LInL- James Smock

I interviewed James and Rebekah about lessons in listening via email this week. Rather than combine their answers, which were all fascinating, into a single post, I’ve decided to repost their responses in full separately in two posts.

James Smock is a freelance trumpet player in Portland, Oregon. He plays in many orchestras and chamber groups and has been a regular sub with the Oregon Symphony for the last few years. He became principal trumpet of the OES in February 2005.


KW- Can listening really be taught and learned? Aren’t all experiences of all listeners of equal value?

JS- Listening can be learned, of course.  Musicians devote a significant amount of time to sharpening their ears…it’s a form of study.  Just about anyone, regardless of background, can improve their musical experiences by simply knowing HOW to listen. 

I believe that each person’s experience is their own, but I think the person who is more invested in a performance has more to gain or lose.  Let’s use sports as an analogy:  the die hard fan, who has followed every game their team has played for the last 10 years will certainly be in more of a position to appreciate the championship game than the person who doesn’t even know the rules of the game.  

KW- How has your listening to music changed or evolved over the years?

JS- Originally, as a young trumpeter, I was attracted to the sound of my own instrument, and the rest of the brass.  As I’ve become older, though, I’ve learned to appreciate the sounds of all instruments, and especially the combinations thereof.  The intensity of my listening has changed as well.  Most folks listen only casually to music;  while this is sometimes unavoidable, it’s nevertheless a great waste!  Who would go to an art museum and only glance at the paintings?  Why pour a glass of fine wine, and drink it down without savoring the complex tastes? 

KW- What happens in a lesson?

JS- The sessions are held in our home, with a very casual atmosphere.  At first we’ll probably sit down for some tea, and speak with the participants about their musical experiences.  After getting to know each other a bit, we’ll move on to some listening.  Depending on the participants, this could include instrument demonstrations, some illustrations of form, or perhaps a bit of comparative harmony.  Comparative listening will be a large part of it.  We might use Pergolesi as a foil for Schoenberg, for instance.  We’ll likely weave in some basic music history, as well.  Our enthusiasm will hopefully propel us through the session. Questions, of course, are encouraged, and there will likely be some talking during some of the music.  We’ll point out WHAT to listen for, and HOW to listen.  Did I mention the snacks?  We provide some basic refreshments, as well.It’s great fun. 

KW- How big of a commitment should a student of listening be prepared to make? Do they just come once or should they be prepared to stick with it for a while?

JS- I think the level of commitment is directly proportional to the reward.  That being said, a person could definitely get a lot out of one session.  We can accommodate either scheme.   

KW- I assume that the lessons are going to use recordings. How do students transfer what they’ve learned to listening to concerts? Is it different listening to concerts?

JS- The ideas we’re teaching can be applied to absolutely any music, in any venue.  Concerts are certainly different from recordings, though.  First of all, the vibe of a concert can vary wildly.  I’ve fallen asleep during very exciting music, and been electrified by more understated stuff.  Anything can happen.  I think a concert is the collective of what each individual brings the the hall that night–like maybe the person 3 rows back brought a chronic cough.  At a concert, you have to be willing to go along for the ride.  With recordings, you have a lot more control.  But nobody talks about the great recording of Mahler 2 they listened to back in ’89.  Concerts can be much more magical. 

KW- Do students need any background in music or music terminology? 

JS- Anyone who is interested enough to show up will have all the tools they need.  

KW- What would you consider to be a successful outcome for someone who takes these lessons?

JS- Firstly, I’d like to see the participants leave each session feeling energized. The sessions aren’t like classroom time…it’s not draining–quite the opposite, in fact.  In the long term, I’d like to get people interested in art music, and also appreciate the art in popular music.  Forgive the metaphor, but I think most popular music is black and white:  there just aren’t many colors to choose from.

Art music is special because of the vibrancy of the color, I think, and there are even some great examples of art music in the guise of pop.    

KW- Is there any homework?

JS- None that anyone would recognize as such.  We might ask someone to bring in a bit of music they like, and we can have a dialogue about WHY they like it. 

KW- What made you decide to do these lessons?

JS- The music business is so corporate these days.  Big business tells people what to like (read HOT, NEW), and they buy it hook line and sinker.  I’d love to see a well informed public turning the tables on the record execs and taking control of the industry.  Sort of what you’ve mentioned before in reference to beer, wine, and coffee.  Remember your first REALLY GOOD cup of coffee?  It changed your life, I’ll bet.  I’d love to see people have that same experience with music.  As for this incarnation of Lessons in Listening, though, I have to thank Rebekah. She spearheaded this idea.   

 For examples of my own lessons in listening, click here.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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