Listen and Learn

I’ve been enjoying these past few weeks of relative leisure, and I’m finding myself in a new part of my creative cycle. This week I am seeking outside inspiration. I am reading other people’s blogs and listening to recordings and watching videos. I’m still doing my own work, of course – plugging away at the early stages of preparing my next sets of music – but I want to hear how other people turn their phrases or what kinds of sound and color choices they are making or what they are thinking about.

I believe, deeply, that listening to music is an important part of growing as a performer. You can learn so much from hearing what others do. I think I am not alone among musicians, however, when I say that by the time I finish my day or my week filled with orchestral rehearsals and performances, my own personal practice time, and my focused attention to the playing of my students, the last thing I want to do is to seek out other oboists or hear one more note of classical music.

In general I don’t want to do what everyone else is doing. I do listen to recordings as I prepare music, but not to copy other people’s phrasing choices. Most often I listen just to hear the big picture – the harmonies and orchestral colors going on around my solos – but this week I definitely find myself listening to the personalities of the performers and the choices they are making. How are they turning their phrases? What goes into the sounds they are making? I want to non-judgmentally analyze what I hear and try to duplicate their techniques – in private, in my practice room – so that I have access to those different colors and ideas. So that I can develop a wider menu of choices for myself.

I have never been interested in mimicking the interpretations or styles of others, but no one operates in a vacuum. All interpreters are building on the backs of others. If you don’t listen to the people who have come before you, aren’t you just forever reinventing the wheel? Moreover, if I rely only on my own sense of musical phrasing, without letting any new ideas in, I can only be as good as I am right now. In other words, of course many of my musical ideas come from my teachers, and from the music I’ve heard throughout my life, and from great performances I have attended or heard. If I stop listening then there is no way for me to develop further. I can only do the things I’ve already thought of.

So. This week I feel like listening, and learning from others. Players far better than I as well as student performances on YouTube. There is always something to consider – an interesting turn of phrase, or a mannerism that I can remind myself NOT to do. When I practice every day in a vacuum bad habits can creep in, and my project this week of listening as much as possible is helping to keep me honest.

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