Updated: Oct 14, 2020
We all know that listening to recordings is an integral part of learning music, but what are we supposed to be listening for and how can we get the most out of this practice?
Step 1: Preparation
The first step to listening well is preparing well. This means:
Sourcing good recordings. Make a list of musicians you admire and seek out their recordings. See if your student or library membership can provide access to Naxos, Berlin Digital Concert Hall, or other online resources.
Using the best quality equipment you have access to. Try to get some nice speakers or headphones instead of using your earbuds or laptop speakers. If you can't afford better equipment right now, most libraries have listening rooms where you can use their headphones!
Having a score. If you can't get access to a full score, at least try to get a copy of your instrument’s full orchestral part. IMSLP, Little Piper, and FluteWorld have a lot of flute orchestral parts. If you need something more obscure or don't want to pay for it, try the library or asking one of your friends with an orchestral job if they saved their copy for study purposes. Many musicians will be more than happy to share their music for practice purposes!
Supplies at the ready! Whether it's colored pencils, post-its, or simply a pencil and eraser, make sure you have everything you need to take notes you'll be able to decipher later. I find it helpful to have two copies of the music - one I can mark up while listening, and another, cleaner copy for practicing.
Be in a quiet place where you can focus. This sounds like a no-brainer, but critical listening requires a lot of focus. Find a place where you can sit comfortably and without distractions.
Step 2: Assess the Scene
Begin your journey by giving yourself the gift of listening to music for enjoyment! Leave your score closed for now, and just listen to a few different recordings to get a sense of the range of musical possibilities. Make note of any recordings you particularly enjoy.
Pick your favorite recording, and this time turn on your curious ears for general observations. What do you notice? Is it faster/slower/louder/softer than you expected? Are there any solos or motives you hadn't noticed before? Do the primary musical motives repeat or change over time, and if so, how? What do you like or dislike about this orchestra's rendition? (If you're having trouble, try this step with a recording you don't love. It's often easier to develop opinions about things we don't like! Then you can return to a recording you do like and better articulate what they do differently that you enjoy.)
Now take out your score and pencil. Just notate the following general observations during the first go-round:
Repetition. i.e., if the opening motive repeats, mark it as "A" and put a little "A" next to it each time it occurs. This will give you a sense of the piece's structure, as well as an indication of how much is repeated vs. new material. You can do the same for any counter-melodies or B sections, but try to limit yourself to labeling one thing at a time for now.
Solos! Sometimes there are major orchestral solos we don't know about, or forget about, because they're not standard audition rep. Mark them in your part anyway, especially if it's a moment when you are completely alone. Getting surprised by the whole orchestra dropping out is like getting caught with your pants down!
Tempi! Give yourself a listen with the metronome and notate the tempo for each major section, along with a shorthand for which orchestra the tempo is for. Ideally, you’ll have the chance to listen to a few recordings and will end up with a range of possibilities.
Step 3: Excerpt Study
Don't try to do too much at once. Give yourself specific listening goals and focus on one at a time. If there are multiple excerpts in a piece, for example, just start with one.
What mood or character does this solo evoke? It's much easier to imagine the personality of a solo in context, so use this first listen to think about the character and write yourself some "cue words" at the top of your excerpt music. These will remind you of your musical goals when you're playing alone.
Regarding character, consider the performer's interpretation as well. Do you feel like the performer you're listening to conveys the character you imagine for this piece? If not, what would you do differently? If so, how might you emulate their performance? For more advanced listeners, can you identify what technical aspects of their playing are contributing to the character you hear? E.g. Sharpness of articulation, completely even rhythm versus slight rubato, peaks and valleys of the phrase, how and where are they using vibrato, tone color changes, etc. Being as specific as possible will help you to better plan your own approach.
Breath marks! Mark where it would be appropriate to breathe based on how it sounds and what would feel good to you, as well as where the person in the recording is breathing. Give yourself a few "sneak breaths" too, such as during another instrument's entrance or between repeated notes if they're not too fast. You can always erase what you don't use, but it's good to start with lots of options! As my teacher Tim Day once said, “I never run out of air if I’m always breathing.”
Phrasing. First of all, what does the composer want? Sometimes standard performance practice deviates from what's on the page, but it's important to know what the composer wrote originally. Next, are there any specific notes or harmonic changes you want to aim for or accentuate in the phrase? What about differences in articulation? Are you handing off the phrase or does the musical moment end when you end?
Instrumental Cues. I find it helpful to indicate instrumental cues before my entrance; whether I'm dovetailing; if I'm in unison, octaves, or fifths with a colleague; and any rhythmic motives I should be aware of. (For example, cross rhythms in Petrushka or the snare drum in Bolero). Be nice to yourself by leaving yourself helpful notes!
Vibrato. Orchestral playing often requires much less vibrato than solo playing. Listen to your recordings to see what they do, and mark where in the phrase you'll want it, if any. This is an area where it's good to practice it a few different ways.
Tempos. What range of tempi could this excerpt be played at? Tempo variations can affect fingering choices, breaths you take, dynamics...it's important to be prepared to play outside your ideal tempo choice.
Now that you've listened to a range of recordings and zeroed in on the solos for inspiration and guidance, you're ready to go practice!
Step 4: Follow-Up Tips
If you're getting ready for an audition, make a playlist of all the pieces on your list. This way, you can listen to them while you're commuting or doing dishes, and you don't end up going too long without hearing each excerpt in context.
If you're focused on one excerpt in particular, make a playlist with a few different recordings of the piece, and listen to the whole thing (e.g. the whole Suite or Symphony) rather than just the excerpt over and over. It can also be really refreshing to make a playlist of other works by that composer. When preparing Mozart, for example, listening to his operas or chamber music will give you a fabulous sense of character without you having to listen to the Concerto in G for the zillionth time. Sometimes I’ll even take a break from playing the specific excerpt or piece to learn other music by the same composer - this will keep your practice session from feeling stale and possibly even give you some inspiration!
Learning your part for the entire piece, or even better, learning both flute parts, can be a fun way to deepen your understanding of the composer’s sound world and make any particular excerpts seem less daunting. Even challenging passages can feel manageable when they become part of something greater.
Thanks for reading! Please let me know if this was helpful or if you have any comments, questions, or listening tips of your own!