Training Students to Become Active Listeners

When I was growing up, I studied piano with Miss Mahaffy. She took me from Grade 3 to Grade 9 piano. After running though a piece, she would usually comment on how I did. More often than not, my dynamics were flat or my playing was choppy. Then she'd ask me, "Did you listen to what you just did?" Usually, I'd say, "No," or "Not really." She would dutifully write, "Listen to yourself!" in my assignment book.

Fast forward to 2013. After hearing a student, usually I ask them, "What did you think? How did you sound?" Their response is eerily similar, "I don't know. I wasn't listening." To which I reply, "Well how do you know if you're getting any better if you don't listen to what you're saying?"

My strategy to teach my students to become active listeners is two-fold. I rely heavily on the technology on hand: my YouTube Music Exploration Play List and Record & Review.

Every week, I highlight a "Clip of the Week". I've been doing this for several years now. My students have an Active Listening Handout, although I really should just keep one at the piano to save time. While watching and listening to the clip, I ask them questions such as, "What instruments do you hear?", "What's the tempo like?", "Is the song major, minor or something else?" and "What's the articulation?"

The one thing that I've been employing more regularly is recording my students and having them listen to themselves.I record them onto my computer using Audacity. Any recording device will do: mp3 player, camera or phone.

I ask them to draw a star on any spot in the score in which they heard a bobble. Some students are really good at it, so I just have to talk about various practice drills and the end goal.

I have a group of students who don't really listen to themselves when they play. However, they realize what needs work only when we do the Record and Review.

Unfortunately, many of my students are weak in this area, and I want to fix that. Sometimes, I have to record them playing through a spot, record myself playing the same spot and have them compare the sound and the waveforms.

With guided questions (and a few replays), I can usually get my students to pick out one trouble spot that I'd like them to work on for the week. Once we select the most critical issue, I have them pull out their Bag of Tricks so that we can work on that spot.

This evening, I recorded a nine-year old student as she drilled a trouble spot. I played each recording for her and asked her to assess herself. We probably spent 10 minutes recording and reviewing until I felt confident that she knew what to listen for at home and that her practices will be better organized.

Basically, I'm walking my students through how to practice music efficiently. It's very tedious, especially when you take into account that I've been doing this with most of my students for the past couple of weeks. I do feel that this will pay off in the end. If I can successfully teach my students active listening skills, then they have a better chance of succeeding at self-regulated practicing.

It is my hope that well before the end of the school year, when I ask them, "What did you think? How did you sound?", they all will be able to assess their playing accurately and objectively. Then, I can focus on helping them progress with their musicianship and expression.