Listening Beyond the Instrument

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Oboe By: Tutor no longer registered
Subject: Oboe
Last updated: 28/04/2016
Tags: classical music, improving listening, listening to music

When we enter into the world of classical music, it is easy to become swept away by it.  My first time listening to a Mahler or Shostakovich symphony was an incredible, immersive experience, with the significance of this undoubtedly heightened by the grandeur of the concert hall setting, and the reality that hundreds of people were there purely to experience the uninterrupted narrative of this music together, from beginning to end. 

It is an amazing world to be a part of, and as a classical instrumentalist, it is both educational and inspirational to listen to the variety of repertoire available for my instrument, in terms of styles and periods.  There is an endless number of orchestral works, ranging from the Bach Passions with choirs and soloists to Mozart chamber symphonies, and from hour-long Bruckner epics to Messiaen’s otherworldly twentieth century sounds.  And for those that enjoy the intimacy of individual melodic lines, harmonies and instruments, there are more chamber music works in existence than could possibly be counted, and for every conceivable instrumental combination.   There are concertos for every instrument, and conductors who will interpret the most commonly played music in ways which will make us feel almost as though we have never heard it before.

It is vital to immerse ourselves fully in these sounds and experiences, and to be able to be open-minded about what we hear: if we approach music with pre-disposed judgments, or avoid even listening to anything unknown to us, we are unlikely to give it any opportunity to fully explain itself to us.  Equally, however, it is important for us to be able to make our own thoughtful opinions and judgments as musicians or as music-lovers, as without these we will surely never be in a place to create something new, personal, or meaningful.  It is absolutely okay for us to dislike a performance, or a piece of music – in doing so, we begin to better understand our own personal values as musicians.

And of course, classical music only represents one aspect of music.  The fact that we do not traditionally listen to other genres of music in the reverent silence of a concert hall should not in any way diminish the importance of this – as a primarily classical musician, it is impossible to gain true perspective on your playing, break down existing stylistic boundaries, or fully engage with the world we are currently performing in without an appreciation of music outside of the classical ‘bubble’.

So if we respect that that a Mahler symphony can often be best experienced in a concert hall where you can hear a pin drop or the echo of a brass fanfare fill the auditorium, we can also appreciate that a rock band creates its own (equally valid and immersive) musical experience best with huge speakers and drum and bass in a stadium; rap artists create their work by combining rhythms and beats with their words in just the right places; country music bands might encourage audiences to tap into the meaning of their songs most effectively by performing in more intimate venues such as bars or clubs. 

And if we want to switch up these ‘norms’ at any point in order to combine styles, turn expectations on their heads, or simply seek a different experience, then so much the better - as long as we always keep listening.

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