In my readings this week was a book entitled “Listening Effectively” by Dr. John A. Kline. Although he was talking about “listening” in a more academic setting, I believe the principles he shared in his book can be directly correlated to all musicians. He maintains that the five processes one must go through to listen are, “receiving, attending, understanding, responding and remembering.” When we think about communication, it’s easy to look at speaking and writing, but listening is equally as critical as one of the more active forms of communication. In fact, listening requires alertness and awareness not only of verbal but also non-verbal communications. I’d like to look at each of these as it relates to music.
Receiving: I think first you must be aware that communications are going on all around you and you must be on the lookout for them to receive them. If you are on stage with a band during a live performance, you must remain present at all times. The mind likes to wander off and take you down rabbit holes that have nothing to do with what you’re doing. You need to keep part of your attention on what is going on with the other members of the band and crew at all times. Sometimes something happens with equipment, stage props or costumes. Sometimes someone forgets lyrics or jumps to a different part of the song. Everyone must always maintain a ready and alertness during a performance to adjust or help out in a moment’s notice.
That brings us to attending. Attending is actually being there and doing what is necessary. Things can move pretty fast during a performance, and if someone backstage or onstage is trying to explain something, you must be actively listening to them and not letting your mind or attention wander to something else. We live in a world where everything happens fast. It’s difficult to remain focused on one thing without getting distracted by something else. Onstage or backstage there is a lot of external stimulus going on and you must to block that out and attend to what is being asked of you at that moment. Making and eye contact is one of the most important things you can do to let someone know you are really present and listening to what they are saying. If you are looking around or distracted, you will most likely miss what they are saying, and the person will feel like you are disinterested.
Understanding is actually knowing what is being requested. Especially in a live music situation, there is a lot of language and terminology that you must understand to fully grasp the situation. One of the best things you can do is learn the specialized language of any group or company you work for. The more your vocabulary increases, the quicker and easier it will be for you to be productive in any situation. For instance, if I said, please scoop some mids and add some mid-highs to the front and side fill monitors, you would need to understand what I’m asking for to be able to respond. I watch a show this past week, and a singer ran her hand down the mic stand, so her finger was pointing at the monitor, then she gave a quick look over to her tech crew at the monitor board. This was a very stealthy and non-verbal way for her to ask for her voice to be brought up in the monitors. If you didn’t recognize, attend to, and understand her non-verbal communication, you would have missed the cue that you needed to respond to her request.
Responding and remembering are essential processes because even though you understand the next step is to actually respond to the request in the given time frame. And if a request happens to be during a show, the response is usually immediate. Remembering is also vital for a musician because mistakes or tendencies can repeat themselves. If you have knowledge and awareness of potential situations, you will be more adept and ready to deal with any situation. In the example I gave above of the singer pointing to ask for more monitor volume, if you remember how much and you understand what she wants to hear, you can be sure to be watching on her particular songs, and you can respond in a more timely manner.
One of the problems Dr. Kline listed in learning to listen is that we actually learn not to listen. I think the world moves so fast that if we are bored, we can just swipe and find the next distraction. We don’t stop and take time to really engage with each other anymore. Unfortunately, if you are a musician, you must learn to be present and engage with all the members of the band and crew from the beginning of the performance to the end. I would suggest that bands, really anyone, who takes the time to engage with another person will build a strong bond that will be very obvious on the stage. We recently changed rehearsal venues on the campus where I work, and the students said they enjoy the new environment, partially because they spend more time walking there together. This gives them time to talk and spend time with each other. They also get to eat together before or after rehearsals because of the food court right below the theater in this building. They are getting to spend time communicating, talking and listening, to one another and they are building stronger relationships because of it.
Other things that interfere with good listening skill include talking when the other person is talking, hearing what we think they mean instead of what they actually say, letting our attention wander, and formulating our response while someone else is talking. Dr. Kline suggests that “we must work at transferring our concentration from “I” to “You”—from ourselves to the person doing the talking.”
Understanding is necessary for effective communication to have actually taken place. Whether you are talking about communicating with your band and crew or communicating with your audience, if they don’t understand and feel what you are singing about, then you haven’t really reached them and made any real connection. Your audience may not remember all the words to every song you sing, but they will understand and remember how you made them feel. If they understand the feelings and experience you are trying to give them, you will be making a genuine connection with your fans. Let me give you a vocal example. I call this word painting. If you are singing the phrase “he took our love in vain,” and you have a smile, or you sound happy there will be a disconnect with your listener. This phrase conjures pain, possibly betrayal and the word vain might be delivered more sharply or bluntly instead of soft and pretty. A great deal of understanding comes from non-verbal cues like tone, pitch or rate of the voice. You must be very clear with your intentions; otherwise, fans may misinterpret your meaning.
In relationship listening, non-verbal cues are significant for understanding. I believe what you as the artists are doing is building relationships with your fans and your team every single day. Your non-verbal behavior will let your audience and your team know if you are involved or invested in the conversation. Because networking is KING, you must be aware and understand non-verbal communication. One other type of listening is appreciative listening. This is supremely important for musicians on and off stage. You must remain engaged, present and listen with an appreciation for what is being played and sung on the stage. If you a soloist or vocalist on the stage it is essential to listen and appreciate what others are singing or playing. Once you are done with your part, it doesn’t mean you get to just check out and re-engage when you begin again. As Dr. Kline said, you must take your concentration off of you and give it to the other person.
This all can be very difficult because there is always so much going on around us. We must learn to maintain focus and be selective about what we give our attention to. We must practice not letting our mind be pulled in different directions while someone is communicating with us. The term “monkey mind” is entirely accurate. Imagine a monkey swinging from vine to vine. Doesn’t that feel like what your mind sometimes does? It is difficult to sustain your focus or attention, so we must continually practice holding our attention on what it is we are doing at that moment. I say it all the time, but there is no way to separate communication and music. At its foundation, it is what we all do. To become a better musician, you must practice becoming a better listener. Listen with an open mind and an open heart. You will learn a lot, and you will grow in the process.
Kline, Dr. John A. (October 10, 2012). Listening Effectively. Retrieved from: http://self.gutenberg.org/eBooks/WPLBN0002169954-Listening-Effectively-by-Dr–John-Kline.aspx?