Today’s post is by guest contributor Simon Boyar. Based out of New York, Simon is a world renowned percussion artist and the owner and founder of Boyar Music Studios in Westchester, NY. An accomplished solo artist, producer, composer/arranger, and educator, Boyar’s talent’s stretch across the music industry.
The ability to comfortably hear and respond to multiple voices/ideas during a musical performance: In music, listening skills are everything. We tend to work on them primarily from a personal perspective. However, once listening skills are on a solid path of development from the individual’s perspective we must then begin to consider listening coordination between players on a larger scale. This is something that is not often thoroughly examined. In today’s environment of excellent chamber music writing for percussion, listening coordination between players is possibly one of the most important skills to master.
This article will explore a few ways to begin working on this process. Like learning to play an instrument itself, learning true listening coordination is a process that requires hard work and dedication.
When teaching listening coordination between players I like to classify it into two categories.
Direct Listening: When one can hear the full part played by another member of the ensemble regardless of musical texture. This is easy to do when the instrumentation and range between players is radically different (ex. one person playing bass drum, another playing xylophone) and the parts and rhythms are not in unison.
Indirect or Instinctive Listening: When the musical texture and timbre prevents one from hearing the other player directly (ex. parts in unison) so one must listen by instinct. If one doesn’t listen by instinct in this situation the player will play either early or late and the parts won’t be together. True “togetherness” often prevents direct listening. For example, try playing 8th notes along with a metronome playing 8th notes. If you are perfectly in sync with it you will not be able to fully hear the metronome. Learning to listen indirectly through instinct therefore becomes just as important as direct listening.
Once we understand both the concepts of direct and indirect listening, we can then begin to apply them and develop fluent listening coordination.
How to develop listening coordination between players:
1) Get together with someone in a duo setting and practice listening only to each other’s parts while playing. Apply the same process to larger ensembles.
This is perhaps one of the most basic ways to practice listening coordination. It will accomplish two things. First, it will force you to develop the ability to play while focusing entirely on something else. This will be very challenging at first from a coordination perspective but if you stay with it, it will become an entirely natural process. This process can then be applied to larger ensembles where different players practice listening to each other while playing at the same time and rotating throughout the ensemble. As you move through this process pay attention to whether or not each musical situation requires either direct or indirect listening. This should be worked on everyday. The ear is a muscle that must be developed to hear and respond to multiple ideas at once. Learning to hear others while playing is no different than learning to play scales or any other basic tenet of music making.
2) Spend a great deal of time working on your posture to develop a relationship with your instrument that nurtures a wider sphere of awareness and the ability to work with others.
What may not be so apparent in developing listening coordination between players is posture. If your basic posture is one in which you hunch over your instrument, your fundamental perspective will only be focused on what is immediately in front of you and it may be physically impossible to embrace a wider sphere of awareness (aka other players and sounds). Your physical stance should encourage and support listening coordination. When working on posture, there is a tremendous amount to discuss. However, for the purpose of this article I will put it in the simplest terms. Basically, everything must be in front of you while playing. By standing back from your instrument and making sure that your elbows are in front of your body when you play, you will insure that you have a relationship with your instrument that nurtures listening coordination and greater awareness. Posture is so important in how it relates to listening that it has in many ways become a cornerstone of my teaching approach.
3) Recognize and become fluent in how color and timbre affect listening.
This is very important. When instruments are similar and playing in the same range (ex. marimba duo playing in the same octave) things must often be sensed rather than heard (indirect listening). When instruments are completely different and in different ranges (ex. vibes and tuba) it is definitely possible to use more direct listening or a middle ground between the two listening approaches. “What” you are playing usually dictates the way in which you must develop your listening coordination. Improving at this process is a matter of time and experience performing music in different settings. Sound is not arbitrary and performers must be thoughtful in how they listen to and respond to different instruments and ideas. This goes hand and hand with the ideals performers should strive for outlined in my article “The Process of Recomposition.” In order to recognize and become fluent in how color and timbre affect listening, performers must develop a set of skills similar to that of a composer.
4) Learn to strive for an “ensemble sound” rather than individuals creating a series of sounds.
A truly balanced ensemble strives to create one ensemble sound rather than a series of different instruments put together. Balance between sections can only be achieved if the entire group is aware of this and able to adjust accordingly. In many cases it requires a true understanding of indirect listening and a trust of instinct between players. True listening coordination allows players to find ways to be “in tune” with each other beyond the notes. It takes practice to get a feel for this subtle yet necessary ingredient in deep expression and artistry.
In an ensemble setting, any serious musician must strive to develop the ability to simultaneously transmit and receive information at the same time. Listening coordination is one of the primary skill sets required to master this process. As the suggestions in this article are developed and mastered, the process will become fluent and less time will be spent dissecting it. In other words, over time you will simply be “listening freely” and adjusting without analyzing it.
In my experience students typically have not methodically worked on the skill sets surrounding “listening coordination” and built them into their playing with the same level of seriousness as everything else. Hopefully this article will serve as a useful starting point. Enjoy the process!