Today we welcome pro bassist Chris Tarry of christarrylessons.com to share his perspective on the vital importance of listening skills for great musical performance and playing well as part of a band.
There’s perfect pitch, good relative pitch, chordal recognition, rhythmic recall… All of it important, to be sure.
But when it comes to playing, performing, or writing music—which is hopefully why we’re all here—it can be difficult to figure out how such skills are used, especially when we’re in front of our instruments and the drummer is reaching for that once-in-a-lifetime fill.
How do we become better listeners? Ear training is not just note recognition; it is a complete awareness of everything going on in a musical moment.
We must teach ourselves not only what to listen to, but often who.
We all know that the bass and the kick-drum are old soul mates, but how does a guitar part work with a drummer’s cymbal? How do vocals fit within a piano voicing? How do we hold down a groove when the music starts to come unglued?
This is ear training too: the ability to hear how not only notes fit together, but also how the people and their instruments fit together.
Musical awareness is as important to listening as recognizing specific pitches is, maybe even more so. It is a skill born of experience. A level of listening that comes from years of playing and the ability to recognize that music is made up of tiny moments, small improvised choices based on the interaction of everyone around you.
What Makes Great Musicians Great?
I’m fortunate to play bass for some great musicians here in New York, and the one thing they all have in common is an ability to listen on a very high level. They can hear the bass, drums, and vocals, and instantly assess how their own musical contribution will affect the overall sound of a band.
This is not note recognition.
This is not perfect pitch.
This is awareness; floating overtop the music in an angel-like fashion and making the correct musical choice.
We’ve all encountered the guitarist who never stops playing. The drummer who slows down and doesn’t realize it. All of it can be cured through listening.
When I’m listening well, I am unaware of my own playing.
I’m not focused on the notes, I am focused on how the band is interacting.
By focusing our attention outward (instead of inward), we can become more aware of the music that is happening around us.
When I’m listening well, I am unaware of my own playing. I’m not focused on the notes, I am focused on how the band is interacting. I’m asking myself: Are the length of my notes affecting the groove? Is the bass too loud? Am I in the way of the vocal line?
When a band is listening well, there is a trust that extends itself like an invisible string around every player. It’s a trust that builds a type of confidence in the sound, like a mountain climber lowering their companion over the side of a cliff. We must have our musical companion’s back, be there for them when they go for a tough lick or take a step off “Solo Mountain”.
It’s the only way to be sure the trust is there: a level of listening that puts the band first.
How to Learn How to Listen
But how do we develop this essential skill? It’s sounds easier than it is, because hey, all it means is listening, right?
Well, yes, and no.
You have to decide not only to listen, but also who to listen to.
If I’m playing a gig that involves a lot of improvisation and the drummer is playing a groove that makes it very difficult to keep track of where the time is, I might choose to ignore the drums and focus on the piano (or vocals, or guitar) to make sure the bass never moves. And this is part of having your partner’s back.
Strange as it sounds, by not listening to the drummer, I have his back—because if I get lost, or turn the beat around, I have let go of the rope holding him to the side of the cliff. He will do the same for me when it’s my turn to step into the abyss.
This is the trust.
This is where great music lives.
Start Listening Better
So try it the next time you get together with your favorite players. Take a step back and really listen.
Not only to the notes and their relationship to each other, but to your relationship with each other.
Give yourself over to the music in this way. Extend a musical hand to the rest of the band, an “olive branch of listening”, and you’ll be surprised at how good everything can sound.
Want to become more musical?
Whether you want to sing in tune, play by ear, improvise, write your own songs, perform more confidently or just make faster progress, first you need to know where you’re starting from.
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