In today’s lesson, we will talk about how to use active listening in our music practice. Drum instructor, Zack Hall, will explain what active listening is and give you some examples of how you can do it on your own.
There is one major idea I always focus on in music. Whether I’m teaching a lesson, leading a rehearsal, practicing alone, or performing with an ensemble, I am constantly doing what I call “active listening.” Music is primarily an auditory experience, but I find that a lot of my younger students check out mentally in that regard. Sometimes it feels like we are hearing the music that we listen to or play, but not actually actively listening to what’s happening. This can lead to slower learning or progress, simply because we’re not utilizing our time playing and listening efficiently.
Actively Listen to Your Favorites
I have a rule with my students: Always listen to the song first! If I had a dollar for every time that a student came in and had clearly not listened to the tune at all, I would be a very rich man. We have to listen to the music that we’re about to perform! Unless it’s an original composition, odds are somebody great has already performed this exact tune, as well as made thousands of dollars doing it. There is so much to be learned from a recording that can’t always be notated on sheet music. We can skip several uncertainties about the music simply by listening to it and finding the answers a professional has already decided on.
Listen with Intent
Our ears teach us a lot more than we realize about music, and we can mimic sounds we hear just by listening with intent. Notes on a page can never fully convey all of the nuance and musical choices that experts make. However, our ears can pick up on a ton of those details just by listening to a chart a few times. We pick these tunes because they inspire us with their musicality, so we should be studying the recordings to learn from them and add those tools into our arsenal. If I had to play music that I had never played in my life and only had two hours to prepare, I would spend the entirety of that time actively listening to the music and absorbing every detail that I can.
We all have personal idols and musicians that we aspire to play like, and I’ll often hear students talking about some hip musician who plays these incredible tunes and concerts. My students will turn on this music and have it on in the background and gush about how awesome this drummer is, but they won’t actively listen and find out why they sound so great. If you desire to sound like somebody, get your hands on every recording you can find of them performing and then listen to them over and over again! You’ll get the sound that you love so much ingrained in your head, which is more than half of the battle.
Copy the Sounds You Hear
The second half is playing along with these records and making every sound and nuance you hear come alive in your own playing. Playing along with the music can train us to drum with a similar feel as greats like Steve Gadd and Dennis Chambers, just by experiencing the music alongside them. By studying and acting like a professional copycat of your favorite artist, you will be able to add their vocabulary into your own playing.
Listen in Real Time
Now say you have done your research, listened, and played along with the recordings, and it’s finally showtime. You get up on stage with your buddies and count off the tune that you’ve been working so hard at. You still have to actively listen!
Part of the joys of performing with other musicians is creating music in real time. Every performance can be unique and special while playing with others, and if they wanted to play along with an unwavering drum track that never deviates, they probably would choose to. Instead, most musicians seek somebody who is going to actively listen during a performance. This allows us to communicate and collaborate, as well as react to and add musical ideas in real time. Riffing off of each other and letting musical ideas bounce back and forth is a really fun and rewarding experience. Next time that you find yourself practicing, turning on some music, or even performing, ask yourself.
“Are you listening?”