When most people speak about piano playing, they often refer to physical playing instead of listening. This is rather like learning to speak a language without learning to listen to people speak it. When we truly focus on our listening skills, we are able to extract some wonderful nuances within music that can easily go unnoticed and learning to master these skills will help almost any pianist improve their piano playing.
Today we will explore a few tips and tricks to help you enhance your listening skills when playing the piano and how by developing your ability to listen, ultimately we become better players.
Why Is Listening Important?
Listening matters for a wealth of reasons, as mentioned, the ability to listen is just as important as the ability to play, when we think of it like language, it is easy to tell if someone is not a native speaker of a language, even if their grammar and pronunciation may be correct, often times when learning a new language, people are not able to pick up the subtle colloquialisms, rhythms and syntax of a language without fully immersing themselves in an area that speaks it fluently and they have lived there for a substantial period of time.
Music is very much the same as this and whilst you may be able to play the pieces written on the score, how those notes blend together and how the audience receives the music is very different. This is similar to listening to a recording of your voice on your phone, oftentimes many people say things like “I don’t sound like that” because we are so used to hearing our voice inside our heads and not the one that other people hear. The first step of learning to listen is to appreciate that what the player and the audience hears are two very different things.
Tip 1) Record Yourself Playing
This leads nicely onto our first tip, which is to listen to recordings of yourself play. This is a great exercise as it helps narrow the gap between audience and player. Place your phone or recording device a few feet away from your piano and begin to play your piece. Once done, listen back to the recording and see how it compares with the score that is in front of you.
Pay particular attention to the accuracy of your playing and also factors such as the tone, dynamics and expression as you may notice that things perhaps feel a little softer, or perhaps louder than you were intending, or that the piece feels almost ‘jarring’ at certain sections.
By listening back to the recording and taking notes of what you do and don’t like about the way you are playing the piece, will help you realise different aspects of your playing. When done overtime, you may begin to notice certain trends within your playing that you were previously unaware of. This is the perfect exercise to do as part of keeping a piano diary and is a good exercise every few weeks to see how your playing progresses.
Tip 2) Listen to music…A LOT
They often say that the best way to improve your writing skills is to read more. The same applies to musicians. When you read more, you learn the subtleties within each author’s unique writing styles and the rhythms they use within their word choices. We can do the same exercise with composers.
Each composer has their own unique style and will use certain nuances in their playing for a reason. Music is its own language and as we have already discussed, you may be able to play perfectly, but without the proper expression and nuances, your playing can feel rather robotic and unnatural.
Many teachers also report that it is easy to see students who do listen to classical music vs those who do not when performing classical pieces. If you are wondering where to start, begin with pieces you are currently learning and the pieces you want to learn in the future. If it is a particular suite or movement that you are learning, instead of just listening to that one isolated piece, listen to the other pieces in the whole set to see a more holistic picture of what the composer was trying to achieve. If you are looking for some further inspiration, why not explore our sheet music range of iconic classical pieces throughout history.
Another great exercise here is to listen to compositions for different instruments by the same composer, for example compare and contrast Mozart’s piano compositions vs his string compositions and so on. You will likely still be able to notice how his subtle characteristic composition style carries from one instrument to the other. For even further information and context behind his work, read our guide to Mozart’s composition here.
Tip 3) Imagine Yourself As Both The Audience And The Performer
A crucial point of your playing should always be to be aware of the differences between player and listener in both a physical sense and a musical sense. For most performances, your audience will always be at least several feet away from you, and depending on the size of the auditorium or room, may even be a 10s of metres away.
Your job as the performer is to ensure that you project the sound into the room and every set of ears is met with the right level of intent, no matter where the audience member is sitting. In order to do this, we need to both understand the basics of the physics of how sound travels and also the ability to appreciate how sound differs depending on where the listener is.
In order to do this, we need to be a little imaginative. Imagine yourself as two people, both the player and the listener simultaneously. As the listener, imagine yourself in different places around a room and how the sound may feel different as it reaches you and then as the player, adapt your playing accordingly. Try imagining this in both the context of a large concert hall, and also a very intimate small room.
If you are struggling to visualise this in your imagination, use visual cues of piano auditoriums and concert halls and place them in front of your piano and imagine yourself in different seats in the room as part of the audience.
Tip 4) Start Small
Learning to listen is not a skill that you learn once and then move on from, it is a skill that is always adapting, developing and changing as you progress your playing. The best first place to begin would be to start small and learn how sound behaves during play. Begin with playing just one note, notice subtle changes in the sound as it fades, then introduce another note over the top of the decaying sound and see how the two intertwine. Then a chord, and so on and so on.
By focusing on the subtleties within every note, we are able to see how sounds work together to create something truly magical and as this skill grows, you will be able to extract a remarkable level of nuance within your piano playing.
Tip 5) Notice The Way Your Body Moves
As we have written about before in our guide to improving your piano expression, piano playing does not just come from your fingers, but from your whole body.
Tensions in the wrists, arms and shoulders will all affect how piano music is played and expressed through the instrument. By freely moving your body and encouraging a stable, yet flexible composure, you can expect to hear differences within your sound, many often report a far warmer, richer sound when they play when they are relaxed, compared to a far harsher, restricted tone when tense. You may also find our guide to improving your playing stamina interesting if you are concerned with the tension in your playing.
We hope you have enjoyed this quick guide to improving your listening skills at the piano. If you would like to learn more about ways to enhance your piano playing, our piano journal is full of helpful tips and tricks.