Tuesday, January 10, 2006

How to Listen to Music

Right now I'm writing a review of Eric Clarke's Ways of Listening, which has me thinking about how I listen to music. This was very apparent to me while I was listening to a recital this evening. We are interviewing candidates for a viola position, which naturally include recitals. My duty at these recitals is to judge the artistic quality of the candidates, not to sit back and attend to the aesthetics of the compositions or get emotionally moved. I'm also not precluded from these latter modes of listening, but it is very difficult to get emotionally invested while continuously asking, "is it good enough?" I was reflecting on this at the recital, when I realized that I often listen in a judgmental way, at least at the beginning of a performance. Just like in a human relationship, I hold off from a full emotional commitment until I have deemed the performance worthy. And even when I do make that commitment, a part of me is still cataloging the technical mistakes and triumphs of the performer and composer.

Is this the curse of the professional musician, or is it normal behavior for everyone?


John Salmon said...

I find that half of this is true for me. I listen to see if the singer or player is "worthy" of my time, especially if it's a musician who's entirely new to me. I listen for technical competence, but mostly whether there is something really original and emotionally moving in what the person is doing. If it's not original I'm likely to hate it, no matter how much talent the performer has. Once that threhold's been crossed, however, I usually can overlook technical flaws. I say this as a non-professional trumpet player.

Hucbald said...

Since I'm a performer myself, I'm a very forgiving listener. I suppose my listening approach is too "touchy-feely" for what you were doing vis-a-vis selecting the best candidate, but I absolutely hate it when I'm at a recital and I overhear student musicians cataloging errors or criticising technique. Like campagna, I'm forgiving of minor technical errors, especially if it is a particularly daring performance or an especially interesting interpretation that the performer is striving for.

On the other hand, I'm quite critical of fellow composers and new compositions. But, that may be beyond the scope of your question.

Terminal Degree said...

I think that we professional musicians can't help but hear the things that make a performance less than perfect. That goes with the territory of spending our days using our ears critically!

On the other hand, this hightened awareness also means that we have a great ability to enjoy the subtleties and nuances of a phenomenal performance.

There are times when I'm able to block out the "technical listening" part of my brain and just enjoy the performance. Frankly, a lot of my ability to do so depends on my PERCEPTION of the performer's attitude, of all things. If someone gets on stage with even a touch of what we might perceive as arrogance, I start to listen for errors. However, when someone (either amateur or pro) gets on stage and shows a generousity in their music-making, I am willing to "tune out" an ocassional error. Recently I had the delightful experience of hearing a world-class performer on my instrument. Yes, she missed a note or two, and sure, I noticed, but I didn't care. It was obvious -- from how she talked to the audience, related with the listeners, and played -- that she felt that the music was more important than her own ego. She was captivating, glitches and all.

So no, I can't "tune out" the technical part of my brain -- at least not entirely -- but I CAN chose to ignore those aspects of a performance. It all depends on the performer.