Developing Discerning Ears: Why Playing Well Is Only Half the Job

Mike Lawson • • July 16, 2018

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From time to time I like to ask my students a simple, but thought-provoking question: “How do you detect mistakes (yours or others) when you play?”

Students are usually quick to offer all sorts of great responses, some more general and some quite specific:

• “The music sounds wrong.”

• “When I notice myself playing different notes from others in my section.”

• “When I notice players moving at two different tempos.”

• “I compare the way we played to the SmartMusic practice track.”

To get the response I am looking for, however, a follow-up question is almost always required: “Okay, but how do you know the music sounds wrong? (…or that your sound is different?, that there are two diverging tempi?, etc.)

Before long the simplicity of my question dawns on them: you’re only aware of those things when you LISTEN as the ensemble plays! Listening to and evaluating the sonic contributions of one’s self and others in the ensemble is a huge part of musical growth and refinement.

Hear the Difference!

Active, discerning listening, leads students to discover more about how the music works, leading to some wonderful musical benefits, including:

Balance. Younger musicians play like they are the only, or at least the most important, thing happening at any given moment of a piece. You know what I’m talking about: that alto sax section honking away on a background part while the melody in the flutes is lost, or the clattering of a snare drum section (whose sticks rise several feet above their drumheads) as they obliterate the wonderful but unheard harmonies in the lower clarinet parts.

Students should be practicing their individual parts at home and in lessons/sectionals so that in full band rehearsals they can concentrate on learning the other players’ parts.

Tone. It’s been my experience that more young instrumentalists overplay than underplay, and when students push their sound too much the tone is harsh and unattractive. When working with your bands, challenge them to have their sound “disappear” or “melt” into the sound of those around them by listening thoughtfully and making adjustments.

Timing. The rhythmic phasing (sometimes called “tears”) that occur is almost always due to one group’s inability (or forgetting) to listen to the other. Playing a little softer allows them to hear their counterparts in the ensemble. And, if nothing else, playing softer makes the offender’s rushing less, well….offensive!

The next time your drum section rushes ahead, instead of yelling “Slow down, stop rushing!,” tell them to play softer so they can listen.

Developing Discerning Ears

Remind students often that playing their instrument is only half their job; they are to actively and thoughtfully listen and evaluate what they hear as well. Be sure to give them opportunities to make observations rather than always providing the answer for

them. From time to time throughout each rehearsal, ask questions to encourage student involvement in active listening:

• “Which section or instrument did you hear last after I cut the band off?”

• “Did anyone notice which section was rushing ahead?”

• “Which instrument timbre is sticking out above the ensemble?”

The goal here is to develop a culture of critical listening and reflection in your band.

You’ve heard the saying, “Feed a man a fish, feed him for a day.

Teach a man to fish, feed him for life.” Develop discerning listeners in your band and in time you’ll have many ears besides your own reflecting on what is needed to achieve more musical results in your rehearsals!

Scott Watson has taught instrumental and elective music for 30 years in the Parkland

School District (Allentown, PA) and is an award-winning and frequently commissioned composer. Many of Watson’s published works have been named J.W. Pepper Editor’s Choice and appear on various state lists; he is a contributor to Alfred Music’s Sound Innovations: Ensemble Development series ( Watson has presented numerous professional development sessions/ workshops for music educators and frequently serves as an honor band guest conductor. To learn more, visit

Sound Innovations: Ensemble Development is a complete curriculum to help beginning through advanced band students grow as ensemble musicians. It thoroughly complements and supplements performance music while breaking down each ensemble concept and preparing students to be ready for any scenario in their repertoire. Learn more at

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