The Fine Art of Listening: for Musicians & Audiences

Listening skills should be stock in trade for musicians, but experienced musicians face the same challenges of concentration and active listening that audiences do.  Timothy Walker’s keynote speech at Great Britain’s ISM (Incorporated Society of Musicians) hopefully didn’t fall on tin ears. Walker, Chief Executive of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, realistically addresses the difficulties musicians and audiences face (even composers, conductors, and professional orchestras) in what should be the simple art of listening.  Lend an ear to his complete address:

Understanding and Developing Listening

28 May 2010

In his keynote speech at our annual conference, Timothy Walker explores the theme of listening in terms of the challenges that face orchestras, particularly as they develop audiences for the future.

Timothy Walker

Timothy Walker

It is a great pleasure for me to be here with you today to give the keynote address for your conference on ‘Listening’. No doubt you can ‘hear’ me but whether or not you will ‘listen’ is another matter. We are all too familiar with a world that is noisy, a world, where we try to block out sounds that we don’t want to hear, where our listening becomes selective.

Yes, there is a distinction between ‘hearing’ and ‘listening’. It’s the same as the distinction we make between ‘looking’ and ‘seeing’. ‘Listening’, as with ‘seeing’, demands a level of concentration far beyond ‘hearing’ or ‘looking’.

Handel believed that he was the one who taught us how to listen. He told Gluck that the English are only interested in beating time. ‘I have to teach them to listen.’

Interestingly, Stravinsky confesses in his memoirs that his early interest in the orchestra was visual rather than aural. He was attracted by the bright and polished instruments and the sheer spectacle of seeing an orchestra on stage. For him, the visual was an indispensible part of the whole experience. Seeing the bodily effort involved in producing the sound made it all the more vivid for him.

Daniel Barenboim would not agree so readily. In his 2006 Reith Lecture for the BBC he made the point that ‘we now live in a culture where we are bombarded with imagery and information, and are neglecting our ears in favour of our eyes. Everywhere there are competing demands for our attention and so often, somehow, we fail to find the time simply to listen to music for its own sake.’

It was in part, I believe, a response to the ideas expounded in this lecture that The Royal Philharmonic Society established a programme called ‘Hear Here’ in 2008 which operates through a wonderfully interactive website, live concerts throughout the country and programmes on Classic FM.

How much do our players listen? Quite a lot it would seem because they very quickly comment on the concert platforms where they can’t hear their colleagues playing. Many conductors comment on the listening skills of LPO players. Certainly the annual four months of playing for the opera at Glyndebourne is one reason for their heightened listening skills. They are used to hearing, and following, the singers.

But the high stress and constant playing, often of new music or unfamiliar works, must have an impact on the orchestral players’ listening. Shelagh Sutherland, Co-ordinator of Aural Training at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, makes the point that over-worked musicians rely on the adrenalin rush to make performances exciting and don’t have sufficient rehearsal time to allow them to get beyond their notes and to really listen to other players.

This is perhaps why the string quartet is the apogee of music making. Four members who spend a life-time together music making, playing the same works over and over again to the point where their part is instinctive and the performance is all about listening to the other parts to make the refined ‘whole’.

When we listen, when we really concentrate on listening, how do we do so without taking on the implications of previous listenings? In other words, how do we keep our ears innocent?

We listen to Britten’s War Requiem and we understand the subject and the emotional content but we take our seat on a British Airways flight and the duet from Lakme no longer has anything to do with the opera. We hear the slow movement of Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto and there is no room for original thought because we see a black and white image of Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard parting at a railway station.

When we teach a new piece of music to our student we are teaching our interpretation of the work. Are we prepared to acknowledge that our student may hear the work differently? Are we prepared to put aside our preconceptions and accept that someone else, a fresh mind, might have an interpretation as valid as our own, however young that fresh mind might be?

Are we then listening to what the composer intended us to hear or what the conductor intends us to hear? You only have to look at to see the immense difference in the timing of recorded works. A symphony can differ by 10 minutes’ duration. Can this really be possible?

