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I Was Standing, I Was Listening, for That Southern Whistle to Blow: Ear Training for Musicians

Part 1   Part 2

by Mark Heinemann

© Copyright 2003 Mark Heinemann. All rights reserved.

A continuation of Part 1 of article.

In this issue, I wanted to share more thoughts and exercises with you, both traditional and non-traditional to help you train your ears.

Most standard Blues are written in a 12 bar format. Try putting on a Blues recording and count the 12 measures. Get a sense of the form and structure of the song. The twelfth measure will be the turnaround.

Listen to a piece of music several times, and with each listening focus on hearing only one instrument. For example, first listen for the guitar, then the bass, after that the drums and so on. In every style of music, each instrument plays a role and this exercise of separating out specific instruments helps give you a sense of the role that each instrument plays in a Blues band – it also helps you to distinguish the parts from the whole and what goes into creating a great ensemble.

Listen to music you are unfamiliar with, especially ethnic music from other cultures. Your ears will get stretched by listening to music it is unfamiliar with or doesn’t have preexisting ideas about. I recommend going to the music section at the library, close your eyes and just pick out whatever your hands touch. Even if you don’t like the music, it will expand your awareness of what’s out there.

When you listen to music you will discover that certain music has a specific role that it is designed to do. What is the effect it has on you? Recently I discovered that it helps me do computer work if I have Mozart on at a low volume. Somehow having Mozart on in the background helps stimulate the creative process for my writing. Other music can have very different effects. Some music is good to exercise to, others for being still and listening to get you into a more meditative state. Other songs pump you up for dancing. Some music can lift your spirits; other kinds of music can make you ill.

What’s most important is to study the effects that different music has on your body.
One aspiration I hope these exercises provide you with is a chance to develop more sensitivity as a musician -- so you are able to hear, play and feel music with more depth and perceptiveness. You want to be present, responsive and in the moment in any musical situation. This could be in a solo format, where you are actually hearing what you are playing. A real common thing for musicians to do is to play a lot of music but not really hear it because they are too caught up in the demands of producing the music. The hands and arms have to actually make the music come forth from their instrument. This can become a single focus so that hearing and feeling what is being produced can become overshadowed.

Successful collaboration with other musicians is dependent on being a good listener. One rule of thumb when you’re playing with other people is that you should be able to hear yourself as well as the person across the room. Knowing how much to play and when cannot be underscored enough.

Music is an event, a story that happens in time and space and sound against the backdrop of silence. If we are constantly playing then there is no relationship to silence. Silence is the canvas that we paint our Blues pictures on.

One of the most famous pieces by John Cage, a revolutionary American composer was entitled 4:32. In this piece, a musician dressed in a tuxedo sits down at the piano, lifts the lid for the piano and then sits there without playing a note for four minutes and thirty-two seconds. People thought this was marvelous, how wonderful to be tuned into silence again. Silence was only one part of Cage’s intention; he also wanted to turn people onto the ambient noise that filled the environment in and around the auditorium.

Silence and ambient sound go hand in hand and sadly because the world is moving at such a fast pace, there is a lot of noise that our ears have had to develop protection mechanisms to block out. Try sitting or standing in one place for a minute and hear as deeply as possible all the sounds that are in the environment. The clock ticking, water dripping, our breathing, the sound of the wind in the trees, the fan on the computer. These sounds make up our sonic background. Learning to hear these sounds again can make our music making experience fuller.

There is a lot of music in my life, but I have had to begin weighing when I listen to it and when I need quiet. Otherwise, every day can become a constant barrage of music. I noticed I was automatically moving to put on tunes and what I was hearing wasn’t always helping me live my life more fully or help me do whatever work I was involved in.

Deep Listening

An important place to work on ear training is through taking walks in nature.
Close your eyes and listen to the birds. If you have ever heard one you will know how deceptive their call is and how hard it is to find the location it is coming from. Open your eyes and try to find it. Listen to the sounds of water in a stream, notice the effect it has when you change positions with your body, the angle of your head, try lying on the ground and then crouch half way, finally stand up all the way. What is the difference in what you are hearing?

In nature sounds combine in many ways to produce its own brand of music; a wonderful blend of natural sounds. Can you hear all the elements that are being offered, individually and collectively? The comings and goings; how one sound can become more present and then fade while another becomes more prominent. Just like peripheral vision, you can engage peripheral hearing and try to hear everything that is in front, back and to the side of you. When I do this, I close my eyes and try to hear as fully as possible everything that is out there. I call this deep listening and I can really feel its effect after a couple of hours in nature when I go back home. My experience is that I am much more sensitive and in touch with every sound that I come in contact with.

Because music is a medium that is dependent on hearing, working with ear training is an essential part to the music making process. There are many possibilities and ways to go about doing it. I want to encourage you to experiment and discover what works for you. My wish is that through working with ear training it will help you to hear, feel, produce and experience music with a lot more fullness. If you have any questions or thoughts you would like to share, please write to me markh@encouraginghands.com.

© Copyright 2003 Mark Heinemann. All rights reserved.