If improvising involves mining one’s emotional interior, as many would suggest, how does a musician achieve something so intimate, collaboratively, in public? Musicians enter into a process of externalizing inchoate feelings and sensations into sounds. The player projects a trial balloon beyond oneself, as if tossing something against a wall and seeing what returns. Does it bounce back in tact, is it altered through the engagement, does it change form entirely? It is as if one generates a hypothesis and tests it by means of experiments, except that the feedback is instantaneous and the target is moving. The act of creation and response to new information creates a complex feedback loop. The ears of listeners are part of this system. Little of this is obvious because we musicians, even good listeners, pay so much attention to what we ourselves are playing. We want to get it right. We want to sound good. We listen to the sounds we make, we get lost in our playing habits, we sometimes chatter to ourselves. In short, we become caught up in ourselves. A musical performance is after all, a performance, not a therapy session.
Listening while playing is not easy. Schooled musicians are often taught to focus on detail: on notes, on harmonic theory, on accurate execution, on technique. There, the goal is to translate information about a limited number of things—what note, how loud, what chord, what duration… and hopefully also articulation: does a note begin instantaneously or gradually, and does it end by slowly tapering, abruptly ceasing, or something in between. All musicians, at least the better ones, compensate to adjust to one another’s timing and range of volume. To some degree this extends to the actual sounds being made. In a large portion of improvised music, the musicians must listen to a more expansive collection of information, information that is outside of themselves.
Listening is actually a far more detailed and subtle skill than what is implied by definitions of musical technique offered by music educators. Here are some other factors I think about regarding how to listen better:
Learning: flexibility, adjustment & openness to change; how does the sound, articulation, concept, structures and direction of others impact or influence mine?
Empathy: how to show others that you are listening? Knowing something about what one’s own distinctive sound is like; what is it that one’s musical partners are hearing when I play–and then noticing what are the features of the distinct sound of the other people.
Perception: being open to potential multiple perspectives and possibilities of meaning. How can I recognize and affirm the identities of other group members and the group as a whole; above all notice what others may be perceiving from their perspective rather than yours.
Structural concerns to listen for: noticing what are emerging larger musical structures, but also the small details within larger structures (without losing “the forest for the trees,” getting overly caught up in the details). Noticing repeated patterns, variations, musical references, silences as spaces to leave alone—or alternately–fill, invitations to join—or alternately—cues to lay-out, detecting something new, deciding to inject something new.
Surprises: noticing unexpected musical events, opening one’s perceptions wider to inexplicable meanings—momentarily if not permanently remaining unsure of what they represent yet continuing to listen without losing oneself.
Broadening one’s musical vocabulary: treating melodic contour as abstract patterns (1960s Coltrane is a great guide here: up/down, smooth/angular, steps/leaps). Pay attention to details of dynamics within individual notes and phrases, variations of articulation. Exploring how time passes: note or phrase duration; remember that pulse and a-rhythmic treatments of time are not opposed to one another.
Belonging: merging into a group sound, maintaining one’s identity in the group, sticking out/contrariness, “me and them,” isolation-separate from the group; where to assert oneself, join with others, allow space for others. What are some of the myriad ways one become part of a larger whole: is it about sound, shape, texture, pulse, or something else entirely? Creating consonance vs. pushing back or playing against the grain. How to inform rather than impose?
Dialog & Response: call and response, variation, contrast, adding to something that is happening or has already taken place; tracking what is changing and adjusting or responding. There are many options: exactitude, similarity, variety, contrasts; Thinking of unison more broadly (Ornette Coleman’s Harmolodic theory addresses this, for instance playing the same line but not starting on the same note). Is there such a thing as quasi-unison; ignoring line entirely but aiming for periodic pitch matching; imitating other players’ sound qualities / timbre.
Going for the ride. Having fun, making mistakes–adjusting to them and building upon them. Being intentional can imply both concentration and abandon. Focus and playfulness are not mutually exclusive. Getting out of one’s own way – what can you notice only by paying very close attention? Remembering that the world doesn’t revolve around me.