I recall a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony at the Royal Festival Hall in September 2008. There was a subsequent tour of the programme of Scandinavian countries, which Vladimir Jurowski pulled out of because of the birth of his second child. Rhozdestvensky took over and I reported to Vladimir that with the addition of the Strauss’s Metamorphosen the concert took 25 minutes more than the London performance. Vladimir’s response was simply: ‘Yes, he hears the music differently’.

What does the composer think? We asked our new composer-in-residence, Julian Anderson, who said: ‘What I try to do is not to dumb down but to try to use the sonic surface, the sensual side of listening, as an in-road to get people thinking about other facets as well. The fact is that some music requires more effort, and I think the fear factor is the main problem here, especially in contemporary art music. Some of the clichés that are voiced about new music should be directly addressed – for example the assertion that there is no melody. It depends very much what you mean by a tune. What I should like to do is to expand an audience’s appreciation of what a tune is and what a melody can be. I’d like to awaken their listening to texture, orchestral colour, atmosphere and harmony. One problem in Britain is that there is a great resistance to the idea that music – especially new music – can be viewed as part of an intelligent forum of culture. I go abroad a lot, and it is not a strange idea in France or Germany. What I would like to encourage is thinking as well as listening – active listening. This is all part of making music a component of general culture.’

How are orchestras in the UK developing the listening skills of young people?

We certainly recognise the importance of giving every child the opportunity to hear a live orchestral concert at least once during their school years. All of the orchestras in Britain have signed up to offer this by 2017. We have mapped our current programmes for schools in England and already reach 50% of children. With more schools’ concerts in major centres and the help of chamber orchestras to reach smaller regional centres we believe we can meet our goal.

We prefer that the concerts are at the main public concert halls so that children understand that these are public facilities for their use; that we break down barriers to entering our halls in the hope that the child might encourage the parents to bring the family to a weekend concert, something outside of the school experience. We want to give every child the opportunity to hear the power of an orchestra and to experience the emotional intensity of music making. We want to instill in each child a desire to listen to more music and perhaps to take up a musical instrument.

In all our education programmes we meet with the same response; that music tuition increases the concentration of children for all of their subjects not just the music one. Teachers are convinced that music training – even very basic teaching of rhythm, melody and harmony through simple instruments or singing – has an advantageous effect on higher grades in all subjects.

The LPO’s three FUNharmonic concerts for young children attract a capacity crowd but the listening experience is not just about the concert. The day starts well before and goes on for up to an hour and a half after the concert. The hall’s public spaces are given over to a variety of musical activities for the young concert-goers that are designed as an integral part of the FUNharmonic’s experience. There is something to suit every child’s age and interests.

Of course this is all meant to be fun, but it’s also designed with a specific educational objective; the child’s future musical development. The boy wishing to play the trumpet is shown how to purse his lips and blow. Then he’s handed the mouthpiece and encouraged to use the same pursed lip to blow into it. Only when he’s practiced enough to produce a sound is he given the instrument . The result is that he can produce a few notes, and feels satisfied with his success. Hopefully, he has the confidence to pester his parents to allow him to learn the instrument. We have information available to take away that provides contact details for teachers, purchase of instruments and so on.

I have observed with other ensembles that we have taken to hospitals, nursing homes, schools and prisons that often the best response from the audience is for the very contemporary works rather than what we might consider to be the easier, more melodic classics.

We need to put aside our preconceptions about classical music and understand that for a young audience their interests are much more fluid, much more eclectic. Recently the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment presented Beethoven at the Roundhouse in London. It was a new and different young audience that would not have attended the concert at the Royal Festival Hall. They could come and go as they pleased, talk, drink, and whatever. It was a huge success.

But I do wonder, were they listening as we might define ‘listening’ here today? Or were they moved by the rhythmic pulse and the power of the sound of many instruments? Could their response have been more Handel’s claim that we like to beat in time or Stravinsky’s fascination with the visual colour of an orchestra? Were they hearing the sound rather than listening intently to the music?

We have become accustomed to the late 19th century practice of paying homage to music and its execution. We don’t think it appropriate to talk, eat or drink during the performance, or even clap between movements. We have been trained to accept the best conditions for concentrating on listening. Are our experiments to take our music to the young pandering to what we perceive to be their interests? Are we so concerned about getting a young audience, creating the audience of the future, that we would prejudice the very music we are promoting? Are we being regressive in not insisting that the concert venue should be totally silent?

