What I’m Learning: Listening


A few weeks ago, The Hilliard Ensemble visited us here at USC (but the early music department didn’t tell anyone about it till 10 PM the night before their workshop the next morning…that was an episode). They shared a lot of great things about performing and answered questions with refreshing honestly, humor, and pragmatism. It was so great to hear sensible, straightforward answers from such a renowned ensemble. One of my favorites had to do with their opinion of “authentic/historical” pronunciations. The answer essentially was “Listen, when those Flemish chaps got their hands on the latest and greatest new motet from Rome they didn’t say, ‘Hey, let’s sing this like we’re a bunch of Italians!’…I’m not promoting ignorance, but I don’t give a !@#$.”

They said one thing that really stuck with me. I don’t remember who said it, but essentially told the ensemble they were workshopping that they needed to listen to each other more. He went on to say, “You think you’re listening to each other, but I promise, you’re not. People rarely ever, ever, ever actually listen.” This is SO true.

I had the opportunity to study sound recording technology as part of my Bachelors of Music, and will forever be grateful. I wish that more people actually went through that program or at least took audio and sound classes before pursing a career in choral music or as a conductor. The biggest reason I believe this is because the whole idea behind those classes and that degree was to learn to listen.

Think about it for just a second, how many classes have we taken to learn to read? How many classes have we taken to learn to write? Have you also taken classes on public speaking or debate or where presenting has been a large part of the class? Now how many classes have you taken on how to listen? If you studied music in college you’ve probably taken some ear training or dictation classes and that’s a good start.

audio-recording-equipmentOne of the first things I learned in my first class is that there are basically two different branches of listening: critical and analytical. Critical listening is all about the quality of the sound or tone. Many questions that come with this branch of listening include: “Is that the best mic for that sound? Is that the best mic placement for that sound? Is there noise in that sound? Is that pitch in tune, flat or sharp? Is that vowel unified?” It’s about getting the best sound.

Analytical listening on the other hand is all about the meaning of the sound or the emotional context of the sound. Questions about analytical listening can include, “Is this instrumentation too spare for this song? Does that line have enough feeling? Is this break/space too long here? Is this sound too assertive for this song? Do I believe the singer(s)?” It’s all about getting the best performance.

And of course, both of these branches of listening contain worlds of different aspects of that particular part of listening. The more I studied sound recording, questions were brought up, and many times that answer was (besides “it depends”), “What are you hearing?” The further I got into my studies, the more I realized my own deficiencies in my listening and how much I just don’t capture and sometimes ignore. It included a difficult trip to the audiologists to get a hearing test and seeing what frequencies I hear better or worse in each ear. Thankfully, I was made aware of what my listening lacks and how I can continue to make up for it.

Sadly, I’ve met a number of people who only listen one of these ways, and even a few who don’t really hear either way. Their brains receive the information their ears pick up, but fail to really discern the quality or the meaning of the sound. I’ve seen this happen in choral rehearsals from both sides of the podium, conductors who fail to hear what’s really happening in the room. I’ve even seen conductors pretend to hear things that AREN’T happening to cover that they’re not really hearing anything at all; They’d rather pretend that they’re hearing things and make stuff up (and end up chastising the choir).

I’m not saying I’m perfect at hearing what’s honestly happening in the room, several of my recordings tell me the truth about stuff I’m not hearing. One thing a mentor taught me was to record (but not videotape) a rehearsal and see what I miss in the moment, but catch later on. First time I did it, I was shocked by what I wasn’t catching during the actual rehearsal, but grateful that I was able to notice these errors another way.

One of the most rewarding experiences I have is to sing next to a friend, listen to their voice, and then adjust my own voice to complement their voice and then notice our sound get better. The best part is when that friend returns the favor and begins to listen and adjust to complement my voice. I have a few friends who I know can do this day or night, rain or shine, without even being asked. When Gabriel Crouch (former King’s Singer) did a Q&A with us at BYU, he told us about his experience auditioning for the King’s Singers. As he rehearsed with them, he said that it was like having 5 sets of ears riveted to sound of his voice. He said he had never experienced anything like it before and that it was one of the most moving experiences he’d ever had.

Listening is a big deal, and we rarely ever do it. We should fix that.


One thought on “What I’m Learning: Listening

  1. I loved reading this Matt. Thank you.
    I especially loved the part about singing with a friend – in a way, that kind of listening is a sign of true humility and love. I hope I can become better at this.

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