Is Anybody Listening?

A term that is often used in musical training is the word ‘listening’. While it should be a given, it is one of the missing elements in many musicians no matter their experience or pedigree.Ears

As a young buck, playing with my father and his band I was often too loud and too busy… meaning that I was playing too many unwarranted notes. I was constantly reminded (nagged) by various members of the band of this wonderful adage.

“If you can’t hear someone then you are probably too loud (and should turn down)”.

So there is a listening to each other’s performance. But there is also a listening to the whole sound and a consideration “is my part helping or hindering the moment?”. Sometimes the answer is no… “there is a richer moment here that requires less noise and so I will rest for a bit… and soak in what is happening around me”.

Often times the musician fights for the right to be heard. And the instrumental part, at another time or place may well be earth shattering… but not here and not now.

The inability to listen can have its roots in a number of personal issues. A child that felt deprived of a ‘voice’ or felt left out of the crowd will often develop into, in varying degrees, an attention seeking adult. Other times there seems to be musical argument as if no one is listening to each other when in fact the deeper issues are due to a lack of love and respect towards one another. A true leader will lay down his/her instrument or voice and wait for the others to catch on… not override everyone. Music is as much to do with love as choosing the right notes.

Another problem, due to our own innate self obsessed humanness is that we each consider that our own instrument or voice to be the most important part at any given time. This is a truism for every collaborative process whether it be family, business, church or community. “The world evolves around me”

A good practice is to put on a pair of headphones and ‘listen’ to one of your favorite pieces of music. Select an instrument in the arrangement and follow its part from beginning to end. Then start the track again and choose another instrument and so on. Sometimes you really have to concentrate your ear as it can be difficult work to hear each distinct part.

You are training your ear to pick out exact tones and frequencies in the same way that your eye can differentiate between near, far, 2D, 3D, out of focus and so on. This is how an arranger or composer ‘hears’ the various parts in his/her imagination. A practiced and skilled composer does not need an instrument at hand to imagine and then write out all the parts.

When the opportunity arises I will invite students into the studio and we will discuss the merits of the track, the arrangement and the various mixing options. I will have each student create a quick mix and nine times out of ten the dominant instrument will be that of the student’s. It never ceases to amaze me how little of the whole sound each student hears in the mix. It is almost a competitive instinct, like winning an argument amongst children.

Often my suggestion will be “lets mute that instrument and listen together”. The question being, is this making the track breathe… have we created space and so on. A good mix should reflect a good performance. Sadly, much of the modern day engineer’s role is either muting and or editing out large chunks of each performers parts.

If we musicians and singers would listen to each other during a performance, the overall result might sound like…ah… music?

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  1. I catch myself doing this sometimes. The first person to bring it to my attention was Neville L’green. That was years ago, but his kind, though pointed, observation gave me a new perspective on my musicianship. Blessings!…Johnny Hicks

  2. Great article ! Really making a good point that i always need to remind me of.
    Good music is not in the amount of notes played, but in playing the right ones at the right moment.

  3. As an audio engineer for many years in both the studio and FOH I’ve witnessed this truth over and over again. The one encapsulating inspired phrase that may have been voiced by God himself is “Less is More”.

    Less is more in every way. Less humanness = more divine. This one truth is most important, that is the still small voice is the most powerful. All of creation attest of this any way you’d like to slice it.

  4. Yep agreed, some years ago in a Promise Keepers band, I am famously quoted as saying to the Tenor Sax player, ‘feel free to play less’ Over the years I too have learned this important art also. Thanks Chris for sayin it again!

  5. Thanks Chris for reminding me once more. It’s difficult during a gig, but important to avoid a sound overkill.
    Like Monk said: “Don’t play everything (or every time); let some things go by. Some music just imagined. What you don’t play can be more important than what you do.”

  6. Pat’s wife! Can not wait to hear you at theeffect. You have peaked my curiosity to hear the music carefully. Pat is doing, maybe his last album, called LEGACY. All songs he has written over his over 50 years in this business. They are all prophetic songs, or message songs, or Worship songs. God bless you for going into ALL THE WORLD!

    Love in Him who Loved us first… Mama Shirley Boone.. WE WIN MINISTRIES…


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