Listening With Purpose

I read an interesting article recently about listening. It wasn’t intended for music teachers, but it resonated with me for a lot of reasons. The author, A.J. Juliani, talked about how even though we may listen to something with a purpose, we often still miss things. What one person hears, another may miss. We all have limitations and we all have blind spots. You can check out A.J.’s article here: The Surprising Research About Our Listening Skills.

“There are many times I am “present” in a learning situation, only to find that I had a different experience than a peer sitting right next to me.”

A.J. Juliani

As music educators, we frequently ask students to listen. Listen to what they sound like, listen to what their section sounds like, listen to what the band or ensemble sounds like. Sometimes we just shout, “listen!” in an exasperated tone. But how often do we teach students how to listen and express what to listen for? Thinking about what A.J. said about people missing things when listening, doesn’t that make the case even stronger for helping students with this important skill?

Listening with Purpose

When we are working to empower students so they can take ownership of their learning and music making, helping them develop listening skills is vital! One technique I enjoy for this uses four-part chorales. I know many band directors use chorales in their teaching – they are a staple. But here’s what makes this technique different: every student gets all four parts. Each student can see the soprano, alto, tenor, and bass part in front of them. And that’s the key.

To start, each student learns the soprano line. Since this is often the melody, it’s the easiest to recognize and hum along with. After students have learned the melody, we go through and learn the additional parts as well so that everyone – flute through tuba – gets to play the bass part!

Next, we talk about instrument ranges and the parts they often play. We discuss how flutes and first trumpets usually play the soprano part while tubas and bari saxophones play the bass parts. I engage students in a discussion about why this is the case frequently in the music we play. Then I instruct students to play to the part that best fits their instrument, in their own opinion. Most students will guess correctly.

Finally, students can pick any part they would like to play. This time through the chorale sounds interesting! But it’s also where the fun begins. I asked students if they’re able to identify the part the person sitting next to them played. This is met with wide eyes and blank stares. How on earth would they know this? So we play the chorale again, this time with the instruction to listen to the person next to them and figure out which part – soprano, alto, tenor, or bass – their neighbor is playing. Having this instruction, students now know what they must listen to as they play. Since they can see all four parts, and they’ve played all four parts, they have a good idea of what to listening for.

After doing this a few times most students can identify what their neighbor is playing. When they’re ready for the challenge, I will ask students to find the closest person to them playing the same part. This is often more difficult, but students can frequently make the distinction.

I have found that after working on exercises like this students become better at hearing things other than themselves. Being limited to only four parts in the chorale, students aren’t overwhelmed by all the surrounding sounds, and can find more success identifying parts with in the ensemble. Also, having the notation for all four parts helps!

We don’t give a band and orchestra students very much information about their music. Imagine if you were an actor and your script only contained your lines and when to say them. Without the context clues provided in the other lines your delivery would be mediocre. Even choral students have the luxury of seeing the piano part and the other vocal parts in their music. Yet we expect band and orchestra students to make music with very few clues to guide them. By helping students learn how to listen in the ensemble we increase their chances of success and their ability to make independent musical decisions. We empower them. The students will not rely on the conductor to dictate every nuance in the music. They will have their ears and their experience to guide them.

Listening with Purpose

If you are wondering, the “Bach and Before” chorale books work well for this. Additionally, I love Aaron Cole’s “36 Chorales for Band“, as they are written in 4-stave systems. This makes it easy for students to see and understand the relationship between each part.

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One Comment

  1. This is a great idea for all musicians and music classes! And this can be applied to other genres as well. I think the key is making kids part of the listening process and helping their minds organize what they hear. Thanks for sharing!

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