How did you learn your first language?
Did your parents hand you a language textbook for your mother tongue? No, you learned it by listening and imitating whoever was around you as you were growing up. You learned how to control the sounds made with your mouth by making strange and amusing noises. That was until you started to be able to imitate some noises that got a response from those around you.
If you’ve never learned an instrument before, that’s how I suggest you start out. Getting bogged down in reading music and learning theory right from the beginning is too much. Trying to learn too many skills at once just slows you down. Learn some good physical technique and get control of your instrument. That way you’ll be off to a good start to your playing career.
If you’re not a beginner, but struggling to advance your playing, it’s probably your ears that are holding you back. Too much thinking and not enough listening are the common problems we encounter with intermediate and advanced clients.
It’s about focussing in on the micro and not worrying too much about the macro. Simple ways to change your focus are:
- Playing a note, letting it ring out and trying to find the end of the note. Listen for when the silence begins.
- Try listening to a song at ¾ or ½ speed. This gives you a chance to focus in on the details of what the players are doing. We highly recommend a piece of software called Transcribe. It works on Windows, Mac, and Linux and the sound quality and features make it the absolutely best out there. If you’re on iOS we’d recommend AudioStretch.
- Doing some call and response with another player. Have them play a simple phrase on a scale that you’re familiar with. Then play it back by ear. Alternatively, isolate a small simple phrase from a song you like and try to recreate the sound of it. Alternate between playing the audio and you playing it on your instrument.
- Listening to and imitating vocalists. Find a vocal performance that you like. I usually suggest ‘Black Dog’ by Led Zepplin because the vocal is all by itself for long periods of time. Then try to play the vocal part on your instrument, picking up as many nuances as you can.
- Listening to a metronome. Listen to the start of your note (the pick attack on guitar for example) and the start of the metronome ‘tick’ and try to get them to align.
- Playing one note over and over again. Listening to how the note starts, stops and how it sounds in the middle.
All of these exercises help you focus on the listening part of playing. Playing is usually thought of as an active / doing activity. When you’re playing at your best a good proportion of playing will be listening.
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