The Unassigned Assignments

There’s an assignment that we often miss as teachers. And it’s one that always makes our jobs way easier – maybe easier than anything we could have students do. Over time it simply transforms our students’ musical experiences and their abilities.

Students should be asked to listen to music each time we see them. It can be done in casual conversations about what they’ve been listening to (or what we’ve been listening to), to more precise assignments based on what you’re working on in lessons.

My favorite thing about including assigned listening as part of any private- or group- lesson curriculum is that students gain a knowledge that is non-verbal (like music). They learn to process sound directly from the source – whether they are creating the sound or absorbing the sound. They learn to manipulate their own sound so they achieve the same effect on their audience (or themselves). They don’t let spoken language or vocabulary get in the way of themselves or their sound.

I find that I rarely have to have discussions with the students about what they heard or if they’re really listening to music at home. As soon as they start to play anything, I have a pretty good idea as to whether or not they’ve been listening to music during the week between lessons.

For most students, I think it’s important that their listening to practicing ratio through a week is 1:1. I mean active listening… In other words, they have their headphones on with no distractions as they let a performance really sink in. They can do this by trying to play along, by identifying the instruments they hear, by playing the melody back from after one listen, by playing the chord progression, by just keeping time with the record or clapping along, etc.

Once I learned to leverage the listening that my students were doing outside of the lesson during the lesson, my students really began to soar.

Here are some simple things we can do to integrate listening with our lessons…

  • For early intermediate to advanced students: Have them find and play along with four different recordings of whatever they are working on during the week. Their job is to match dynamics, tempo, mood, articulations, balance, phrasing, etc. with each of the four recordings. The benefits to this are epic. They don’t get stuck in ruts or play to their tendencies. They learn to listen to themselves by paying attention to how they’re meshing with the source recording. They ‘memorize’ and learn repertoire at a much faster pace. They begin to form a unique musical identity that’s solidly rooted in a large pool of options they accumulate while playing along with other people. As students get older, I am more particular who they play along with (usually people we all know about). When they are younger, I give them a lot of leeway because I want them to learn to discern between quality levels without my influence… It’s amazing how much the kids will pick up on even before they know what’s really going on from a technical or theoretical perspective.
  • For younger students, find simple pieces on the radio or ones they are already listening to and have them play along. For example, if they know a song from the radio that stays in B minor through most of the song I’ll have them learn the melody and play along. Then I’ll have them play the B minor scales up and down as the song plays so they learn to groove along. Then I’ll do the same for arpeggios. Then I’ll have them learn the various minor scales like aeolian, dorian, phrygian, melodic minor or harmonic minor and see which ones work the best – I’ll let them which ones fit the best – the less I steer them the more they learn.
  • Finally, I like creating community through music. I have them record themselves in hopes that they can upload and share on their social media or YouTube. This way other students can play along with their recordings some day. They take this responsibility very seriously and they learn to listen to themselves as they perform – the way they listened to the recordings/videos of others during the process of learning the pieces.