One of the most frustrating things about teaching is seeing a student work like crazy and still not make music. It’s part of the Note Salad effect: all of the ingredients are there, but with little or no relation to each other. When a player makes music, the x factor that turns excellent technique, correct notes and rhythm, articulation and intention into music is listening.

I like to ask students about the difference between listening and hearing and get a sense of where their attention is while they play. Frequently students are only doing a kind of “battlefield hearing”, where they are so engrossed with fighting to get things right that they can’t spare any energy to see if all of those elements are cohesively communicating to form phrases and musical ideas.

My thought is that listening is an active process where you are comparing what’s coming out of your instrument against your planned result. Sometimes students will counter me with “But what if I don’t know what I want it to sound like?”

My response? “That, my friend, is your first problem!”

It won’t ever turn into music if you don’t have the music in your head to start with. If you’re stuck, find a few recordings and begin imitating. What do you like? What don’t you like? Are you favoring an interpretation because it falls within your comfort zone and hides your idiosyncrasies? Do you have the technical chops to switch styles at will? Use your ears and your heart- and perhaps the counsel of an instructor or colleague*- to find the music that resonates with your artistic soul. Listening is what will tie all of the stuff you’re working so hard on together.


And when you listen, the rest of us want to listen, too.






*I developed the facility to imitate in a…somewhat…grandiose manner early on. I played the F scale as if it was the opening cadenza of Elgar’s fourth movement.  I played Brahms as if I was Brahms: on his deathbed, sorrowful, freaking out, maybe in gastrointestinal discomfort. Bounce your ideas off of someone you can take a little criticism from. I’m glad I had so many insightful and kind people steer me away from the hysterical interpretations that, while cathartic, were monochromatic and overwrought.


Though every now and again it feels good to really thrash away at some Cassado, I won’t lie.