Listening & Awareness for Musicians

Written by: Lauren Vukicevich

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How often do we listen to a friend’s story, and realize halfway through that we weren’t really listening at all? How many times have we practiced playing a song, only to realize we’ve been mindlessly going through the motions?  Listening and awareness go hand in hand, and are both vital to our musical lives.

A large part of a musician’s work is to listen selectively and holistically. To be a selective listener means focusing awareness on a specific element of sound. Whether that’s the steady rhythm, an evolving harmony, or a quick change in dynamics, a musician has to pay close attention in order to keep track of it. To listen holistically means hearing the “big picture” of a song – how all the elements interweave and create the totality.

66713_522071644514456_1555723029_nAs teachers, we’re required to be intuitive listeners. We need to observe all the little details of a student’s performance – the subtle movements and positions, where the eyes are moving, or any moments of hesitation. We have to listen for changes in tone, and especially any emotions that come through the music. For a teacher to know which areas of the student’s musicianship need attention, listening must come first.

Musicians are always students – always learning and improving. Being aware of the self requires listening and staying completely in the present moment. There are never-ending opportunities for growth in our musical understanding and our performances. Ear training is a huge part of musicianship development, especially in collegiate music programs. But there is more to this kind of listening than recognizing the interval between two notes.

static1.squarespaceSelf-awareness asks that we look openly at each aspect of how we sing or play an instrument. It requires that we’re prepared to notice inconsistencies in technique, and accepting the idea that we can be wrong. Remaining open to criticism and change can be really difficult, and it’s often a hindrance to improvement. The other side of this is being skilled enough to notice when our technique is correct, which shouldn’t be underestimated!

Playing music is a doorway to learning about the self and building essential listening skills. These are especially important lessons for musicians, but can also be utilized in other areas of life. Being a good listener takes practice and consistent mindfulness, but the benefits definitely make it worthwhile!

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The Creative Process and Songwriting

Written by: Lauren Vukicevich

Photo taken of my songwriting notebook in a recording session.

Photo taken of my songwriting notebook in a recording session.

There are several factors involved in the songwriting process, including the development of melodic themes, rhythmic patterns, instrumentation, and (sometimes) lyrics. When choosing an instrument, musicians tend to go for one that reflects their identity and personality. An instrument can make a huge difference in the way someone is able to express their creativity, and it also influences the style of a song.

Expertise and musicianship allows for creativity because the playing becomes automatic, and the attention is free to explore other areas of the mind. The more fundamental skills that a musician has, the more possibilities they have to draw from. Songwriters may choose to collaborate at any of the stages, which allows for a combination of ideas and increases the possibilities for any song.

One theme that seems to be important in the creative process is intention. The biggest difference between improvisation and songwriting is whether or not the musician intends to remember and repeat the song. Improvisation has a unique quality of being unattached to the music, which can often lead to a beautiful flow. If the goal is to keep a song, the flow may be interrupted by having to write things down or go back to a section to change something. Improvisation and songwriting are both incredible experiences, and there are qualities from each which can be utilized with the other.

Finding inspiration on a public piano in British Columbia.

Finding inspiration on a public piano in British Columbia.

I recently finished writing and recording an album Pathways for my senior project at Cal Poly, which was part of my research on the Psychology of Creativity and Musical Composition. During this process, many of these themes were apparent in each stage. There seemed to be two kinds of songwriting for me – one in which I felt completely free and able to improvise, and one in which I had a logical desire to write. The resulting songs in these two categories sound distinct, and my connection to each is vastly different.

I also noticed that my experience with music allowed for creative freedom and flexibility. For example, I originally wrote one of the songs on guitar, but decided in a recording session that it felt more like a piano song. Having the skills to play both instruments allowed me to quickly adapt the song to piano, which dramatically changed the overall tone, including the collaborative instrumentation. I left the recording studio feeling confident in my strengths, as well as understanding the areas in which I wanted to improve. This project was an incredible experience which gave me a new perspective on the creative process and the psychology behind songwriting.

These songs can be heard at: Laurenvukicevich.bandcamp.com.

The album cover for my project.

The album cover for my project.

Fundamentals of a Fulfilling Practice Time

Written by: Lauren Vukicevich

When you’re aware of how your mind works, you can use this knowledge to your advantage. There are four fundamental aspects of practicing a musical instrument. Understanding these basics will allow any musician to have more fulfilling and efficient practice time.

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The first is that the practice environment is extremely important in facilitating strong learning habits. A good environment will inspire a musician to want to play. What makes a good practice environment? It’s completely dependent on the individual, but there are some common ideas that can be integrated into any space. Inspiration often comes when there is minimal stress, so the space should be free of things like clutter, to-do-lists, or calendars. Having various practice spots can be helpful as well, because studies show that in order to recall information in multiple environments, the learner should also recite or practice that information in multiple environments. Availability is important as well – simply having your instrument in a visible place that makes it easy to access. The first step is usually the hardest when starting anything, so making the initiation easier will help you begin that process.

Another fundamental aspect of practicing is motivation. There are two basic kinds of motivation – internal and external. Internal motivation comes from an intrinsic drive to learn and improve, simply because the satisfaction of accomplishing something feels good. External motivation comes from some source outside of the self, whether that is a teacher, parent, bandmate, class, or competition. These are motivating factors because they promote accountability and following through. Goals can be used for both internal and external motivation, but either way, the goal must be realistic. Large goals should be broken up into smaller goals, which will provide incentives and positive feedback along the way. For instance, if you want to become proficient in a certain style, it’s helpful to first set the goal of mastering one particular song or technique associated with that style.

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Third, consciousness is an essential part of every practice routine. Staying present and being aware of every move will always lead to better learning. Going through the motions may slowly imprint the music into muscle memory, but to truly know the music, it’s crucial to consciously think of what those muscles are doing. It’s easy to get distracted by all of the other things going on in life, but in order to stay present, you must focus on what’s right in front of yourself. This means tuning out all of the alternative options – all those other possibilities of what you could be doing instead. You’ve made the choice to pick up that instrument, so make peace with that decision and be there mentally, as well as physically.

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Music Motive student and Bucket Buster: Steven Saavedra.

Finally, enjoyment is fundamental to practicing any musical instrument. The best way to ensure this is to create a positive framework for approaching practice time. This means going into the practice session with a good attitude, excited about the learning process. Rather than seeing it as a “problem” to deal with, it’s helpful to instead see it as a challenge that will lead to improvement. Quiet thoughts of defeat and “it’s too hard” because the practicing is what will make it possible. Have fun with the process, and when it starts to seem like work, remember to smile. After all, you’re playing music.