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Sunday, May 8, 2016

Are they really listening?


Sometimes I stop conducting during a rehearsal and I watch my students.  Do they notice that I have stopped conducting?  Do they notice when they are falling apart?  Do individuals notice when their tempo is different than everyone else's?  Students can be so focused that they forget to listen and notice things happening in their surroundings.  

A few summers ago, I took my kids to the local county fair and there was a 'ride' with giant inflated balls inside a shallow swimming pool.  People could pay to get inside a ball and run around like a hamster.  My children tried it and they had a great time.  I attempted to get my kids' attention for a picture, but they were so focused on trying to stay upright inside the ball, they did not see or hear me.  I share this story with my students and tell them not to play 'inside a bubble.'  I remind them to listen and to perform as a team.  The story helps, but students really need to practice listening and being attentive while performing.  Here are a few ideas:

1.  InTune

I recently purchased this app to use for ear training in my classes.  It's very basic and easy to use.  Two tones are played and you must decide whether the 2nd pitch is higher or lower than the first pitch.  It starts pretty easy, but by level 5 it becomes tricky.  To play it with my class, I plug my phone into my speakers and let students hear the pitches.  They give me a thumbs up if they believe the 2nd pitch is higher and a thumbs down if they think the 2nd pitch is lower.  I answer on my phone based on the majority.   It is interesting to see student responses...many students really need this kind of training to develop a more refined sense of pitch.  This game takes very little time, so it works great during a warm-up routine.  Even though the game is simple, students have not been bored when doing this in class. Several of my students went home and purchased the app to try to get a higher score than me.  After playing this game, I feel students listen more closely to intonation and pitch while rehearsing during class.

2.  GlowSticks/Conducting

My students performed at a festival last week and the judges made comments to my class about how they need to listen to each other.  They performed well, but almost fell apart in one section of the music because the back of the orchestra was a tiny bit behind the front.  This is because I have 2 classes of beginners (100 total) and we do not have an opportunity to rehearse together.  I teach the same music...we were just not able to combine for a rehearsal due to testing at the school and other teachers not allowing students to miss their classes.  Both of my classes knew the music and could stay together in class.  It's hard to see and hear when you find yourself in the back few rows of such a large orchestra.  After the festival, I started to brainstorm ways I could help my students be more prepared in the future.  A combined rehearsal would definitely help, but students must also learn to listen, count, and follow a conductor.

Recently I picked up a few cases of glowsticks and I had them in my office because I thought they might come in handy.  As students entered class one day, I had them pick up one glowstick and place it on their music stand.  We watched a quick video of the week about conducting and we discussed the purpose of a conductor:

After we were all settled, I turned out the lights and my classroom has no windows, so it was totally dark inside.  In the blackness, I taught students how to hold their glowsticks like batons and I taught them how to conduct 4/4, 3/4 and 2/4 times.  We could easily see when a student was not keeping the beat or moving the right direction because of the glowsticks.  We practice following a conductor in the darkness.  I directed various tempos and beats while students had to tap the glowstick on their hand in the air to stay with my beats.  Students LOVED this exercise and even my advanced class was enthralled.  It was a great visual - students could SEE whether they were together or not.  I tried some pics, but it was dark, so it's hard to capture the true awesomeness of this exercise.

Here's a video with an example of students trying to stay with a beat...I was holding my phone and not conducting, so you can see they are not totally together:

3.  Musical Chairs

On Friday, I could tell my students were getting tired of rehearsing our concert music yet again.  We had already performed the music at festival, and we know it well.  I wanted to have a productive rehearsal and listening skills were on my mind.  To liven things up, I allowed all students to sit where-ever they wanted in the classroom.  There were basses at the front of the room...violas, cellos, and violins all mixed up.  We then played our concert pieces and it was like a new experience for students!  They noticed other parts - melodies and harmonies.  They made many insightful comments and agreed that it was easier to listen to each other when they were mixed up.  They could hear themselves better with other parts around them.  Students had to focus on playing their music exactly to fit with the other parts that were so close.  I will definitely do this more often with my students.  It allowed students to practice everything I wanted:  listening, counting, awareness.

I hope you found something useful to help your classes learn to listen.  Happy rehearsing, everyone!


  1. Where did you find the InTune App? I am trying to find it for my classes to use as a quick warm up but can't find it.

    1. It in the app store (iphone). Just search for InTune.

  2. Hi Angela,

    I enjoyed reading your blog post because of how these techniques related to what my orchestra does and how important these techniques are as an ensemble. I know from experience that listening to others helps make the music ideas more clear to the audience but an exercise that you mentioned that my orchestra also works with is the musical chairs idea. From this idea, I noticed how my part fits in with other parts around me through listening. To add on to this idea of how sitting in another section helps each member listen better is that there are three levels of musical listening. The first is the musician’s own voice in the orchestra, without this, the intonation will downfall. The next is the musician’s listening in the section by comparing the part with others in the section, without a fluent section, the melody needed to get across will not be present in the piece. The third is listening to the orchestra as a whole by figuring out how the musician’s part fits in with other parts across the orchestra section, this is where the music happens. Orchestra players may not realize the importance of section listening, especially at a young age, but without this necessary characteristic, there will be a lack of musical style and a loss of sounding as one orchestra. In summary, a great orchestra incorporates all three levels of listening because the entire point of an orchestra is the idea of recognition of other parts.

    1. Thanks for your insight. I love how you describe the 3 levels of listening.

    2. Karin H. I truly enjoy reading and utilizing all your terrific ideas for teaching beginners. Thank you!