Understanding the "Expression of Life" through Coached Listening
Mark Manczuk

Recently, I've had some of my students come to me and say, "I'm trying out for jazz band and I want learn how to play jazz." I ask, "Do you listen to jazz?" If so, "How much jazz do you listen to?"

We now live in a time where we are bombarded with an incredible amount of information through television, the web, cell phones, and other various forms of media. Most of this information is visual. So, there has been a slight sift in the role that sound has played-especially with the younger generations. The sound and visuals are complimentary. Well what happens when there is only sound?

Listening and being able to filter out excess information is a vital ingredient for communication. It teaches us how to absorb, express, and communicate music with other musicians, as well as audiences. John Thomakos states, "...employing a more focused and disciplined listening approach to your practice on a daily basis can deliver extreme results,"-great article John. I've heard "Listen" being said on many bandstands amongst countless musicians. Well, that is easy to say! Listen to what? How?

It is up to us, as educators to give our students guidance when it comes to listening. All of my private lessons feature a 15 minute coached listening at the last portion of the lesson, (15 minutes to each hour). This time is a great opportunity to expose students to a variety of musical styles and many players. It also creates a fun setting for analysis. I will play a song or piece once through without comments, so it can soak in. After the playback, I'll ask, how many instruments are there? What instruments are being played?

The second playback I ask the student questions on the form and meter. They will usually point out the general changes in the piece-the transitions between sections within the form. A greater understanding of transcription is attained by becoming familiar with musical forms and each prospective style. The form is explained as the "Road Map" of a piece. A student has to realize that they will eventually drive the whole group. Thus the ability to hear and pick up on a form while playing will always give a sense of where the music is and where it needs to go, (ie. setting up the group for a chorus via a crescendo or fill). I like to explain how to chart out the form when my students initially bring in their favorite song-it's usually a pop song.

I'll begin to pose specific questions on melody, dynamics, soloing, phrasing, sonority, texture and the emotion of the piece. A third playback is usually helpful. Does it sound sad? Is it happy and does it bounce? Where does the music get louder? Where is it soft? Melody is an aspect that I stress in the music. Once someone is familiar with a theme, it becomes unmistakable. The melody is also a reference of how a performer will build a solo. The students that ask me about soloing and improving on soloing, are not really thinking melody. I make recommendations to listen to guitarists, trumpet players, saxophonists, pianists, and singers.

Exposing the students to different cultures through listening to various styles of music is one of the most important benefits from the listening sessions. Herbie Hancock put it best when he said, "Music is not just about music. It is supposed to be an expression of life!" I couldn't agree more. A person can gain some insight on a culture through the emotion and content of a particular piece. I will let the student know the history and what may have been happening when a song was written, (ie. "What's Goin' On?" Marvin Gaye). If it is a traditional piece outside the U.S., the significance of the occasion that the piece is performed, is vital. For example Raga Malkauns, (Indian Classical) is traditionally performed in the late evening. It stresses communication, beyond being mere entertainment. I've had a student that heard salsa for the first time and it sparked his interest in playing the congas! You have to ask, why a song or piece may have been written? How does it make you feel? Does the music put you in a particular time or setting?

Another great benefit to these listening sessions, is that there is more than one person listening. My students will point out how they hear it, and obviously I do not hear it exactly as they would. Thus, this is an opportunity for me to learn something new!

The most important aspect of these listening sessions, is that they should be fun! I initially, have the students bring in a selection that they want to hear and are curious about. The student will need to relate to something that makes them feel like they are going to make progress. These listening sessions have helped with the students' motivation and open up the possibilities for more interaction!

Mark Manczuk teaches in the Hartford, CT area, and performs through out the Northeast. He focuses primarily on drum set and tabla. He can be contacted at: mmanczuk@yahoo.com

Copyright 2005 by Mark Manczuk