On the Art of Listening

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So we all know that to be a good musician you need to be able to listen. The better directors can hear both the composite sound and the detail of what their ensembles produce, the more power they have to improve it. And the individual musicians within the ensemble need to be able to listen and respond to each other to achieve such desiderata as tuning, blend, balance, synchronisation - indeed, all the forms of interpersonal coordination we refer to collectively, if tautologically, as ‘ensemble’.

People care about the art of listening in other walks of life, too. Self-help books that promise to help your interpersonal skills tell you to pay attention to what other people say in conversation, not just spend the time you’re not talking planning what you’re going to say next.

And in specialist circumstances such as counselling and psychotherapy, it is central: not only does the therapist need to listen acutely to reach a diagnosis, the patient needs to feel listened to.

(Indeed, there is a school of thought that considers many of the theoretical conclusions Freud drew from his therapeutic process to be rather narrow structures that only really made sense of the specific social world in which he was operating, rather than generalisable human truths; and that his historical importance and success as a therapist stemmed from actually listening to people rather than leaping to conclusions about what their problems were.)

Now, if you take these two truisms, they become more interesting when you put them together.

For instance, you can predict to a surprising extent how successful someone is going to be as a conductor by interviewing them. If they listen to the question, and answer precisely, rather than just waffling on in the general area it covers, that’s a good sign. If they answer at length without checking in to see how much detail the interviewer actually wanted, that’s not so good. Lack of awareness of turn-taking in conversation is a predictor of limited conductorly success.

There is, that is, a set of underlying interpersonal skills that underpins both musical and conversational listening: a balance of self-awareness and other-awareness, the capacity and/or willingness to attend to feedback from your environment and adjust your behaviour in response.

In interpersonal situations, however, we may generally be tempted to regard these capacities and behaviours as fixed or innate - as part of someone’s personality rather than their skillset. Self-help books always read a bit self-defeating in this regard.

But musicians are perfectly used to being trained as listeners. Those of us who were trained formally had aural classes as a regular and long-term part of the curriculum - which not only helped us improve them, but made us believe they were important. Meanwhile, as Lucy Green has documented, professional popular musicians, who until relatively recently had no formal training routes available, have traditionally used deep listening to recordings as their primary means of learning not just repertoire, but technique and styling.

Which gives a nice bit of support to those who suggest that all people should have the opportunity to learn music on the grounds that it helps with all kinds of other skills such as team-work and empathy.

Though it does rather suggest that all musicians will be confident conversationalists, a generalisation that doesn’t stand up for very long in conversation with actual musicians. Indeed, quite a lot of us enjoy ensemble music-making as a way to bond with others without the requirement of saying anything very much. (And, ‘Shall we pick up at bar 30?’ is a nice safe kind of conversation to have when you eventually do have speak.) Transferrable skills don’t necessarily transfer wholesale or directly.

But, still, the correlation between listening skills in different social contexts does seem to hold. This is possibly why we don’t entirely trust an adjudicator or examiner who frames their feedback in all kinds of inaccurate assumptions about the ensemble. It’s not just the damage to the egos of the musicians involved, it’s the suspicion that the person passing judgement hasn’t really been paying attention to the performance either.

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