1. LISTEN BLINDLY. Ask students to listen closely to a musical selection with their eyes open; then listen to the same selection with their eyes closed. Discover and discuss the differences. (See the corollary to this activity in #6 below)
2. LISTENING TEAMS. Divide the class into listening teams. Ask each group to focus on a different element: the melody, rhythm, harmony, tempo, instrumentation, lyrics, etc. and discuss afterward their findings. Then have them re-listen to the work, from various perspectives, and swap teams. This listening activity can be done on easy to more sophisticated levels, depending on the group. This presents a challenge not only of hearing but of remembering the sequence of musical events, and also of learning to articulate in words what they hear.
3. CONDUCT THE MUSIC. Ask the class to conduct the music they are listening to. This was a technique Robert Abramson used at Juilliard, when he asked the entire class of advanced music students to simultaneously conduct in order to discover the meter during live classroom student performances. It was hilarious to see that many of these Juilliard music majors could not discern the meter during these performances, because the performers themselves were inadequately conveying the metric flow. Dance rhythms from a Bach suite could be performed as rhythmically vague as a Debussy nocturne! When this happened, Abramson had the entire class perform the Baroque dance on which the piece was based. The newly enlightened pianist was then asked to play again the work, this time with an understanding of the underlying dance pattern and the metrics of the piece. This revealing exercise made Abramson’s point that the performer has the responsibility of understanding and respecting the differences in musical styles and in conveying the metric and musical flow accordingly. Otherwise the listener doesn’t have a fighting chance at understanding the music, which melts amorphously like the Salvador Dali watch, and fades into the Debussian “Nuages” of our consciousness.
4. MOVE TO THE MUSIC. Ask students to move to the music, conveying either the feelings the music provokes in them, or what they interpret the music to be expressing. You will be amazed at how instinctive young children are at understanding the underlying gestures, emotions, and movements of the music. Just as babies recognize mood, emotional expressions, and physical gestures long before they understand language, so will young children respond with authenticity and feeling when asked to listen to the music “with their whole bodies.” They “get” music a lot easier than adults, because their ears at this age are little sponges on steroids, soaking up the world around them. But try this with adults too!
5. NOURISH YOUR EARS WITH SILENCE. Give your kids (and yourself) some periods of total quiet during the day. (And turn off that TV and stereo at night too!). We live in a noisy, nonstop roar of invasive sounds, night and day. Without periods of silence, kids learn to automatically shut down their hearing in order to protect themselves from the noisy onslaught of the world around them. So surround active listening experiences with quiet times, so kids learn when and “how to turn on their ears.” Otherwise, the defense mechanism of shutting out the noisy world and learning “how not to listen” is the result of a non-stop background of sound (even music).
6. LISTEN WITH YOUR EYES AND EARS. Link the eyes and ears for intensive listening. This can best be experienced at live musical events. Try to link the visual source with the sound, so your eyes help you listen. Just as Stravinsky could hear the music better by watching the instruments and performers, so can we. That is one reason attending live performances is always better than listening to recorded media. A child will experience a live concert with his whole being and memory apparatus. Listening to an audio recording is not the same thing. The intensity and the immediateness of live music are essential. Let the eyes assist the ears, rather than distract them. It takes visual as well as aural discipline to sharpen our listening skills. Following the symphonic flow of events by watching the instruments and performers in an orchestra can be a breathtaking. If live music is not available, then use videos of live performances which visually focus on individual instruments and/or sections as they are prominently featured and heard in the music.
Visit our Music in Motion website for more active music listening resources.