Really really listening

On a TED program percussionist Evelyn Glennie talked about her first college-level snare drum lesson. A professor told her to take the drum home for a week – without sticks, without music and without a structured assignment. All she was to do was get to know the instrument –tap it, beat it, drum her fingers on it, explore every inch of the instrument and every nuance of sound she could make on it. She said it was one of the most valuable activities she’d ever done.

How often do we take time out to really get to know our instrument on its own terms – without the musical score coming between us? And without an outside goal that a teacher or we have imposed on us– a goal that affects our relationship with that instrument.

Don’t get me wrong, goals can be good things and reading music is a valuable skill. But summer is stretching out before us – an ideal time to get to know our instrument in a way we never have before. Small children explore the piano and any other instrument they can get their hands on in this way. They touch every inch of it and listen to every sound without judgment. They invent new ways of making sounds.

Evelyn Glennie was fascinated by music as a child. Because she is deaf, she learned to listen through her fingers and through her whole body. Through her intense listening, she can distinguish the differences between notes a half-step apart and she can play unbelievably complex marimba pieces.

Music students who want to expand their skills while relaxing their minds might spend time exploring their instruments this summer. See how many different ways you can make sounds – the sound of thunder, of rain, of snow. How about a rushing river, trees in the wind, a person breathing? Get into the guts of the piano and pluck the strings, gently knock on the wood and listen to the layers of sound. Listen with your fingers, take your shoes off and place the bottoms of your feet against the body of the piano to perceive the sounds. Break all the rules; thoroughly get to know this instrument we all take for granted.

Then, come September, let’s see how your playing has changed. Will it have more colors, more depth, more dynamic range? Will your playing be different when you’re reading from a music score? You can only answer these questions after spending a summer adventuring with your new friend and really, really listening.

Here’s the link to Evelyn Glennie on TED:

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