Listening With Your Third Ear

aural skills news Sep 24, 2018

Are you listening?

Good, because I want you to hear this: while practice, particularly properly focused practice, is the primary path to progress for any musician, the most important skill you can develop to propel you on that path is listening.

What makes listening so critical to your success?

First, it is your most important tool for identifying errors in your practice. If you don’t hear what is wrong, you can’t fix it.

Second, careful listening helps you match your actual playing to your ideal playing. You can assess your current skill level in relation to the way you want to play. Improvements in your tone, technique and expression, for instance, begin with hearing where you are now and comparing it with where you want to be. Once you hear an issue, you can create a plan to eliminate it.

Third, listening is perhaps the single most important skill in ensemble playing. Whether you are part of an orchestra, a harp ensemble or just playing with one other person, your listening skill helps you align your playing with what others around you are playing.

I’m sure know all that. This is probably old news. However, I want to make sure you know how to listen with your third ear. Yes, your third ear.

There are two primary things we listen to when we practice and play; ourselves and our surroundings. As I outlined above, we listen to ourselves to assess and make corrections in our playing. We listen to our surroundings to match our playing with others or – ahem – with the metronome.

Unfortunately, those two listening targets have definite drawbacks when we use them in performance.

Listening outside ourselves, to our surroundings, is essential in an ensemble situation, but in a solo performance, it only causes us to be distracted. When our listening focus is outside ourselves, we hear someone in the audience cough or drop their program. We hear a door open and close or conversation in another room. In short, we hear things that pull us away from our focus on our playing.

Listening to ourselves in performance is almost guaranteed self-sabotage. Performance is not the right moment to assess your tone or notice mistakes. This is because it is retrospective listening; it considers what we have just done instead of what we are about to do. Listening this way can derail the flow of your playing and possibly even cause you lose your focus altogether.

When you are performing, even if you are just playing in your lesson, you need to listen with your third ear.

This is the ear that is inside your head. It hears what you are about to do instead of what you have just done. If you have ever played along with  recording, you have experienced something similar. The piece continues regardless of what you just played, and your job is simply to keep going.

When you listen with your third ear, you’re listening forward, to the next note. What you just played, whether it was correct or incorrect, is over and done. The only proper focus for your attention is what you are about to play, to the ideal recording that is stored in your head. Listening forward in this way creates the flow or the continuity that many students find so hard to attain. From the opposite perspective, when you are listening to what you just played, perhaps to the mistake you made, you are listening backward, and your attention is drawn away from the music.

It’s not difficult to train your third ear. The primary method is something your teacher has been telling you all along. Don’t stop when you make a mistake. Practice playing past your mistakes.

Clearly, it is important to correct mistakes when you practice. The strategy I am suggesting is that you don’t stop the moment you make a mistake. Instead, play through the passage you were practicing, then go back to correct the mistake. Then play through the passage again to put that correction in context.

Also, remember to practice playing your music. Set aside some of your practice time to play all the way through a piece, listening with your third ear, playing past your mistakes and focusing on the flow of the music. Shut off the ear that listens for self-correction and judgment, and listen only to the ideal recording that is playing inside your head.

A third ear may look a little funny, but you’ll be glad you developed one!


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