Hornist Rebekah Schaub is a graduate of UCLA and now a busy freelancer in the Portland, Oregon region. She has been one three co-principal horn players in the Oregon East Symphony since February of 2006. I asked her the same questions about Lessons in Listening that I asked James. Her answers make for a great, and inspiring, read.
KW Can listening really be taught and learned?
RS Yes, it can. My ear, over time, has learned how to hear what i’m looking at – most of the time, anyway. And it’s still constantly improving – it’s always learning better and subtler ways of listening. I assume that since mine has, and is, everybody’s ear can learn to listen.
Because it can be learnt, i believe it can be taught. Part of the trouble with designing the Lessons in Listening is discovering how to effectively teach listening. I know that, for me, the methods employed in music school (the ear training regimens, the sight-singing drills, the music identification tests, the music appreciation classes) were useless for my ear. It makes me wonder for how many other people they were useless, and if that might not be a reason why people dislike classical music – it’s no fun sitting through a class constantly thinking “i don’t get this.” I think that LInL will be a continuing experiment in listening instruction; it will likely morph according to student, with a result of teaching us how to teach listening.
KW Aren’t all experiences of all listeners of equal value?
RS Briefly, yes and no.
Music is a temporal art – it both takes place in time, and it has a duration; thus it is a more experiential art form than painting or sculpture, and anything that is experienced as a cause of listening to it is valuable and valid, insofar as it affects the individual listener. Whatever that piece means to you, however it affects you, is a worthwhile experience, for you, at that time.
But that initial experience of the music is fleeting, and if you seek to replicate that exact experience again, you will more than likely fail. In the time between listenings you will have changed, grown, lived more life; your desires and sorrows are perhaps different; it becomes impossible to hear that music the same way that you heard it before, and if you expect to, you will be disappointed. By limiting that music to meaning just and only what it meant to you that one time, you will grow out of it pretty quickly, and cease to listen to it. à Aside. Classical music is particularly tricky that way. The first time you hear a work it can be life-changing, earth-shattering. Your whole world is expanded, you see everything more clearly, you feel that your soul has never been more accurately or beautifully expressed. But then you expect that to happen every time, and when it doesn’t you become disillusioned. You come to dislike the music that was initially so powerful because every time after the first was a disappointment. Pop music doesn’t do that to you. It never moves, blows up, and reassembles your whole world in the space of 42 minutes, so you tend to have considerably fewer expectations of it. It makes it way easier for pop music to meet those expectations, you are less disappointed more rarely, and so you like it more. ß end of Aside.
If instead, you take the more life that you’ve lived and openly approach that same music as you would a new piece, it will mean another more new different experience, but nonetheless powerful for that. And some of the music that was closest to you ten years ago is now light-years away, and you don’t even really like it; and some of the music that five years ago you couldn’t stand now speaks to you the most strongly. That one piece that you absolutely hated on the first hearing starts to grow on you, until it maybe becomes your new favorite. Open-mindedness and the willingness to grow are maybe the best traits to cultivate to get the most out of any music, and classical music especially.
So yes, all experiences of all listeners are of equal value, but rigid expectations and a dogmatic approach to the music will kill any potential real experience you might have had in favor of disappointment and boredom.
KW How has your listening changed or evolved over the years?
RS A lot of music used to sound the same to me – there was classical music, jazz, and pop/rock. I could tell those genres apart from each other, but within them i couldn’t distinguish anyone from anyone.
Then i started to learn horn, and i’d try to pick out the horns from all the rest of the music. It was mainly the differences in horn lines that introduced me to some of the differences in music in general. I think listening exclusively to your own instrument is a phase that all musicians go through, and some never get out of. It helps you to get a handle on an otherwise overwhelmingly large piece of music.
My ideas of what sounds good and what doesn’t have also changed over time. When i was a child i loved anything slow, lyrical, and either minor or modal. I hated major – i thought it sounded dumb (i still kind of think that, actually). I liked people to play prettily, i enjoyed some refinement in the sound. I still do, but now i also enjoy some really raucous playing. I love to hear lots of fire and energy in a performance, even if it means some sloppiness or mistakes. I used to think that all the right notes in all the right places means a great performance. I now think that all the right notes in all the right places can mean a lack-luster, very safe, very boring performance.
In more general terms, i have found that i go through listening phases. In my junior year of high school i would listen to Tuckwell’s two disc horn concerto set two or three times a day. In college i listened to Shostakovich 5 and 9 on loop for four or five hours a day for two years, often while staring at the ceiling. Then it was Tchaikovsky 4, 5 and 6. Then it was ethnic Bulgarian music. Then it was Debussy’s La Mer, L’Apres-Midi D’Un Faun, and Danses Sacre et Profun. Then Prokofieff’s Peter and the Wolf, Tales of an Old Grandmother, and Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals. Lately it’s been whatever my roommates turn on. I have found that, for me, a long slow digestion of music is what it takes for it to really stick with me. Besides, it’s what i enjoy the most. I would rather be obsessed by a piece for months upon months than just flit through lots of works by lots of composers.
