Learning to listen

Martin CullingfordMon 18th May 2015

The art of concentrating on something long-form and complex must not be allowed to fade

Last month I gave a talk to the Federation of Recorded Music Societies, the body which supports more than 200 groups throughout the UK dedicated to listening to and discussing recordings. My given topic was ‘trends in the recording industry’, and it was just one part of a weekend of presentations and performances. Here was a gathering in which the art of active listening was alive and well. Which of course isn’t a new concept to Gramophone’s readers: it’s clear from so much of the correspondence we receive about topics from performances to audio equipment, that listening is something you take very seriously indeed.  

But how many people in wider society do likewise? We’re bombarded at almost all moments by countless competing demands on our attention, and what we see and hear, whether three-minute pop songs or the rapid frame cutting of much film and television, so often seems built on, and thus reinforces, the notion that we have increasingly short attention spans. 

The art of sitting, concentrating and listening to something long-form and complex is an increasingly alien experience. And unless people develop that skill, classical music will face an uphill struggle. 

There are many inspiring organisations and initiatives arguing for greater opportunities for children to play instruments. From the committed campaigning of Julian Lloyd Webber, to the BBC’s colourful Ten Pieces project, the emphasis is usually on how performing can change lives. The BBC describes Ten Pieces as aiming to ‘inspire [children] to develop their own creative responses to the pieces through music, dance or digital art’. All of which is wonderful – but what might prove just as enriching is if it also teaches them to listen. As one of the ambassadors for Ten Pieces, harpist Catrin Finch, put it last year in an interview: ‘We forget how to sit down and listen to something. What’s important is that children learn to appreciate music and enjoy music.’ 

Listening and playing are linked of course. The greatest musicians are necessarily brilliant listeners, and even at more modest levels, playing an instrument – to whatever standard – is an excellent way of appreciating the complexity and challenges of music. 

My two-year-old daughter attends Colourstrings, a teaching method in which singing leads on to playing. But equally crucial is a focus on listening. Parents can buy recordings on which the simple songs their toddlers learn are followed by orchestral pieces which draw on and develop those melodies, the goal being ‘that of educating children to become active in their listening to music of value’. Which, as Editor of Gramophone, was indeed music to my ears. 

When I visited Julian Bream prior to his receiving Gramophone’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013, he explained how he’d ‘changed from a player into a listener’ since retirement. ‘I listen in a more acute way now,’ he said. ‘I think quite a lot about music, particularly now I don’t play anything – my mind is always cogitating.’ We should all take inspiration from Bream’s belief in the active and enriching experience of listening – and recognise the importance of nurturing it in others. 

martin.cullingford@markallengroup.com

Martin Cullingford

Martin Cullingford is the Editor and Publisher of Gramophone.

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