The single most important step you can take to become a great musician is to learn how to listen
If you ask any great musician what the single most important step you can take to become a great musician is, the answer you’ll most likely hear is “listening is the one skill that is at the core of the best musicians and artist on the planet!” These are strong words, and if I could find a way to say it any more powerfully, I would. It is that important. It applies to all instruments, and all styles of music. Accomplished artists will stress this repeatedly to back up musicians. “You guys have to listen… Listen… LISTEN!!!”
Listening is a part of a skill set
Once you learn how it will energize your entire band
Learn how to listen, and you will uplift, drive, and energize your entire band. I am a musician, and a technician on the Rock and Roll scene, so I get to see things from several vantage points. As a technician I usually service the drummers, and sit behind them on stage during the concert. If the artists are making music, I’m usually in the control room of the studio listening to the drum sounds. I think of my venture as a technician as more of a paid education than anything else. For me, being in the presence of accomplished Rock Stars as they work has been priceless. The things that I learn are those that are hard to teach, but easy to acquire by being in their presence.
When I am out on the road touring, the artist usually trouble shoots the performance and the sound. They are always keen on improving the performance, the sound, and the band. When they speak, I close my mouth and open my ears to the best of my ability. These artist have an incredible amount of experience. When they speak, gems of wisdom flow from their lips.
One rule of thumb… When experienced musicians speak, listen carefully
When someone with musical experience speaks, close your mouth and open your ears to the best of your ability. Listening is not a normal skill set. It has to be practiced and learned with the same attention you give to mastering your instrument.
Always listen to experienced artist when they talk about music. While addressing the band, as he usually does during sound check…. Joe Walsh one of these artist I’v worked for said “Right now I can hear everything, that means I can play.” This was during sound check. He was addressing something that made it difficult for him to play in the previous show.
From my vantage point sitting behind the drum riser, I could see and hear what was going on. What I saw was that everybody was overplaying and more focused on themselves. What they should have been doing was listening to each other and supporting the songs and the artist. There was no space left in the music for the artist to play. He went into more detail about how to play in a way that makes you a better musician and cement the entire band.
I’m paraphrasing his words here, but this is essentially what Joe said. “If you’re playing a note, or a chord, or a fill, within a particular piece of music, there has to be a reason for it. The only reason to play anything at all is in relation to something else that you hear. You have to listen to others, and play something that compliments what you’re hearing. To do that, you the musician have to be in listening mode. If you’re not listening, what you’re playing won’t support the music.”
This isn’t just listening as usual, it’s a particular way of listening that makes this happen. This way of listening is what gets you into the zone when performing with a band. If you’re not listening and playing to what’s there, what you’re doing won’t fit with the music.
Conscious listening is the real secret to becoming a great musician
Remember, the only reason to play something is in relation to something else that you hear. To learn and get better at this type of listening, you have to address the skill set both on and off the stage. So where do you start, and how do you begin to work on the art of listening? A good place to start is by paying attention and observing how people listen in a conversation. There are three general modes of listening that we as human beings engage in for the most part. We’ll address all three modes of listening and how they relate to you as a musician below.
The first mode of listening is called “IGNORING”
Yes, ignoring is a mode of listening. It’s a mode that is more of an epidemic in our society, and in the music scene. The last sentence is in my opinion of course. A person in this listening mode is in a state that he or she can’t wait to get a break to jump in and say what they have to say. He or she is paying no attention whatsoever to what you are saying. A person in this listening mode is not paying attention to the content or context of the conversation.
You’ll hear that person saying yes, yes, yes, while waiting for a spot to jump in and interrupt. When this occurs, that person is thinking about something different that what’s going on. The conversation in their head has nothing to do with what the speaker is saying. They are not listening to the speaker, and are more interested in what they themselves have to say.
It’s no different when on stage performing with a band. The music is speaking in the present moment. It always is. If you are not paying attention and listening, what you play won’t be a part of the musical conversation. It’s just like the person who interrupts and interjects during a conversation. What you play in the ignoring mode will have the same effect on the music. Remember, music is fluid. It’s always moving. Just like a conversation, you’ll need to keep up with the content and context.
Imagine for a moment a wave on the ocean. It’s always moving. It’s the same with music. It’s always moving, it’s a fluid thing. You’ve got to be present to surf that wave and take advantage of the constant changes taking place. You also have to be present and listen to and follow the changes that take place in music. It never stays the same and it’s never played the same way twice.
