Listening as a Friend
The other day, I was listening to a playlist of new music filled mostly with composers I don’t know personally. When a piece by a friend did pop up in that list, I noticed an instant shift in how I listened: I became eager and ready to find something in their music to love.
As professional musicians, we are trained to identify flaws in less-than-stellar performances so that we can perfect our own music-making. We might even use this criticism as a sort of defense mechanism, as if labeling what’s not working in another concert or composition could improve our own music.
But when we hear music made by a friend, something changes. When our own students are performing, we hear their imperfections, but we listen through them, too. And when a friend achieves their best possible performance, we are elated for them.
Many of my closest friends in Los Angeles are composers, and composer friends come with lots of premieres to attend. As an audience member attending so many concerts of new music, I don't love every piece. I have learned to quickly identify what I like about each new composition, though. A bit of orchestration that’s strikingly original. A moment when the music soars. A gesture that haunts me long after the piece has ended.
I can instinctively find each friend’s personality in their music. Over time, I hear their style evolving in each successive composition. I may not love all of the music they create equally, but I can always find something in it to praise. I don’t approach their music from a snarky, judgmental place; I approach it with a base level of love and respect.
Lately, I’ve been challenging myself to bring that approach to every composition and performance I hear, especially when I catch my old, overly-critical listening habits flaring back up.
Now I’m challenging you to try this, too. At the start of a less-than-amazing composition or a bland performance, ask yourself how you would listen differently if that piece were written by a close friend or a student. What would you find in the music to praise? What choices do you admire?
How different would our experience be if we went into every concert listening first for what we love, then with a critical ear? Could we approach our own music the same way, listening not only for flaws, but for what we’re doing really well? And can we teach our students to compose, perform, and critique from the same inner well of love and respect?
After I noticed the shift in how I listened to the pieces in that playlist, I went back and repeated a few of the tracks I’d already heard. This time, I imagined they were by someone I knew well. The music was the same, of course, but there was an immediate change in how I listened. I’ve continued to try this at concerts since then, and the transformation is always a quick one. When we listen as a friend would, we stop feeling jaded about hearing a mediocre piece or a sub-par concert. Instead, we listen for—and can always find—something in the music to love.
When we listen for beauty, we encounter it
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Originally published in Cantate Magazine, Vol. 29, No. 1, Winter 2017.
Updated Spring 2023.