Learn to listen and listen to learn!

by Aiva Elsina

It is the beginning of a new school year. Everything starts again. New hopes and new projects. But there is one goal all the teachers share. We want our students to improve, so we work on all the details that make a young musician complete. I believe there is one aspect of teaching that often stays hidden in the background though. In this article, I would like to put it in the spotlight, as it rightfully deserves. It’s listening to music.

When I was a young student, I was curious and enjoyed listening to every flute piece I could find. Even if there was no Youtube or Spotify, I had some tapes that sparkled my imagination. I remember myself standing in front of a mirror, pretending to play flute and moving my fingers at lightning speed while listening to the Carnival of Venice by G.Briccialdi or swaying my flute gently with the melody of Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Orfeo and Euridice by C.W.Gluck.

Yes, it seems funny and ridiculous now, but I’m convinced it eventually helped me to grow as a musician and gave me a goal to strive for.

“Dance of the blessed spirits” from Orfeo and Euridice by C.W.Gluck

For a long time, I was convinced my students are as curious about everything flute-related as I was at their age. I couldn’t be more wrong! Once in an ordinary discussion with my second-year flute student, I asked what her favorite flute piece was. And to my utter disbelief, she answered me: “I don’t know, I don’t listen to classical music at home.” I literally froze and cautiously asked: “What do you mean? Not at all?” “No, nothing.”

“Never take for granted your students are the way you were,” is something I learned that day. I had made a huge mistake. After repeating the same question to every student, I found out the major part of my students doesn’t have the habit of listening, and I had to assume the responsibility of not being the teacher who encourages them to discover more about the instrument they play.

Furthermore, I was asked back by some of them: “Why is it important to listen to flute music? Isn’t it enough just to play?”

What would your answer be to such a question?

Here are my top 3 reasons:

1) Listening to music can serve as an extraordinary guide to the development of a good tone.

We all know working on tone with beginners is a very delicate and time-consuming task. Our students don’t have a clear auditory image of good flute sound yet, and it might not be enough to hear the teacher play few phrases during the lesson. Often the main focus of the weekly lesson can shift somewhere else, for example, on hand positions, posture or breath and tongue coordination. There is simply not enough time to dedicate to everything. Listening to professional flute players is a wonderful reminder of how a clean, well-projected tone sounds like – a tone to strive for during practicing every day.

2) Listening to classical music teaches musicality.

There is a saying If you want to be a better writer, start by reading more books. The same applies to music. If you want to be a better musician, you have to listen to music. It is hugely beneficial in developing the sense of phrasing. It teaches subconsciously the division in musical sentences, when to breathe and when to keep going forward. I often struggle to explain in words how to know where the best breathing places are, but when I play it for my students, everything suddenly becomes clear. The more the students are listening to music, the less they need help with understanding the musical division. They start to feel it naturally!

3) It’s never too early to develop a taste in music!

The more students are listening to music the more they understand how they want to build their musical performances. They may start simply by copying some of their favorite performers, but eventually, they find their own style and different ways of expressing musical ideas.

Since the sadly famous lesson, I have been trying to encourage my students to explore the amazing beauty of classical music and beyond. We often discuss our likes and dislikes about some performances, we talk about differences between performers, and characters we can imagine in various pieces.

I think one of the best ways to encourage the students to listen to music is to assign them listening as homework. Therefore I have made a Flute Practice Journal now available on Amazon (click on LINK to find out more) with 52 undated weeks for keeping track of homework and practice time with a specially allocated space for listening.

Sometimes I assign the piece to listen to, sometimes I let them choose what they like. It is always a surprise for me where their curiosity takes them and often I find myself discovering something new as well!

I genuinely feel this is teaching in both directions – I’m teaching my students and they are teaching me in return – and it’s a wonderful way not only to learn but to connect with students on a more profound level.

Aiva Elsina

www.funnyflute.com | https://www.facebook.com/funnyflute

Professor of flute at St.Louis School of Milan and International Music School of Milan (Italy)

Founder of website for flutists Funny Flute

Author of two books for beginner flutists “Play with fun. Summer edition. Grade 1” and “Five star studies”.