One way to learn how to listen, is to start paying attention to your conversations when you’re off stage. Pay attention and listen for the ignoring mode of listening. Pay attention to how that mode of listening translates in conversations. When you begin to recognize this mode, you can watch for the same tendency in a music situation.
The next step is to become aware of that tendency in yourself while having a conversation. This is the important part. Once you recognize it, watch for the same tendency when you are playing music. When you catch it, know that it is something in your listening skill that can and needs to be corrected.
The Second Mode of Listening Is Listening With The Intent To Reply
In this listening mode the listener is thinking about what they want to say. What they want to say dominates their mind and crowds out everything else. This type of listener is not paying attention to the conversation either. He or she is focused on what they want to say without respect to the conversation. An example in music is “this is how I play, and I’ll play this way regardless.” It can also show up as “I play my part this way” which may have nothing to do with the rhythm and feel of the music. The attitude is it doesn’t matter what’s going on with anyone else in the band. It’s all about me. You’ve got to listen to the musical flow and let it guide you. If a musician listens to how the music flows in the moment, it will guide him or her on what to play, and how to play it.
This is an important concept. Let the music guide you. Let what’s happening in the moment determine what you play and how you play it. This applies to solos, rhythm, groove and just about anything you play. To do that you have to listen in a particular way.
The Third Mode of Listening Is Listening With The Intent To Understand
This by far is the most effective mode of listening. In this mode of listening the listener is laser focused. The focus is on following and understanding the content and context of the conversation. When you understand the content and context of the conversation, your response becomes accurate. You add to the conversation in a meaningful way.
The same thing applies when you are performing with a band. Listen with an intent to understand the content and context of the music. If you do this, what you play will raise the entire band to another level. It calls for paying close attention to what each musician in the band is doing.
Here Is How A Great Musician Experiences It
Steve Ferrone of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, a master drummer and phenomenal musician said this on a Facebook Post. He nailed exactly what I am getting at:
“And what a great time I had playing with, and listening to, these fantastic musicians that really know the art of “the jam”. I was on stage for the entire set as these seasoned professionals played so skillfully with some amazing, intricate arrangements that came from listening to the magic each of their fellow players were weaving.
Matt Abbs dynamic playing, and attention to what was going on in the band made me grin from ear to ear with pleasure, his feel was impeccable. The kind of drumming I love to hear. Danny Louis keyboard, trombone, and guitar work had an amazing range of “Soul”, dynamic, and colors, while my old friend Jorgen Carlsson held down the bottom end, with beautiful tone, and sensitivity. Then there was Warren Haynes, playing guitar with all the expertise you would expect of an Alman Brother, and then there was that oh so soulful voice, a real (front man) leader, whilst still remaining an integral member of a unit, a real band.
That takes more than being a “Rock Star”, that takes a real LOVE of music. If you don’t believe me, ask Tom Petty, he has that quality. When it comes to music nothing comes before his love of playing it.”
Take a break and try something
Stop reading for a moment and shut yourself down. Just be still and pay attention. What do you hear. For me there is the hum of my refrigerator. Every once in awhile I hear a car swish by. I hear the engine rev on some, and on others it’s the tires rolling across the pavement. There is something rattling on top of the refrigerator. I can hear myself breathing. None of these things were on my radar before. This is a conscious action. Sometimes it’s called active listening.
If you start to experiment and listen in this way when you play with your band, it will step up your musical game. Can you imagine what will happen if your entire band starts listening in this way?
Here Is A Technique To Step Up Your Musical Game
If it’s at all possible, the next time you’re playing, slip into an attentive mode like the one above. Become aware of what’s going on with the music and let that guide you on what and how to play. Listen to and match the intensity. Listen for and match the changes in dynamics. Listen to the level of the voice and let that guide your volume.
Last But Not Least, Leave Plenty Of Space In The Music
Remember what it feels like to be on a crowded street? The concept of less is more applies here. When there is space in the music, all the musicians in the band will have someplace to play. You don’t have to play every single note on your instrument. You don’t even have to play “all the time.” Think for a moment how uncomfortable it might be on an overcrowded bus. The same thing happens when musicians play without respect to space.
I hope that I’ve explained this in a way you can understand. If you try any of the techniques, and it makes a difference for you, please come back and share your experience in the comments below. Also if you think these suggestions would be helpful to the rest of your band, please feel free to share it with them.
All the best in your endeavors.
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