Sunday, May 6, 2018

Ear blind

My husband gave me a gift of expensive perfume for Christmas. I love the scent, and at first even a small dab smelled gloriously strong. I looked forward to a gentle breeze wafting it back to me. I enjoyed the delicate hints that lingered on my winter coat.

But now April is over. I have been wearing this scent most days for four months. A little dab creates less excitement in my olfactory system. I have become habituated to the perfume’s notes. I have become, as the saying goes, a bit nose blind.

Which got me thinking about other ways I may be habituated in my daily life, especially in my teaching. Perhaps I am so accustomed to certain habits in my students’ playing that I don’t sense them with the intensity I did as a beginning teacher. I’ve become habituated to the sounds of their notes. Maybe I’ve gone ear blind.

I had this conversation with an experienced teacher who agreed that, as a young grad student, she was extremely aware of nuances in expert performances. Now, after years of listening to students in the progression of learning, her ear has become attuned to less-refined qualities.  It can happen.

We may also anticipate how a student will play -  “always-too-soft”, “always-too-fast”. Does that color how we hear the performance in real time?

Another experienced teacher friend had a project of planning a sound to focus on during the school year. She would select something like “melody” or “dynamics” or “articulation” and post a sign in her studio to remind students of that particular element. While it wasn’t the only sound that required students’ attention, it was the one they would come back to throughout the year with fresh ears, as did the teacher. As I reminded a student this week, the intention to hear something helps to shape the outcome. If you have no intention to hear even 16thnotes, chances are you won’t play them evenly. If, as a teacher, you don’t listen for even 16thnotes, you won’t encourage your students to perform them.

One of the advantages of hearing our students play in different venues on different instruments is that it wakes up the auditory system. I recently heard a recording of a student playing in a performance on the school grand piano, and I have to admit that I was pleased to hear things in her playing that I had become less sensitive to in my studio.  This also happens at the studio recitals when my students play on a beautiful 7 foot Steinway in a large space, quite different from my Kawai in my small studio.

How else can we sharpen our listening skills? Go to performances or watch them on YouTube, especially those that grab you by the ear. Record your own playing and take notes on what you hear or don’t hear. Record your students’ performances and let them listen with your guidance. Create a grab bag of reminders that say “pedal” or “melodic shape” or “harmonic colors,” and pull one out before each lesson. Share it with the student so you are working toward the same goal.

Another simple practice is to listen to sounds in your daily life that may be going unnoticed. Yes, you may find it temporarily distracting to hear the ice machine in the refrigerator or the fan of the furnace. Don’t worry, your brain will soon pay less attention to them. In the meantime, your auditory system is getting a needed boost.