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Listening…It seems so obvious, yet it was my time at Berklee College of Music where this simple concept really struck home how important listening was to successfully absorbing a style of music.

I arrived at Berklee enthusiastic about becoming proficient in playing bluegrass music and maybe even a little gypsy jazz. I had recently developed an interest in American fiddle music after teaching some camps that offered classes in those styles. However, for most of my life, I had exclusively listened to Cape Breton fiddle music… not pop or classical. I listened to Cape Breton music because I loved it. It was the only type of music I wanted to listen to.  Because of this, and because I had so many opportunities to hear live Cape Breton music, I developed the style without realizing it. I did take fiddle lessons and was taught tunes, but for the most part, no one taught me bowings or specific fingering embellishments, or where to put these stylistic characteristics. Over time, I just noticed that they found their way into my playing.

I seemed to have forgotten how I learned to play Cape Breton music while attempting to learn American fiddle music. I forgot how much Cape Breton music had been a part of my everyday life, how tunes randomly entered my head, how I would finger tunes on my pencil at school. When studying bluegrass music, I listened to it of course, but for the most part, I only listened when I was practicing with my instrument in hand. Listening to bluegrass was not a part of my everyday life. I didn’t put it on in the car, or when I was cleaning my room. And I struggled so much trying to learn. It felt so unnatural, so mechanical. Even when I learned a tune, I had to think through everything: what notes I was going to play, what bowing I should use, etc.

When I play Cape Breton fiddle music, there is so much that is an unconscious process. Trying to play bluegrass was very much a conscious process. And then I realized I didn’t love it. I wasn’t nearly as passionate about this music as I was about Cape Breton music. I liked to listen now and then, but it wasn’t my first choice. I knew then that this was so much of the reason why I struggled trying to learn Bluegrass. There was so much that I didn’t inherently understand. This was a void my teachers couldn’t fill with any words or demonstration.

There is so much unconsciously absorbed through just listening for enjoyment; not actively transcribing, but just enjoying.  This seems so obvious: you have to immerse yourself in a style of music to fully understand it. But it took the experience of trying to learn another style before I understood how important the role of listening was in absorbing Cape Breton music.  (What I did accomplish at Berklee is material for another topic!)

When my students tell me that they didn’t have much time to practice, I often say that listening to the music for enjoyment can be just as valuable practice. I often compare learning a style of music to learning a language. You have to immerse yourself in a language to learn the idioms and accent. I truly believe learning a fiddle style is the same process.

What has your experience been like learning music? How much do you have to think about what you are playing? How much is instinct?  This is a topic that fascinates me and I would love to hear about your experience!


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