The fact is that we constantly make a mistake: we keep on working on and adjusting our own playing, in the conviction that it’s not good enough. In doing so we try too hard and don’t achieve the desired result. Musical interplay is all about the input. What am I hearing? If you really listen, you adapt your output to what you hear, and that largely happens automatically.
“Do I really have to listen? Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to play along”, you might think. Despite this, the question is whether you aware of what you are really hearing. Hearing takes place on multiple layers: you can hear what you focus on, and filter out the rest. In a rehearsal, for example, you might hear the count-in and a few basic things that you focus on, such as the drums or the bassline, that make it possible for you to play your part.
But just try listening consciously. You’ll notice that there’s a lot more to hear. You can also hear the player next to you breathing in. You can hear that the drummer’s stool is creaking. A trumpetist was worn out his embouchure, one baritone sax always starts a just a little earlier than the others, behind you someone is whispering an instruction, and a dog is barking outside.
There are so many things to hear that you don’t normally notice. That applies to every situation. Normally your automatic reactions take the upper hand. There’s a filter on what you hear, and that’s no bad thing. The same applies to vision, and to touch and smell too. If you were always aware of all the impressions that surround you you’d go crazy.
But as a musician you want to be able to consciously listen in a playing situation. Listen as if you’re hearing for the first time, as if you only grew ears yesterday. That won’t be easy! One pitfall is that you think you’re listening, but in fact you’re everywhere and nowhere in your thoughts, or you’re concentrating on other things. “This sheet music is so shiny!” or “I must do some shopping later”. Whether I’m conducting a band or playing myself, I can constantly call myself to order so I can truly keep hearing what’s happening around me.
Whatever, listening is the way in to directing your playing in an ensemble. So no matter how paradoxical it may seem, don’t focus on yourself to improve your own contribution. When you listen with care this happens of its own accord. You could almost call it an unexpected bonus.
This blog is an article from the book Play Yourself.