One Thing You Need to Know: Listening

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What’s the best way to learn a new subject or skill? We all understand the longer we spend with a new subject or skill, the faster we’ll learn.

This is how our mind learns and our muscle memory works. In this post, we’re going to learn how to accelerate many aspects of your playing, by using a method you’ve been using since you were a baby.

In short, this approach should feel natural and easy to apply. Here it is: learning music like a spoken language.

Is Music a Language?

There’s a continuing discussion on whether music is its own language. From the perspective of how we learn music, it’s very similar to language.

Learning Your 1st Language

How did you learn your first language? Did your parents sit you down in a chair and spell the word cat, and then repeat the word, “cat” to you? Of course not; that would be a poor experience for the parent and the child.

On the other hand, when a parent sees a cat running across the yard, they point to the animal and say, “cat”. This approach is a joy to the parent and the child. Over time, the child begins to connect the sound, “cat”, with the object.

Next, the child will begin to mimic that sound until they get it right. After a few years, only then do we sit the child down to teach them how to identify and spell the word.

It’s Not All in The Sheet Music

If we just read music and play scales, it’s similar to learning the word “cat”, but never seeing a real cat. If we follow the natural process of learning a language, and apply it to learning music, then we can see that listening to music is essential. If we don't listen, we can’t get everything we need; the sheet music only shares part of the story.

Learning a 2nd Language

I attempted to learn a second language in high school, but it did not go well. I passed my classes but I was not in a place to have a conversation in French, even after 2 years of classes. I find that some people had the same experience; they learned a few things, but were not fluent.

The Classroom Approach

The approach in French class was focused on a little conversation but mostly worksheets and learning out of a book. If they tried a different approach, and dropped me off in the middle of Paris and said, “See you in 6 months!” I would be much better at speaking French (but it probably would have been overwhelming at the beginning).

What’s the Difference?

If I was dropped off in Paris, I would be completely surrounded by the French language. I would hear the sounds consistently and if I wanted to buy food, or find a place to stay, I would need to copy the sounds I am hearing in order to communicate (and let’s be honest, there would be a lot of pointing at the beginning). In short, there would be a lot of listening and copying.

Immerse Yourself in Music

If you attempt to learn music out of a book, you’ll only be able to progress so far. If you learn out of a book and surround yourself in music, then you’ll have the tools to learn the significant, and subtle, aspects of music. In addition, your ability to learn music correctly will accelerate. Since your mind is ready to learn by immersion, here are some steps to get things going in the language of music.

Let’s Get to It!

Alright, I know it’s been a lot of talk, so let’s discuss what steps you can apply to accelerate your ability to learn the musical language on saxophone.

Step 1

This is the most important step. Listen to music as much as you can. While you’re:

  • Driving
  • Making dinner
  • Eating dinner
  • Relaxing
  • Sleeping

You get the idea, just listen and surround yourself as much as you can. Over time, things that you hear will begin to come through the saxophone. Sometimes you’ll be listening casually, but listening to the details is also required.

Step 2

Choose a saxophone player you want to sound like, and make that the focus. Listen to everything you can from that artist, and repeating one album multiple times is highly encouraged.

Step 3

When possible, sing along. This is like a child seeing a cat and attempting to say cat. At first, the pronunciation may not be perfect, but they get it with time. Allow the same type of patience in your playing as you copy.

Step 4

Mess around on the saxophone with sounds that you’ve heard on the recordings. Add this to the end of each practice session. It doesn’t need to be precise, but rather spend time exploring with what you’ve heard. This should be a lot of fun- like free time!

The Benefits

Keep in mind, you’ll continue your normal practice routine as you immerse yourself with listening. As you do these two things, the following will begin to develop and improve:

  • Tone
  • Articulation
  • Style
  • Phrasing
  • Time
  • Musical Nuances

As you can see, listening may not help you play notes faster, but will help your playing sound more mature and advanced. Yes, we still need to play our scales, but listening will help you play the music that is not on paper. It helps you play the language of music.

Who Do You Like?

Learning music through listening takes some time, so requesting your progress over one week would not be realistic. Instead, who do you want to sound like? Who will you be listening to, or what style of music will you surround yourself with? We look forward to hearing about your listening experiences. It’s always fun to share!

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    Comments 2

    1. This is such great advice…second time i’ve heard it since learning piano through the SIMPLY MUSIC approach developed by a concert pianist and teacher in Australia. He has students in his school playing pieces from the beginning and not read a bit of music for a couple of years AFTER they have about 50 pieces learned and have a RELATIONSHIP with their instrument. I really feel his approach is revolutionary. The ”learn reading right away” approach , after all, was created in Europe to create employees for large orchestras to play classical music.

      1. Post

        Hi Pete. Thanks for sharing about Simply Music. It’s great to share and see what other people are doing. Another source is the Suzuki Method. One of the thoughts from this method is learning music, just like a language. From this post, it’s easy to see that we agree with music being a language and the similarities for learning. This really hits home with learning the jazz style, and it can also be applied to every style of music. Once we can hear the language properly, we are better able to speak it. Listening plays a huge part of that. Thanks for your comment!

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