Lindsay Brazell

Music Educator and Creative Professional

Attending Concerts For Fun vs. For Assignment

Last week I attended USM’s Symphony Orchestra concert, and guess what?! It was of my own volition. It made me realize that I have not attended a concert out of obligation in a very, very long time.

As a music major, we were always required to see so many productions each semester. In grad school, it was frowned upon if you didn’t attend your peer’s recital. As a teacher, you tried to attend your colleagues performances to support the fine arts program, as you would want them to do the same for you.

I’m seeing education in a brand new way as a PhD student. I had a major history exam last week and basically studied for the 2 weeks prior. Up until this point, I have never studied like that in my entire life. Maybe it’s my age and maturity/newfound wisdom, but I feel like I super care about what I am doing and all that I am learning. My 20-year-old self would have really benefited from this mindset.

All this to say, I felt like I was able to sit and enjoy the concert and fully engage with the performers. One of our piano professors at the university performed the Schumann Piano Concerto in A Minor and it was absolutely breath-taking. I had never heard the piece prior to the concert, and I came home and immediately downloaded an entire album of piano works. Nerding out happened, and it was real.

I wonder if I had been required to write a review take specific notes about the piece if that would have enhanced or hindered my listening experience. I’m sure I would have listened more intently for details in meter, expressivity, and orchestral nuances, but I also think I would have missed the entire experience of watching in awe of this performer. 

As music educators, we often give listening assignments to students in order to help guide their ear, whether to listen for specific elements of music, to provide an emotion response to a piece, or even to simply expose them to repertoire they may never encounter outside a music classroom. I always loved watching the concerts at All State with my students because I knew they were listening intently without feeling “required to listen.” I loved hearing their opinions on pieces they really liked or had no interest in. It was always interesting to see what pieces really interested them. In a classroom situation, if we did a listening activity, sometimes the responses were not as emotionally involved. The true music nerds had a great time, but the average choir member often provided the least thought provoking responses. I wonder if simply because they were being prompted to respond changed the way they listened. Look at me, the PhD student who now wonders about everything and sees everything as a potential research project. #phdlife

In reflecting on this topic, I’ve come up with 3 ways we should teach listening skills each year in our ensemble classroom:

  1. Listening for elements of music: This is the basic foundation all students should have upon entering your classroom. Is the key major or minor? What instruments do you hear? What is the tempo? What is the texture? Do you hear a melodic theme, and does it return? What form is this piece? 
  2. Listening for quality of performance: This is a skill in error and success detection. We want our students to be able to evaluate performances in order to help improve our own performance. Was this choir out of tune? How were their vowels and overall tone? Does the performance sound emotionally involved? Can you understand the text? How is this interpretation different than ours? How does this compare to our current status on this piece? 
  3. Listening for self exploration: This is a purely open-ended listening skill. These kinds of listening examples will help identify the student’s taste and preferences. What did you like about this piece? Why did you like it? What didn’t you like? Would you listen to this piece again? Would you further explore this composer? 

I think it is important to not only teach different ways of listening, but also to experience listening in various ways. I think if we listen too critically or too in detail all of the time, it takes away the enjoyment of listening to music or performances. Maybe requiring students to attend a performance without a written assignment obligation will lead to conversations about preferences and help identify their taste in music. Maybe a combination of different listening assignments will develop their ears in different ways so that they can both enjoy and critically listening simultaneously. Keep these ideas in mind when you have your students listening! 

In what ways are you having students listen and respond to music? Leave a comment below, or continue the conversation on Twitter @LindsayBrazell.


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About Lindsay

I’m Lindsay, a choral music educator by day, a singer-songwriter by evening, and a writer when time allows. You can find my latest album, The Room I Found – Lindsay Morelli on iTunes.

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