These are issues for discussion and I hope you may have the time to do so during your conference.

Can I leave you with the thoughts of two other leading British musicians.

The violinist, Nicola Benedetti says: Listening well is a discipline, one that can become lazy unless we are reminded of the energy and focus that it requires’

And the pianist Paul Lewis says: ‘Hearing is something that most of us are fortunate enough to be able to do with no problem. However, to listen perceptively – without preconceptions or expectations – is a real challenge for anybody, and is something that requires patience, skill, and an infinite amount of practice!’

If you have listened, then thank you. If you have only heard the sound of a voice, then I rest my case.

Timothy Walker
Chief Executive of the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) and Chair of the Association of British Orchestras (ABO)


Six Teaching Tips for Music Teachers & Parents to encourage active listening (this is from me, Mary Ann Stewart, inspired by Mr. Walker’s address):

1. Ask kids to listen closely to a musical selection with their eyes open; then listen to the same selection with their eyes closed. Have them discover and discuss the differences. (also see the corollary to this activity in #6 below)

2. Divide the class into listening teams. Ask each group to focus on a different element: the melody, rhythm, harmony, tempo, instrumentation, lyrics, etc. and discuss afterward their findings. Then have them re-listen to the work, from various perspectives, and swap teams. This listening activity can be done on easy to more sophisticated levels, depending on the group. This presents a challenge not only of hearing but of remembering the sequence of musical events, and also of learning to articulate in words what they hear.

3. Ask the class to conduct the music they are listening to. This was a technique Robert Abramson used at Juilliard, when he asked the entire class of advanced music students to simultaneously conduct in order to discover the meter during live classroom student performances. It was hilarious to see that many of these Juilliard music majors could not discern the meter during these performances,  because the performers themselves were inadequately conveying the metric flow. Dance rhythms from a Bach suite could be performed as rhythmically vague as a Debussy nocturne!  When this happened, Abramson had the entire class perform the Baroque dance on which the piece was based. The newly enlightened pianist was then asked to play again the work, this time with an understanding of the underlying dance pattern and the metrics of the piece.  This revealing exercise made Abramson’s point that the performer has the responsibility of understanding and respecting the differences in musical styles and in conveying the metric and musical flow accordingly. Otherwise the listener doesn’t have a fighting chance at understanding the music, which melts amorphously like the Salvador Dali watch, and fades into the Debussian “Nuages” of our consciousness.

4. Ask kids to move to the music, conveying either the feelings the music provokes in them, or what they interpret the music to be expressing. You will be amazed at how instinctive young children are at understanding the underlying gestures, emotions, and movements of the music.  Just as babies recognize mood, emotional expressions, and physical gestures long before they understand language, so will young children respond with authenticity and feeling when asked to listen to the music “with their whole bodies.”  They “get” music a lot easier than adults, because their ears at this age are little sponges on steroids, soaking up the world around them.

5. Give your kids (and yourself) some periods of total quiet during the day. (And turn off that TV and stereo at night too!). We live in a noisy, nonstop roar of invasive sounds.  Without periods of silence, kids learn to automatically shut down their hearing in order to protect themselves from the noisy onslaught of the world around them.  So surround active listening experiences with quiet times, so kids learn when and “how to turn on their ears.” Otherwise, the defense mechanism of shutting out the noisy world and learning “how not to listen” is the result of a non-stop background of sound (even music).

6. Link the eyes and ears for intensive listening. This can best be experienced at live musical events. Try to link the visual source with the sound, so your eyes help you listen. Just as Stravinsky could hear the music better by watching the instruments and performers, so can we. That is one reason attending live  performances is always better than recorded media. A child will experience a live concert with his whole being and memory apparatus. Listening to a recording is not the same thing. The intensity and the immediateness of live music are essential. Let the eyes assist the ears, rather than distract them. It takes visual as well as aural discipline to sharpen our listening skills. Following the symphonic flow of events by watching the instruments and performers in an orchestra can be a breathtaking listening experience. 

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