* voicing

* tone

* articulation

The best thing to keep in mind is to ask lots of questions.

* "What does it sound like?"

* "How SHOULD it sound?"

* "What's the difference between this and that?"

If students can't discern the nuances, how can we expect them to practice and improve? We can help them develop the skill of actively listening to themselves while playing. First, record them, play it back and ask them specific questions about evenness of tone, for example. Then have them play it on their instrument, asking them first to listen for that same aspect. If they have trouble, demonstrate two ways (one even, one uneven), then return to them playing. Better awareness of the sound usually produces better sound!

Another effective activity is to have students play a bad example. They have fun with this, enjoy the mockery, and end up with a clearer understanding of the ideal sound.

--Clinton Pratt, NCTM. is an independent piano teacher in Cincinnati, Ohio, who has more than 15 years of experience with students of all ages and skill levels, has served on several boards and committees, is an active presenter and is a member of the College of Examiners for the Royal Conservatory of Music.

Learning to listen to music is a journey with infinite growth potential. But it will require quality time and your undivided attention. Critical listening begins with an open mind. Music is more complex than anyone can imagine. Its emotional power is immeasurable. An art form of time and not space; we cannot see it and we are limited by the attention span. A commitment to daily listening, setting aside time to listen many times to the same passage is the first step. Let the music enter your soul and see where it takes you. The more musical training a listener has, the more meaningful listening will become. A critical listener must work on two levels: developing an increased knowledge of music theory and total abandonment to the ear. Keep in mind the metaphysical--where the listener cannot comprehend the magnitude of the experience until upon later reflection. I recommend taping yourself in every practice session to hear the music through as objective ear. We hear the music from a different perspective on tape. Never forget that music is a foreign language. A language is most effectively communicated through nuance and subtleties. Listening for the direction and turns of phrases, changes of color and imaginative interpretive choices of the performers takes critical listening to its highest level. As powerful non-verbal communication, music is like speech and body language put together, only greater. Let the music speak to you deeply so that you may execute your performance with beauty and perfection.

--Andrea Ridilla is professor of oboe at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where she also teaches opera appreciation; she is a graduate of the Juilliard School and the Oberlin Conservatory of Music.

Going to concerts and listening to recordings were highlights of my college and graduate studies. In-depth lessons prompted me to listen to my own teacher's "voice." That in turn encouraged me to find my own voice in both practice room and performance hall.

In addition to listening to exemplary live or recorded performances, students who listen to each other can better identify what it is they find pleasing or wanting in their own playing. This exercise develops a student's ear in a supportive team setting. Another shared exercise consists of the student playing the opening of a phrase with the teacher ending it. After several phrases, the roles are swapped--the teacher plays the opening of a phrase with the student ending it. It is a fun and genuine challenge to achieve a musical mind meld. It is also an exercise in consistency and commitment, regardless of who began the phrase.

Listening requires more than just the ear. Learning to breathe, to move, to make sound and to create silence all contribute to refining our listening skills. I encourage students to sing, speak, choreograph, conduct and to appreciate silence.

--Esther Wang, associate professor of music at Gustavus Adolphus College, is a devoted adjudicator, performer and teacher
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Title Annotation:Professional Resources
Publication:American Music Teacher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2017
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