I fear this post might be a little controversial and that some people are going to flat-out disagree with me. Lately I've been giving it a lot of thought though, and I have been secretly conducting some of my own experiments to test my hypothesis. The results are now in.
When collaborating with another musician or with a group of musicians, sometimes it's better to play by ear rather than by sight.
Now I'm not talking about the act of reading music versus improvising and playing by ear - those are good topics for some other post. I'm talking about the tasks that are so important in collaborating and accompanying - playing the piano part so that it lines up accurately with another player; giving space within the music to allow for breaths and difficult shifts; anticipating when a note is going to sound on an instrument such as the bassoon or french horn. When I first started trying to improve my accompanying skills, I was frequently told in coaching and lessons, "Look up, watch what the other person is doing." That makes perfect sense and it is definitely preferable to burying my head in the score and in my own playing. But at least for me, what I've discovered is that I actually coordinate better with another musician when I don't look at them. When I look at them, I am more often than not a hair late, which delays and slows down the music ever so slightly. In time, this can actually slow the tempo and hinder the forward-flowing movement that phrases usually take. When I don't look at the other musician or musicians at all, it is almost as if I am in the mind and breath of the other person. There is no question of when I should play or not play.
How can this be?
I have a feeling it has to do with the way our senses compensate for one another when one sense is taken away. Doing a quick search on google on this theory reveals that there's a lot of debate about whether or not someone that is blind has a more heightened sense of hearing. So I'm definitely not going to claim any of my observations prove anything scientific and biological. But speaking from experience, when I choose to shut off my visual perception of a player, I can hear so much more. I can hear the intakes of breath, the sound of their lips meeting to form the beginning of a word, the sound of a bow slowly letting up on a string. It forces me to live in the other musician and create a more natural and accurate response.
Now there's one problem I see with my discovery. One of the things I love about watching musicians play with one another is the eye contact and communication that can occur. When I watch a quartet whose players never communicate visually, I feel let-down and bored because there's a lack of intensity and musicality whereas when there's a group that frequently shows some sort of connection physically, I am drawn into the performance and it's almost as if I too am a performer in the group. So following my hypothesis, how can I combine the positive aspects of visual communication with the fact that I tend to play better when I rely more on my ear than my eyes?
What I've been doing lately is looking up at whoever I'm playing with but doing so not in order to play more accurately with them. It's almost as if I'm looking up for an emotional connection while at the same time shutting off any visual information that is going to my brain. At the same time I try to heighten my sense of hearing so that I'm hearing sounds that virtually inaudible. I find that in doing this, I am much more alert, much more sensitive, and much more attuned to whoever I'm playing with. When I can do this successfully, when I can sense that I am playing music almost from within the other person, I can't stop myself from looking up now and then to give a communicative glance. And for me, it's those glances that can tell those around me that I am there with them and that I'm loving every moment.
So the next time you're playing music with someone else, give your ears a chance to shine. You may find that you're not just following anymore, you're singing and playing with the other person instead. And in my experience, that makes for some incredible music-making experiences.