My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The art of collaborating and accompanying by ear

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.

So what is my hypothesis?

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.


  1. I agree. I think that the brain is anticipating what will come next based on what is happening in the music whereas the eye makes you late because there is a reaction time delay. Somehow I have been most successful when I somehow allow myself to use visual cues but let my ear override them when needed. I have no idea how!
    One problem here: This only works with professional level playing. Inexperienced playing isn't always logical and what the ear & brain say will happen next is not always what actually occurs.

  2. Thank you for your comments, Gail.

    I hadn't thought about this concept applying to inexperienced players but you're right, it might not be the best method to use for them. I'd be curious to see what would happen, though, if they tried it as an exercise.

    And I love what you say about your own experience. That sometimes your ears override the visual cues you receive. That makes so much sense to me!

    Thank you again for your comment. Happy music-making :-)

  3. This is a brilliant and (I believe) important post. I'm coming back to it later so as to take it more deeply in & comment further. Wayne
    especially love - "Give your ears a chance to shine."

  4. Wayne, I'm glad the post meant something to you. Please do feel free to comment further if and when you have the time. I'd love to hear what you have to add :-)

    Thank you so much for reading and happy music-making to you!