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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. Sometimes we use this criticism as a sort of defense mechanism, as if labeling what’s not working in another composer’s piece can improve our own work, or making a snarky post-concert comment to a friend will distance us from another musician’s flaws.


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. When a friend achieves their best possible performance, we are elated.


Many of my closest friends in Los Angeles are composers. Composer friends come with lots of premieres to attend. As an audience member attending so many concerts of new music, you can’t possibly love every piece. You do learn to quickly identify what you like about each new composition, though: a bit of orchestration that’s strikingly original. A moment when the music soars. A gesture that haunts you long after the piece has ended.


You instinctively find each friend’s personality in their music. Over time, you hear their style evolve in each successive composition. You may not love all of the music they create equally, but you can always find something in it to praise. You don’t approach their music from a snarky, judgmental place; you approach it with a base level of love and respect.


Lately, I’ve been challenging myself to find something to love in every piece and performance I hear, especially when I don’t know a single musician in the concert and catch my old overly-critical listening habits flaring 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 performed by one of your own students. What would you find in the music to compliment and praise? What could you find to love?


How different would our experience be if we went into every concert listening first for what we love and secondly 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? Can we teach our students, too, to compose, perform, and critique from a deep 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 the way I heard it. 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 listen, we stop feeling jaded about hearing a mediocre piece or a sub-par performance. Instead, we listen for—and can always find—something in the music to love. When we listen for beauty, we encounter it.


The next time you’re at a concert, try it.

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Originally published in Cantate Magazine, Vol. 29, No. 1, Winter 2017.

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