3 Listening Lessons for the Choir… And for Life!

3 Listening Lessons for the Choir

As part of an ongoing series about spiritual practice and music, this blog post will focus on the art of listening.

Music practice is an awesome place to explore larger ideas. When we practice music, we create time for working on ourselves as well as our songs. Of course, nothing happens in a vacuum, and so it’s my hope that these skills will translate into other parts of your life.  This deepens our connection with music and offers another kind of spiritual practice.

1. Listen to yourself.

With a critical, but not judgmental ear, listen carefully to the sound you were making. Ask yourself “Is this the best tone I can make today?” If not, play around with all of the variables to see if changing one thing makes the sound better or worse. Concentrate on the physical action of the body. Assess if you are moving from a place of comfort or discomfort. When practicing, focus your complete attention on the music. Can you relate to the mood of the piece? Always be searching for ways to connect breath to sound and stay active with your listening. Practice non-judgement by not allowing the negative voices to diminish you. Instead, turn the inner judges into voices that offer encouragement and gentle, constructive observations.

2. Listen to others.

Try focusing on a different vocal part, perhaps even one across the room. Or listen to the singers on either side of you. Can you listen so intensely that your neighbors sound louder than you? Be mindful of the blend of the entire choir. Notice when the group wants to change tempo, change dynamics, or where people are taking breaths.

3. Be playful and curious.

By engaging your inner child, the music will always stay interesting. Imagine that you have ears in the far corner of the room. Try listening from those ears, not the ones on your head. Listen to how the sound is bouncing off the walls or people or the furniture in the room. Maybe you will notice if something is sympathetically vibrating. Continue to play with all of the variables in your body that change the sound. Give yourself permission to think out of the box. For example, how does the sound change if you curl your toes in your shoes?

listening to a soprano on her head

A Soprano on Her Head

The playful approach to music-making is inspired by Eloisa Ristad and her book A Soprano On Her Head. It is an inspiring work that has been an inspiration for my teaching since I first read it in 1996.

Other blog posts related to this topic:

Hearing vs. Listening

Reinvigorating Flute Practice

Music as a Spiritual Practice

Interlude (R&R in NYC)

Finding artistic renewal on spring break.

It might seem odd to describe a trip to New York City as being restful and relaxing, but I love visiting big cities. The artist within is nurtured by throngs of people going places, by the easy access to art and music, by the diversity of people, by new sights/smells/sounds. Looking out my window today, I see acres of prairie to my right and forest in our backyard, a red barn chicken coop, and endless expanses of sky. Folks in the concrete jungle talk about how they vacation in the country to “get away from it all.” But for our family, city vacations are important for finding a new perspective.

We visited museums, rode the subway, explored Central Park, stared at the bright lights of Times Square, ate food from every corner of the earth, walked until our feet ached, and felt the pulse of the City.

NYC trip

Guggenheim Museum

We took the kids to the Guggenheim Museum where the work of On Kawara was featured. His work is difficult to describe as art. It’s not personal, not particularly beautiful, but definitely difficult to understand. It’s not even clear if Kawara moved living from his art. Nevertheless it hangs in one of the most important museums in the world. The kids are clearly trying to process it too. I wonder what will happen with this in their minds in the future.

A good friend of my husband is the head piano technician at The Juilliard School in New York City. We were fortunate to get a tour of the music school from him. Floor to ceiling windows look out on Lincoln Center and the immaculate studios are huge. Practice rooms are reserved through a kiosk or an app on your phone. In a special climate-controlled area of the building, priceless original manuscripts are available for perusal. My heart swelled with pride upon hearing my 9 year-old daughter say that she wants to attend Julliard when she is older. Although I know the odds are stacked strongly against her (thousands apply for a few precious spots), I was delighted that she could see herself there. A little seed has been planted and I hope she is able to remember this goal when practicing feels pointless.

The kids now know how to get to Carnegie Hall. (Up two blocks and turn right.) Son had chapped lips so he didn’t smile in the picture.

Carnegie Hall

Carnegie Hall

We also took the kids to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where we saw everything from ancient Egyptian tomb art to modern masterpieces. The children were pretty foot-weary by the time we got to the musical instrument collections, but it was important for them to see the history of music as well as the present.

music collection

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Out here in the middle of America, it’s easy for us to be complacent about music. Even worse, we can feel that hours of music practice is without meaning or purpose.

New frames emerge from travel. I am left with the feeling that as musicians we need reminders that we are linked to the past, the present, and the future of art. Even when we are alone in the practice room, we are connected to an unbroken line of artists from the ancient cave painters to the buskers playing music in the subway today.

Pablo Picasso said, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

Artistic renewal takes many different forms. For some, a walk in the forest is the genesis of a new poem. For me, the energy and resources of a big city is the best way to clear out the cobwebs.

Practicing Upside Down

Our brains crave novelty. Literally turning things upside down can give us the new perspective we need.

Feel stuck in your practice? Are your kids complaining the music is “too easy” or are the making silly mistakes?

Turn the music upside down like this:

upside down music

upside down

Then try to play it as usual with the right notes and rhythms. The brain now has to work to flip the staves and the eyes will be reading right to left, down to up.

Another variation is to turn the music on its side like this:

Mozart on its side

music on its side

This idea might sound crazy and though it requires a bit more attention, it’s not as difficult as it seems. I figured out this little trick on my own when I was in middle school band. I was bored by the easy music but found that turning the book upside down created more of a challenge.

In the book A Soprano on Her Head, Eliose Ristad talks about singing while hanging upside down. My yoga teacher says that the inverted poses give us a new way to look at the world.

We can’t keep doing the same things over and over while expecting a different result. (Einstein supposedly gave this as the definition of insanity.) It’s true in life and in practicing.

Try this crazy experiment: give your music a flip and let me know if it turned your practicing upside down.