Listening Better By Consciously Ignoring

Recently I taught an introductory workshop in improvisation to a group of young (mostly high school and college age) musicians. All of the members of my class were primarily interpretive musicians (classically trained) and were already reasonably proficient players. All were quite excited and interested (if not a little nervous) about delving into the act of spontaneous music making.

The aim of this workshop was simply to get them to think about the human process of improvising (and for them to recognize that they already had skills they could use as to improvise).

What I noticed about most of the students in this group was similar to what I notice about many interpretive musicians new to improvisation: 

  1. Fear of sounding wrong (making a mistake, playing something completely non-musical (in bad taste, or “stylistically wrong”), or getting brain stuck and not being to play anything at all…etc.)
  2. A hyper-focused attention on what was coming out of their instruments at the expense of not hearing the bigger picture of the ensemble.

Now, for sure, these two things can manifest themselves in many musicians, in many musical situations. But in the world of improvisation these two things literally will hamstring you even more. If you’re interpreting a piece of written music, at least you have the notes on the page, the composition, to carry you through.

But when you improvise, you ARE the composer. So if you’re in a constant state of doubt, and, are effectively ignoring the other musicians with whom you’re playing…well, let’s just say it doesn’t even get off the ground.

To address the fear of “being wrong” I did two things: First, I told them that there is no such thing as “wrong” when you improvise. There are simply choices you make in the moment. Some of those choices are better than others, but you want never to worry about what you just played.

As the great jazz trumpeter Miles Davis said, “If you make a mistake, you might want to play that.” And so it is. It’s a question of responding, moment by moment, to what you hear. My best moments in improvisation are almost always “mistakes”, which lead me to other, uncharted possibilities.

The second thing I did was have the whole group start on a collective improvisation, as opposed to singling each participant out as a soloist with a supporting ensemble, which is more typical in jazz and many other genres of improvisation.

So I set some very easy and clear parameters for them all to follow in order to create a bit of spontaneous music: Simple rhythmic patterns with limited tonal choices. Something they could negotiate with ease without having to be overwhelmed with choices.

I had them all play on their own for a few minutes to master the rhythms and familiarize themselves with the tonality. We did this all together, as if we were “warming up to play” before a rehearsal. Pure cacophony.

After doing this for about ten minutes or so, I could tell that the musicians knew their material well enough to start. I could also sense that they were feeling more playful, bold and unafraid. Great!

Next I asked them all to start playing at the same time under my direction. I told them that the aim of this exercise is for them to listen to the other musicians, to the ensemble as a whole as it made music. Not to think too much about what they were playing.

What came out of this was no surprise to me. It was immediately clear that nobody in that room was listening to, or thinking about, anything other than his or her own process, totally eliminating the rest of the ensemble from consciousness. (I recorded our activity for future reference.)

I let them go on like this for a few moments then had them stop. I began to ask what they noticed about the sound of the ensemble. Silence and blank stares. I asked them more specific questions about the ensemble sound: dynamics, intensity, rhythmic flow, etc. More silence and blank stares.

This was so clearly reflected in what I heard. It was mostly noise, harsh and unyielding, not much different than the earlier warm up. It was apparent that each person was listening, thinking and looking, almost exclusively inward as the music (if you want to call it that) unfolded.

Even though the participants were asked to pay attention to the group as a whole, they became sidetracked by the concern of “what am I playing?”

To quote Pedro de Alcantara, from his book, Integrated Practice, “The desire to do trumps the decision to pay attention.” I was seeing and hearing this first hand.

So I implemented a different tactic. I assigned each person a partner. I told each participant that they could play anything they wanted. They could either play within the parameters of rhythm and tonality that I set, or they could ignore those parameters and play anything they felt like.

There was just one rule: “Whatever you play, it has to sound like it doesn’t fit well with what your partner is playing. It has to sound like you’re completely ignoring your partner. If it’s consonant, you make it dissonant. If it fits rhythmically, you alter your time and/or rhythm. If it sounds dynamically balanced, change your dynamic level to bring it out of balance.”

They began to play, and I immediately experienced  something quite differentI actually began to hear music. I heard tension and release, interaction, dynamics, and playfulness. Communication. Connection. (I recorded this too, for the sake of reference.)

After we finished this, I also saw a different group of musicians. They were excited, laughing, even self-satisfied. We listened to both recorded playbacks, and the participants were stunned by the contrast from the first to the second performance.

And they all learned an important lesson about listening: The only way you can “consciously ignore” somebody is by really listening to them.

As an improviser you learn that you ride upon not just your own intrinsic musical energy, but also, the energy of the group. You respond to the whole. (I think this is the same with all music.)

As fundamental as that might seem, it’s easy for an improviser to lose sight of, no matter how far along the path they are.


  1. says

    This is a fascinating article, and leads me to think about the whole concept of listening in music. Yesterday I went for my singing lesson. My teacher listened to what I was singing in the exercises he was giving me, then paused, and asked me to try again, but this time with my fingers in my ears. He had guessed – correctly as it turned out – that I was so busy listening to the sound I was making outside, that I wasn’t ‘listening’ inside myself or thinking about the processes involved in making the sounds.

    When we listen to the sounds we are making, we can fall into the trap of judging as we play/sing. We become critics. And if we are busy criticising ourselves, then we are unlikely to be thinking about playing!

    Thanks for such a thought-provoking article!

  2. admin says

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Jennifer! I’m always fascinated to hear about the learning process of others, especially in relation to music. To really listen is a matter of being fully present. And as you said, one of the things that interferes with our ability to hear fully is our tendency to judge. One of the paradoxical principles of the Alexander Technique is that to really get what you want, you have to stop trying. That “trying” manifests itself in people in different ways. Sometimes we’re looking too inward, excluding the rest of the world, or sometimes we’re looking outward and excluding ourselves.

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