In the middle of a lesson a few weeks ago, I found myself saying, “Musical works are like onions.” There was no laugh or questioning look. My student simply sat and stared at the music. “It has layers. You know, ‘Ogres Are Like Onions’- you have seen Shrek haven’t you?”, I responded. My student nodded in the affirmative, still staring at the music, still not smiling. Clearly she didn’t think that music was a subject for either levity or comparison to onions.

I have been musing on two extreme types of students. Student #1 plays through a piece with élan but with areas of sketchy accuracy. Technical glitches abound. The melody is often shaped fairly well but little attention is given to the relation of one pitch to another or to any of the other voices. Student # 1’s performances are fiery, emotional, and dramatic with little regard for details such as tempo & expression markings and phrasing. Inaccuracies of pitch and rhythm are glossed over. Complicated harmonies are often edited on the fly. When corrected, this student often says something like, “But I feel…” or “But I like…”

Student # 2 plays through a piece carefully (often under tempo) and will even stop during a lesson and go back if a note or rhythm is missed. Details of rhythm, tempo, expression, and phrasing are followed to the letter. Every note is in its place yet all is wrong in this musical world. Student # 2’s performances are technically faultless and utterly correct, yet utterly lifeless. All the voices are there but bear little relation to each other. When corrected during a lesson this student often makes some sort of statement beginning with, “But it say’s here…” or “But, I thought…”

Fortunately, there are lots of students in the area between these two extremes. Unfortunately, I have found that in student recitals Student #1 is nearly always the audience favorite. Student recital audiences are filled with mostly untrained ears. Perhaps they are responding to the student’s obvious love for the piece even though it has ended up as the musical equivalent to a beloved teddy bear—missing an eye, bedraggled, and utterly cherished.

Or, perhaps the listening habits of the people who surround us influence the way we ourselves listen- as in the studies which have shown that people who are surrounded by people who laugh, or, work hard, or are overweight (or listen to music at the surface level) tend to also laugh, or work hard, or be overweight (or listen to music at the surface level).

Make no mistake, this is about hearing and listening- hearing internally those sounds you want to come out of the piano and then listening to the sounds coming from the piano (listening out into the room). Student # 1 listens and hears but focuses only on one aspect of the piece. This type of student certainly listens and hears, but only to what is most apparent. No brain power is spared to explore the complexities, the layers, of a work. Student #2 is all head. This student thinks, thinks, thinks and does not spare much brain power to either listening or hearing.

Discovering and bringing out the complexity of layers in a piece is a skill conductors develop. Many of my students are used to having their orchestra, choir, or band conductor/director give them all the details of a work during rehearsal and performance. Doing this for themselves is unexpectedly hard work. Here are some ideas to help students hear and listen on their way to discovering the onion-like layers within music.

  1. Play duets- lots of them! Be sure the student gets a chance to play both secondo and primo.
  2. Sequence pieces. Layering musical lines helps students listen and hear details. To keep sequencing projects from being overwhelming, start with simpler pieces than the student can play and choose excerpts from longer pieces. Sequencing even 8 measures can be quite a task. You can also sequence several versions for students to  compare. Be sure to over-exaggerate both the good and the to be avoided so students can’t miss the point!
  3. Compose and improvise. Both of these force the issue of internal hearing and external listening. If a student is resistant to doing either, start by taking a section of a piece they know and change it up by altering the melody or harmony.
  4. Practice two layers together. Play Soprano & Bass, Alto & Bass, Tenor & Soprano, etc. If the parts are in the same hand, use two hands at first so it is easier to shape each layer. Actually, I want to issue a challenge here. CD and Midi performances model practice tempi and performance tempi. Some midi formats allow the student to access the layers and practice the two voices together but it would be a wonderful thing if this was incorporated into all practice disks and downloads. Of course, it goes without saying that the musical lines in such models would need to be beautifully crafted.
  5. Try a Prediction-Reality Check activity. Students look at the score and then fill out a sheet predicting what the piece will sound like. After filling out the sheet, they listen to the piece and then do a reality check. You can customize the questions according to the student’s level, your goals, and the music in question. This activity can done individually or in a group situation. Here is a pdf of one I used in a class last semester. (click to view) prediction reality check

Portions of this post were originally published in December 2010

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