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Listening and focussing at the piano

Don't play with closed ears – keep focussed. Melanie Spanswick – pianist, writer, teacher, adjudicator and composer – offers advice for efficient and effective practice.

Don’t play with closed ears – keep focussed. Melanie Spanswick – pianist, writer, teacher, adjudicator and composer – offers advice for efficient and effective practice.

There are numerous considerations when playing the piano. Elements requiring attention include co-ordination, notes, fingering, rhythm, pedalling, colour, sound, and so on. The list is endless, and the success of all important technical and musical issues depends on how carefully we listen and focus on what we are doing.

It’s too easy to play with closed ears, that is, not really focussing on what we are playing and perhaps not being fully engaged during practice sessions.  That may sound ridiculous, particularly as we are making music, but it’s a very common problem. There are two main issues: the first is being fully focussed and engaged as we practise, and the second is being able to cultivate our minds objectively in order to ‘hear’ what is being played, both technically and beyond the notes.

So how do we learn to listen and focus astutely?

All musicians must ideally adhere to the score, which should be learned and assimilated thoroughly; but beyond the notes, musicianship takes over, or it should do. If you find that you are not dealing sufficiently with technical issues, then perhaps learn a slightly less demanding piece which will allow you to concentrate fully on the music. This may be the crux of the problem; technique often demands a great deal of mental work, which can result in the sound world and musical structure taking second place, when really it should reign supreme. When practising, there can be a tendency to enjoy the physical sensations of playing and not really focus on the sound being produce.

To ensure focussed technical practice, try to observe body movements as you play – are you flexible when you move? Is there any tension in your upper body? If so, how can you release stiffness and work more positively with firmer fingers and a relaxed arm, hand and wrist? If you can master physical flexibility, moving around the notes instinctively becomes easier.

Aim to ‘hear’ the music in your head before you play it and then try to reproduce those sounds as you are playing. It’s a form of singing, but in your head: visualisation but in sound instead of pictures – although visualising pictures may be useful, too. This technique can be especially helpful if you are memorising a work.

Singing is a crucial element in any form of music making, but is particularly effective when applied to piano playing. It’s not actual singing (although this can be a good idea) but more specifically hearing melody lines in your mind, deciphering which musical lines need to be emphasised and coloured, where nuances lie within a phrase, and what material can be allowed to disappear within the texture.

Thinking about musical texture in this way requires mental work, so it’s not really possible to do it without engaging our ears and minds fully. This especially applies to pedalling, where far more can be achieved by listening to the sounds being produced as opposed to purely taking note of written signs. Concentrating on various musical lines and textures can help create appropriate tonal sonorities, and the chances are, you will produce a more beautiful sound. You will also learn to ‘hear’ where the music is going and be able to deliver a more convincing rendition.

Pianists generally don’t have as many opportunities as other instrumentalists or singers to work in a group, whether that be a choir or ensemble. This is a pity because playing with others also focusses our minds, encouraging engaged listening. Whether playing chamber music or piano duets, it’s not possible to rehearse or perform successfully without total absorption.

So, if you find yourself losing impetus, then perhaps it may be time to find a musical partner or join a choir. Working with other musicians can be an inspiring experience which can only benefit mental discipline. We owe it to ourselves, and those we work with, to play with open ears and an open mind, embracing the music by being totally present and ‘in the moment’ every time we touch the instrument.

About the author

Melanie Spanswick
Melanie Spanswick

Melanie Spanswick is a pianist, writer, teacher, adjudicator and composer. She is the author of Play it again: PIANO (Schott) a three-book piano course for students who are returning to piano playing.