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Learn to Listen

By David Rock
(Revised 13 June 2006)

In order to become an expert musician you have to become an expert listener. Here are some basic principles to help you become a better player through better listening.

  1. As a general rule, spend at least as much time listening as you do playing.
  2. Listen to the experts. Much of what we learn we learn by imitation. The careful study of master performers allows you to envision the possibilities of the art and gives you a standard against which to measure yourself.
  3. Listen to the top soloists. This is essential. If I ask my students and fellow band members what bagpipe recordings they own, most have few if any solo recordings in their collection. Band recordings are good to listen to as well, but you really can´t hear the nuances of perfect technique in a band format. Study the great solo pipers and strive to imitate their technique in your own playing. As you begin building your collection of solo recordings, a good place to start is the "World´s Greatest Pipers" series from Lismor. There are some twenty pipers featured in this series, and they´re all very good, although I have my personal favorites, taking into account both playing style and tune selection:

    Gavin Stoddart
    Hugh MacCallum
    Angus MacDonald
    Willie MacCallum
    Gordon Walker
    John Wilson

    Opinions will differ as to who is the best of the best, but you can learn a great deal by comparing good players.

  4. Attend recitals and competitions. It´s inspiring to hear a brilliant performance live and in person. You need to give yourself as many such experiences as possible, and have your favorite performer in mind when you listen to yourself.
  5. Listen actively. The key is not just to have the music on while you´re doing something else, but to really attend to the miniscule details of the performance.
  6. Listen in terms of the process. As you listen, try to visualize what goes into the making of such music, as if you yourself were playing.
  7. Train your ear on the experts, and listen to yourself the same way.
  8. Learn to listen through the melody. You should do this on at least three different levels:
    • tone (the perfectly harmonious and absolutely steady blending to chanter and drones)
    • technique (the sparkling snap, crackle and pop of precisely executed grace notes and doublings)
    • rhythm (perfectly steady tempo coupled with artful expression)

    As you listen you will find your attention shifting back and forth between these various aspects. As you practice, try focusing on them one at a time.

  9. Listen small. This means refining your focus to the finest possible increments. To make an analogy to the sport of shooting, if you´re not hitting the bull´s-eye, you´re just making noise. A mediocre shooter just points the gun at the target, while an expert marksman concentrates on a particular spot in the middle of the bull´s-eye. Good listening and good playing means cultivating the ability to care about subtleties.
  10. Lazy listening means lazy practice. Make a concentrated effort to apply what you´re learning. Here´s a strategy I´ve used with good results: Play a passage of music onto a tape, then stop and immediately listen back. Listen a couple of times until you become aware of an aspect in need of improvement. (Be extremely critical at this point.) Turn on the tape recorder and announce specifically what you´re going to do to improve the next rendition. For example: "This time I´m going to hold the dotted high A longer in the third measure." Then play it several times that way onto the tape, then listen back and see if you´re getting it. It´s exciting when you can identify on a rational level precisely what works. It´s not enough to come close, or to get it right by accident. Learn how to make good playing happen.
  11. Listen to yourself! It´s surprising how many pipers never really hear themselves play. Consider a typical band member in a lower-grade band, who rarely practices except at band rehearsal (not in this band, of course, but trust me, I´ve known people like this in other bands!). In rehearsal, the piper plays in the circle with the rest of the band. All he hears is the general din of the entire group with drums pounding in the background. Do you think this guy will notice that he´s crushing a taorluath, or that the high G grace note is a bit late in his double C? He might not even realize he´s playing a wrong note altogether, or if he does hear it he might think it´s someone else! Errors can be perpetuated and reinforced for years through sloppy band playing.
  12. Make the tape recorder an integral part of your practice routine - frequently while you´re learning a new tune, and regularly thereafter to make further refinements and to maintain what you´ve accomplished. You´ll be surprised upon listening to your recorded practice sessions that (for example) you´re consistently cheating a certain note that you could have sworn you were holding long enough. When you´re playing, it´s very difficult to hear yourself objectively, because you´re so busy operating the instrument and moving your fingers and trying to remember what note you´re supposed to play next.
  13. Get a second opinion. Have you ever noticed that you can´t smell your own breath? Even expert players can benefit from a competent critique every now and then.