KW What happens in a lesson?
RS Some preparatory visiting (including some light refreshment), probably done with some music on in the background – turned up enough to hear it if you listen to it, and down enough to hear people if you are listening to the conversation. I think we might ask them after some several minutes of chatting if they noticed the music, if they like it, if they know it, etc. Perhaps spin out some conversation on that.
I’d like to find out from every participant if they have a favorite composer (and try to determine why) – or if they at least have a composer they’ve heard of. Anyone is welcome to bring in their own favorite recordings, or to make specific requests. I’ll also likely ask them if there is a composer or a piece they just can’t stand, and see what it is they don’t like about it.
We’ll ask if they’ve ever played an instrument; if so which; and can they still identify its sound. We might begin any in-depth listening with just picking out when/what that instrument is playing. As i mentioned, i think listening exclusively to your own instrument can give you a handle on a perhaps otherwise unapproachable piece. For that reason alone, i think it might help if they’ve had some sort of instrumental/vocal training.
I think that, at least at the beginning, a lesson will largely consist of playing a ten or fifteen minute section of music, and seeing if they liked it or not. Then perhaps trying to figure out why they liked or disliked it. Since that can be a difficult question to answer, we might ask them how it made them feel, or what, specifically, caught their attention. I’d like to make it flexible enough that anyone could say “Wait! I want to hear more of that!” or “This music is irritating. Can we turn it off?” We might keep a log of the participants’ reactions to various works to be able to more effectively teach them; we’d make the log available to them if they wanted a copy for themselves. Since the point of these lessons is to teach the how of listening, and is only very tangentially about a classical music overview, i think we’ll mostly be listening to music the participants like; at least occasionally though, we’re sure to listen to something that is not to everyone’s taste.
At first, these lessons will be very much question and conversation driven; as a participant comes to more and more of these lessons, it’s my impression that much more time will be spent actively listening, not necessarily at the expense of conversation – thus, i hypothesize that the sessions will run longer the more a participant has attended.
I want to give people an opportunity to experience classical music the way that they want to experience it; there will not be just one way we do things. Requests and suggestions regarding all aspects of the lessons are welcome.
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?
RS That depends entirely upon what that person wants to get out of it. If they’re looking for some tips on how to stay interested during a performance, we can probably give them that in one lesson. If they want a more in-depth understanding of what they’re hearing, that will take longer – how much longer is dependant on the participant.
If a participant is unsure of what they want from the lessons, i would suggest they make a four-session commitment, and decide after that time to continue or not, as they see fits them best.
KW I assume that the lessons are going to use recordings. How do students transfer what they’ve larned to listening to concerts? Is it different listening to concerts?
RS Since the whole of LInL is based upon the how of listening, it will seamlessly transfer between lessons and concerts without any separate explanation.
Listening to concerts can be very much the same as listening to recordings, but concerts in general are experienced quite a bit differently, which alters your perception of what you heard. The energy in a concert hall can electrify a performance supernaturally, and i’d love to see regular active, engaged audience members. Getting swept up in the emotions of the moment is largely what any concert is all about (just think of any rock concert you’ve been to), and i think that classical audiences need to have that permission again. Recordings are good, great even, but never magic. Concerts can be magic.
KW Do students need any background in music or music terminology?
RS No, just enough interest in music to bring them to us.
KW What would you consider to be a successful outcome for someone who takes these lessons?
RS As everyone will have their own goals in taking these lessons, their success will have to be measured by themselves.
That being said, i’d like to see the participants begin hearing things they’d never noticed before and developing some firm opinions on what and why they like what they do. In much broader terms, i’d like to see each one grow in their interest in music, have a broader understanding of its power, and perhaps diversify their taste
KW Is there any homework?
RS Not really – but i would ask each participant why they liked or disliked a particular piece. That might require a few moments of reflection, which could be translated to mean “homework.”
KW What made you decide to do these lessons?
RS I love music. I love classical music, especially. It caught me forever when i was seventeen. It’s powerful, it’s beautiful, and it expresses so well those inexpressible emotional rumblings.
It seems that so many people are turned off or intimidated by everything about classical music: the people who endorse it, the snobbery associated with it, the venues, the recordings (there are so many of the same things, how do you know which one to get? And if you do just dive in and buy one, there is a very good chance that it’ll be boring)… it’s a tragedy that something this incredible is made so inaccessible by the people who surround and control it. It is my hope that these lessons give people a way to bypass all of that crap and experience the music the way that they want to – the way that speaks to them. We are a few people who love music passionately, and sometimes all it takes to love something yourself is to watch someone else love it first.