Critical Listening: What For?

We’ve all been there - musicians, that is. Generally, sitting down somewhere: be it at a world famous concert hall listening to a professional performer smashing away at a piece we’ve played; a masterclass we should have signed up for; early for your lesson and listening to the previous victim; or even just listening to some friends run through repertoire.

‘I could do that better.’

Yes, for some reason we can always do that better (a shame perhaps as no one is asking us to, but never mind about that). Or even worse; ‘that’s rubbish’. Because then it’s not even a case of offering up a better option, but a statement quite literally condemning the performer to mediocrity by our oh-so-holy opinion of, well, our-oh-so-holy-selves.

Why do we have to be so judgmental? Every single musician will be able to relate to this - and the very small % of us that cannot do so personally (or at least, won’t admit to themselves), will be able to identify with the toxic sense of competition and sanctimonious attitude existing between performers, especially within classical music institutions.

One of the main causes is a direct result of an aspect of training referred to as ‘critical listening. What this entails is being subjected to hours every week of listening to others performing in Repertoire/Performance Classes, with the primary intent of being able to pick out flaws - in the hope that developing these skills will then allow us as musicians to utilise them in our own musical development. We are then asked in some of these classes to take part in the debate following, in order to test our ability to seriously focus in on performance concepts. Going to university in London was hilarious, referencing the great British tradition of passive aggressiveness - “Oh I loved it, it was really great, I just think you should change everything about it and perhaps also think about a new hairstyle.”

Critical listening is a crucial tool in developing your own craft, but as musicians, we must address our personal issue when it comes to the denigration of others who are attempting to do the exact same thing. And herein is the point: we are all learning. But critical listening needs to be distinguished from relentless criticism for the sake of it, and geared towards a new critically constructive means of passing on information. The style that pervades most institutions these days does not tend to have this constructive element - it is a narcissistic and self serving style of critique aimed at boosting the egos of those who deliver it.

Now this doesn’t necessarily mean patting on the back every person who has seemingly sadistically assaulted your ears and soul, just for the sake of it: the intention of this article is more to inspire readers to allow the possibility of an empathetic approach to listening and adjudication. Only then will we be able to transfer positive knowledge and energy to our fellow musicians, and foster an environment conducive to create real progress and musical growth.

By and large, I wish to be like Trevor. Trevor was a fellow I studied with back in Adelaide - classic sort of pianist type fellow; exquisitely gifted at the instrument, slightly lanky, unimaginatively dressed, and as I saw it, universally liked. And then one day it was pointed out to me why that was - Trevor never spoke badly about anyone else’s performance. Surely he harboured thoughts and condemnations as we all do; however it only ever appeared in the form of post-performance thoughts and discussion, rather than the Janus-esque style that most of us employ.

So, musicians of the world, let’s all try to be a bit like Trevor. Next time you’re sitting in a masterclass, try to feel good for the musician in front of you. Forgive mistakes, because well, it’s a masterclass where the objective is to learn, not be flawless. Next time you’re in the audience for a performance, and Lupu is on stage completely out of time with D.B., give him the benefit of the doubt, as he’s definitely deserved it. When that person who managed to not only play with no soul, but actively suck the soul from Beethoven gets on stage as the first prizewinner at that competition, blame the system that allowed this to proliferate. There are enough contemptuous personalities out there trying to remind us that this business we’re in is failing, and that we’re nowhere near good enough and never will be - we don’t need to exacerbate the situation with our own vitriol.

Ironically enough - somewhere, someone in the world is reading this saying ‘I could have written that better.