Three Levels of Listening

Every music educator has a drum that they beat day in and day out. Not the literal drum, as many of us are simply not gifted in the percussive arts. (If you’re like me, hopefully you’ve avoided having your inadequacies caught on tape – pray you keep it that way). The ceaseless campaigning I am talking about boils down to our central mission as a teacher – the undercurrent that guides, nuances, and directs our efforts in what we do. For some it might be musicianship, others it might be precision, others still might champion facility and technical prowess. All of these are hugely valid, as they are all essential aspects of music-making and should be expected of every student on whatever level they personally can achieve.

My personal drum – my dharma, if you will forgive slight alteration to the concept – is a student’s individual responsibility to the greater process and product they participate in. To put it a different way: I want every student to understand how they fit in to what we do, I want enable them to contribute at their highest level, and I want them to see a process by which they can replicate these results at a higher level of achievement the next time they undertake said task. Yes, I know – I expect this out of 15-year-olds who have trouble remembering if they are wearing socks without looking. I have grey hair for a reason.

One of the tools I have found over the years to help develop this mindset is a relatively simple conceptual tool you can use  with your students daily. It’s something that is simple enough that even the most elementary musician could explain the bullet points to you, but allows for enough depth that even upper-level students will continually discover new aspects and layers within it.

Level one is the awareness of the sounds and contribution that are being created within the student themselves.

Whether good or bad, the road to improvement starts with an objective awareness of what we are doing. Good sound, bad sound, accuracy, or complete musical farce – our students must be able to recognize what they are creating. To get this point across, a good axiom to reinforce is that students should “always have an opinion” about what they just did. Make the students back up their opinion (which will invariably start out as  ”good” or “bad”, if not “I don’t know”) with an example (“my sound wasn’t good because it moved around” or “I didn’t like that because the fast part sounded muddy”).

When your students start listening to themselves actively, you will notice a dramatic improvement in the overall quality of your band sound.

Level two is the awareness of what the surrounding musicians are doing.

Matching and fitting your contribution to your neighbors further amplifies both efforts, as well as presents a more professional and polished product to the audience. This level of awareness helps to train the students to further refine their performance through comparison to their neighbors. This can apply to dynamics, style, musical line, and any other aspect of performance or interpretation you can think of. A good goal for students here is to “match their trio” – trio being the students on either side of them, as well as themselves. These levels of awareness are an additive process, and always come back to their basis in the first level of awareness.

Once level two is achieved on a high level, you will start to notice marked gains in the clarity of your ensemble sound. This can take on both positive and negative manifestations, as you will hear both the good and bad of your student’s performance with equal ease. Identify these and work with your students to further refine the skill of matching – the mistakes will decrease over time. Patience is key.

Level three is the awareness of what the entire group is doing during a piece of music.

Students operating at this level can aurally identify the constituent parts of a piece of music and prioritize their contribution based upon their interaction with these important parts. This level does require a considerable amount of detail work on the part of the ensemble and its director, but the results that are achieved through this attention to detail are quite stunning.

Students that achieve level three awareness on a high level produce results that are unmistakable in their quality, clarity, musicality, and nuance. If your ensemble can truly operate at this level the majority of the time you are truly somewhere special! Enjoy and submit an entry for the Midwest ClinicNational Concert Band Festival, or TMEA Honor Band – others need to hear what you are doing!

These levels or awareness are dependent, however, on two items being completely committed to the skill of matching and its development: The Students (the aforementioned 15-year-old, organizationally-challenged children), and The Director. On both group’s parts there must be patience and trust – this process, actively and diligently pursued, creates results that are second to none. It can be a challenging process, but the growing pains you and your ensemble undergo are well worth it if you stay the course.

Cory Meals

Cory Meals is a drill designer whose work has been performed across the southwestern United States. Working with renowned drill designer Mitch Rogers, Cory has created successful visual productions for bands of all sizes, types, and ability levels. Samples of his drill can be found at his website:

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