Learning How to Listen

Earlier this fall, while I was immersed in an intense rehearsal with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, Maestro Semyon Bychkov said something that really struck a chord with me.  As we were playing through Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 3, he stopped the rehearsal to address the strings that were playing a lyrical passage. The violins had an expressive, slow melody in which they were stretching every note—as you are supposed to do with this type of Romantic music—but the low strings were having trouble placing some short notes with the melody.  In this specific instance, Bychkov, who frequently conducts the best orchestras in the world, asked the basses not to go with him, not to follow him. He said something along the lines of: “You are early! Even though you perfectly followed my gestures, you are wrong; listen and follow the violins!” If you are not a musician, you might wonder, what’s the point of a conductor, then? But if you are an experienced player, you secretly acknowledge that you must sometimes play against the conductor’s cues.

Playing in orchestra is a skill that takes years and years to develop.  This moment in this Civic rehearsal is an example of the traditions and practices that occur in orchestral playing that even the best teachers cannot teach you in a lesson.  One of the great aspects of the Civic Orchestra is that it allows you to learn from world class conductors and the talented musicians around you. The level of playing among Civic members is high enough from a technical standpoint that it allows a type of mature musical growth beyond just learning the notes.

As I begin my last year in Civic as a timpanist, I look back and see the valuable skills I have learned, but I also see how much more I have to learn.  Maestro Bychkov encouraged us to become better listeners. At this point in my career, at 28, after receiving three different performance degrees and having played with major ensembles across the country, I realize that the most important skill I am currently trying to improve is listening.

As a percussionist of the Civic I have the luxury of being able to practice in a designated Civic percussion room at Symphony Center, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s home.  Some days when I am getting ready to start my practice, as I walk through the backstage halls, I hear the CSO rehearsing through a live feed they have in every practice room and hallway. I am always impressed by how good they sound—even through low quality speakers.  Sometimes, when they are rehearsing a piece I really like, I turn up the volume of the live feed, and I listen to snippets of rehearsals.  A few weeks ago, around the time Civic was having rehearsals with Bychkov, the CSO was rehearsing West Side Story. I stopped my own practice to listen and thought they sounded great, they sounded really “tight”.

“Tight” is the perfect word to describe how the CSO sounded when playing Bernstein’s music.  “Tight” happens when everyone on stage is playing all the melodies and rhythmic passages together, in a unified way rather than as 80 different people playing different lines. A group sounds “tight” when people on stage can control their instruments, when they know the pieces well, when they know how to “fit in”, and most importantly, when everyone on stage is listening to each other so they can react to the flow of music.  Bernstein’s music is hard rhythmically, but the CSO mastered it, partly because they have played it many times, but also because the orchestra is filled with extraordinary musicians and listeners.

I have come to realize the importance of listening mostly after a few years away from school.  I have played with different groups as a freelancer, from top orchestras to smaller-budget regional or pickup groups, and I am learning that the best ensembles have the best listeners.  When I play with top-level groups, fitting in the ensemble is usually easier.  Everyone plays the right rhythms and they place themselves in the flow of the music precisely.  When you get to a rehearsal, it is all about transmitting the interpretation of the conductor through your playing, and being ready to communicate with everyone around you. You are expected to have learned 99.999% of the notes previously (hey, we’re all human).

So, if you are not a musician, you may still be wondering: what’s the point of a conductor? A great conductor, like a great musician, also has “great ears”. They guide the orchestra through a piece, showing the musicians their interpretation, but they don’t get in the way of the natural flow of the music.  They frequently respond to what the musicians are doing, making the interpretation of a piece a collaborative effort.  Some conductors like to have tighter grips on a group and are more involved rhythmically. These conductors expect the orchestra to respond to all of the rhythmic cues, while others—like Bychkov in my previous example— don’t always expect an immediate response from the orchestra.  Great orchestras are able to quickly distinguish what the conductor is like and adjust to his or her habits.

As an orchestral musician, and particularly a percussionist, you don’t only have to account for the tendencies of a conductor and of musicians around you, but you also have to account for how fast sound travels compared to light (yes, that’s right!). When you play percussion, you are in the back of the orchestra, and often times, you are performing about 60 feet behind the first row of violins.  Whether playing a fast passage or just one single note, if you hit the note at the exact same time as the first row of violins, the percussionist is going to sound late to the audience compared to the violins. You have to account for that and get comfortable playing slightly ahead of the beat. Your listening has to adapt and accept you will sound slightly earlier than the strings so you can sound right to the audience.

I will always remember a conversation between two of my teachers at the Aspen Music Festival and School about the differences between professionals and students.  The main difference, they agreed, was the way they placed notes rhythmically when playing with the ensemble.  One teacher, Tom Stubbs from the St. Louis Symphony, confessed that it took him a few years of performing with his orchestra to feel entirely comfortable about his placement.  He would be shocked while listening to recordings of rehearsals and concerts to find out that he was slightly late at certain spots of a piece.  Eventually with experience, he learned exactly how early to play to sound right.  This is an example of why playing with the Civic is great.  It allows you to gain experience so that when you win a position with an orchestra, you will be more comfortable placing yourself within a group.

From rehearsals with Civic, to CSO concerts, to coachings with CSO members, I have been encouraged to listen, and to listen harder, the last couple of years.  When I go out in the city to play other gigs now, my ears are wide open and it’s usually easy to recognize who is listening and who is not.  When everyone is listening beyond their part, I know it’s going to be a great gig.   At my age, my career in classical music still has a way to go, and I will continue to learn to listen and learn all the common practices that will make me a wiser musician.  I encourage my fellow Civic musicians, and fellow citizens of the world, to become better listeners. Not only would we have better orchestras and better times listening to music, but also a better world.

By Simón Gómez  

Photos by Todd Rosenberg ©