Listening: An Essential Communication Skill for Musicians

I have been attending a lot of chamber music concerts lately and have been observing how important it is for musicians to listen to each other as they perform.  The better the members of an ensemble are able to listen and communicate effectively to each other, the better the performance.  This has gotten me thinking about ways that musicians can use their musical listening skills to become more powerful communicators, one of the skills that is helpful to creating career success as a music entrepreneur.  In fact, listening is actually one of the keys to great communication.

Musicians listen all the time.  The obvious starting point is in performing and collaborating with other artists.  But listening is also important in many other ways:
  • when interacting with audiences and engaging in dialogue about the music;
  • for teaching students to address their concerns and make sure that they understand;
  • for paying attention to your own teachers and coaches;
  • in networking situations to make sure that you are connecting with others;
  • in pitching in order to foster a dialogue and increase the likelihood that others will buy into your projects.

Listening is a process that combines patience, attention to detail and open-mindedness.  Let’s  take a look at some ways that musicians can deepen their listening skills in order to connect more effectively with others in critical communication situations.

The key to great listening is to know that there are 3 levels of listening:

Level 1:  Subjective Listening

This level of listening is used by people who want to be in control and do not really care about what others are saying.   It’s all about the agenda of the listener.  It ignores the speaker and leaves him feeling disconnected and put off.

Just imagine if chamber musicians did not listen to each other and each one only cared about being “the best”?  The whole notion of the seamless performance would disappear!

Subjective listening also arises when you have pre-judged a situation. For example, many musicians tell me that at times, they cannot tell how well a performance has gone because they are too caught up in their own fear or perfectionism. They simply cannot listen effectively because  their negative thoughts have gotten in the way of objectively assessing the audience reaction or even their own take.  In these situations, it helps to use strategies to overcome performance anxiety and/or perfectionism so that you can be a better listener and foster a stronger connection to your audience.

Level 2:  Objective Listening

Objective listening is when the listener is completely focused on the person who is speaking.  This level is very effective for making the speaker feel heard and for building rapport with the listener.

For example, if you are speaking to audiences and taking their questions, be sure to listen to what they want to know! It is easy to launch into a speech that shows off your knowledge but if you want to create engagement, answer the question.

Level 3:  Intuitive Listening

In this level, the listener is putting himself in to the shoes of the other person.  The listener focuses on tone of voice, energy level, passion and feelings of the speaker and is able to understand what he or she is truly looking for.  This is the skill of listening between the lines to get to the heart of the matter.  That is why it is the most powerful form of listening since it creates a deep connection between the speaker and the listener.

Take the example of the musician who can read a room and just knows what other people are thinking.  The power of deep listening is that it draws other people in and makes them more likely to want to connect with you. Just think of how effective this can be in networking situations when you are eager to meet other people or when you are fundraising or looking for support for your projects.

You can start to become a better listener by being open-minded and understanding your own agenda when interacting with others.  Then imagine what the other person wants, whether it is a student looking to improve her skills, an audience eager for a better understanding of music, or a potential donor with a particular mission in mind. Then you are ready to have a conversation.

And how do you learn this?  Listen to others the way you listen to music when you are performing and let that be your guide. Because how you do anything is how you do everything!