Informed Listening – An Essential Skill

“A thousand suns, all rising”. 

My new just-turned-five-year-old piano student spoke these words in a matter of fact voice as if we all should understand her meaning.  I looked at her mom and dad and saw they were as puzzled as I was.  It took a few minutes and some carefully phrased adult-type questions to decipher her uniquely expressive poetry.

“The orchestra!  It sounds like a thousand suns, all rising!”   She was a little put out that we didn’t immediately catch on, but when we did, we all glowed in agreement.

We had been listening to Peter and the Wolf, talking about the instruments and their various timbres or “colors”.  Penelope as The Wolf had danced around the room making wolf noises and imitating the horns.  Then Penelope as Peter saved us all with her trusty pop gun and a chorus of strings.   Her crayon art work reflected some of the instrumental colors she had heard, and she had added some new words to her vocabulary.   “Oboe” and “bassoon” were particular favorites.  We all giggled when we noticed that the Grandpapa’s cane even looked like a bassoon!

Learning music should never be a chore.  It should be full of color, playfulness, mystery, magic!  Learning music should be a never-ending adventure, lit by a thousand suns!

A couple of years before this Peter and the Wolf listening lesson, I had a new composition student who was fourteen and had won all the piano competitions in our state.

“How much classical music do you listen to in an average week?” I asked at her first lesson.

“I’ve never listened to any classical music in my life,” was her strange reply.

Strange, because she had faithfully practiced the piano every day for at least seven years, and had mastered much of the classical repertoire. She simply didn’t equate studying piano with “listening”. I had already started a listening program with most of my students, but after that conversation I vowed that everyone in my studio would get plenty of time for and focus on listening as a skill, and as an artistic achievement.

My students get awards and prizes for listening, just as they do for performance and composing. Many of them have fallen in love with a piece which was part of a listening assignment and later performed that piece or wrote a new composition in that style.

No student is too young to listen to the orchestra or other classical music genres and no student is too old or too advanced to feel a sense of wonder when hearing a new piece for the first time.

I  now have an “essential listening list” tailored for each individual student, and I add new pieces to it all the time.  Some of the first pieces are just as popular with the teenagers and adults as they are with the pre-school crowd:

Peter and the Wolf
Carnival of the Animals
Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra
Sorcerer’s Apprentice

The list moves on through representative pieces of all genres and periods, depending on the level and interests of the student.  The goal is to instill a love of classical music into each student.   Not everyone who graduates from this studio will become a world-famous pianist or composer, but hopefully they all will have experienced “a thousand suns, all rising” with at least one beloved piece in their creative listening assignments!

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