How Listen and Do at the Same Time

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One of the biggest challenges that novice choral directors face is learning how to listen to the singers at the same time as directing them. It sounds so simple, written like that, and is clearly fundamental to the conductor’s task, but as people new to the activity invariably discover, it is easier said than done.

You see, we each only have the one brain each. And if that brain needs to pay a lot of attention to unfamiliar motor skills in the context of complex musical content, it doesn’t have very many cognitive resources left over to dedicate to the sound coming into it. As one acquires experience, the raw panic of overwhelm subsides, but the challenge remains. There is a lot going on when you conduct a choir – all those people singing at once, each with their specific musical and personal needs - and we still have only the one brain with which to process it all.

I have been thinking about this a lot recently as ‘The Listening Director’ is the theme for the joint LABBS/BABS Directors Weekend next January, and so I’ve been having conversations with our faculty team exploring how, why, and in what contexts chorus directors need to be able to listen. (It’s a fabulous team, by the way, and I’m very excited about this event. More details to be coming out soon!)

I’ve also been thinking about it from the piano stool, as interestingly the challenges there are in many ways similar. There are fewer people with needs to be met, of course, but there’s a good deal of complex musical content to manage as well as motor skills to coordinate. The shortage of cognitive capacity is thus often apparent here too, when one wants to attend both to what one is doing with one’s body and to the sounds coming back as a result of those actions.

In both scenarios, the route to clarity of hearing lies in paring things back. Reduce the texture: hear one part at a time, or duet different parts of the texture. Take short passages, slow them down and repeat them. Isolate individual chords and focus in on balance and tone match between parts. Split the chord down further into its constituent dyads. Monotone the lyrics to hear the detail of the word sounds. Bubble the melody to focus in on the consistency of the airflow. You know when you’ve chopped enough away to hear properly, as you lose the feeling of overwhelm - and at the same time, the sound comes into focus.

Obviously, this takes patience. You don’t get through very much music at once. Ten minutes’ intensive work might cover just a couple of bars. And it’s very easy to feel under pressure, when you’ve got repertoire to prepare in a given timeframe, and think you have to crack on and churn through lots of dots. It’s also easy to think that the kind of radical simplification this entails is something only beginners need, that once one is working with a reasonably well-developed skillset one has moved beyond it.

But the thing about this kind of deep listening is that you’re not just working the detail of the repertoire, you are also growing as a musician. In the terms I wrote about right back in the first year of this blog, this is about Production-Capacity, not merely Production. The deeper you go, the more music you strip away, and the more focused your attention becomes. Sometimes you need to strip back to a single, solitary note, and it feels like the hardest, most committed work you’ll ever do. And when you get that note right, it feels like the originary Klang from which all music has sprung.

And then when you come back up for air and bring your focus back to music on a realistic scale, you can hear so much more, and it also sounds so much better. The detail is more readily perceptible, as is the interrelationship between the parts. You have achieved clarity, both in the structural sense of your understanding of how the music all fits together, and in the sonic sense of how the tone speaks.

We usually use the phrase ‘Less is more’ in conducting to refer to our gestural habits: stilling all extraneous movement, and doing the minimum needed to support the ensemble. But it also works well to describe the process by which we can train our perception. In order to learn to hear everything with clarity, we need to spend time listening to almost nothing.

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