The Art of Listening

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Putting up a post with the heading “The Art of Listening” might be as broad as saying something like “What is Religion?” or “Politics; an Analysis!”  Although there are many avenues that we could explore I’m going to focus on a thing that I like to call: Having “Big” Ears.  What do I mean by this?

A surprising comment that I get sometimes after gigs (especially when I’ve done a gig with some new players or artists) is someone telling me that they can tell that I listen.  They seem not only surprised by that themselves but are very pleased to play with someone that possesses that quality.  Basically, the reason that I’m caught off-guard by this comment is that I really wonder why other people aren’t listening when they are on the bandstand?  I guess I’ve just always assumed that this is/should be part of the process.  How can you be a musician and not listen to what else is going on in the music?

I’ve put together a couple of diagrams to help put this into a little more perspective.  You know that old saying, “You can’t fit a square peg into a round hole?  Well, when the music isn’t together, when it isn’t grooving, that’s a lot of what it feels like!  Really what is most likely causing this is that the ‘unit’ which is the band, isn’t working together as a whole.  As the drummer, if you are not listening to not only the other players but considering the whole music as an entity itself, things will be quite disjointed.  Take a look:

Note that “ME” is represented by the drummer, in this case, that is mostly concerned with what he or she is doing.  Think of the green circle as their “zone” where they will only allow other things to enter as they deems necessary.  The yellow arrows are representing the fact that they are projecting and forcing his sound and ideas outward toward everyone else.  Some players and musical concepts stay in the zone, others are pushed out, and others slightly become part of the zone, almost as an afterthought.

So this is perhaps a “worse case scenario” of sorts, although I’m sure that there’s a lot of drummers and other musicians that are like this.  Then, if you multiply this by the other players who may also be in their own “Me Zone” then you have an even worse problem.  At this point, then, you just have some musicians onstage playing separately; not as a cohesive unit.  I’ve heard this tons of times, and I’m sure that you have too.  I remember being at a gig one time purely as a spectator and I told my girlfriend that I didn’t like the rhythm section.  She, at first, didn’t understand why.  I wish I could have pulled out this diagram! Haha Because this is what was going on…they were just playing.  There was a little bit of listening, but hardly any groove, or most importantly pocket.  After explaining, she could see it then understood.

So let’s move on, then, to what this diagram should more closely resemble.  Here’s a bit of a better picture:

Note that not only is everything in a lot better alignment here, but now the arrows represent all units and concepts working toward the same goal of coming together into the “inner circle.”  The outer red circle brings all of the elements together.  Really the biggest difference here, and the lesson to be learned, is that in the first diagram, the drummer saw it as everyone’s responsibility to come into his circle.  Rather the whole point is that the music itself; the song, is the circle.  That’s what everyone should try to get into.  It’s about being a working part, not the axis upon which the “circle” rotates.

Hopefully I’m not being a little too ‘ethereal’ here by trying to use these visual concepts to prove a point.  In reality, this is a very simple and easy concept to understand.  This isn’t rocket science.  Mostly, this lesson is better suited for beginning musicians; but unfortunately there are many ‘professionals’ that still haven’t quite grasped this concept.

So all in all, when I use the term “Big Ears” not only am I meaning to be sure to listen to other things besides yourself, but I’m basically saying “don’t be selfish!”  Think of the music, or the song, as the other musician that is there on stage with you.  How is it all working together?  What sort of vibe do you need to help create?  What type of sound is required?  What sort of dynamics should you be utilizing?  Can you hear every part of the band?  And when I say this, it doesn’t mean to ask the sound guy to turn certain people up in the monitor!!! Once you begin to get this concept, then you can start bringing musicality into it.  This is where you need to start developing your musical instincts “chops” so that you can add more to the music besides pure mechanical prowess.  This will be a subject that I will discuss in an upcoming blog.  Can you remember being in a situation like these diagrams suggest, both on the good side and the bad side?  Don’t you wish some guys would just “get it?”  :-)

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