The Gift of Listening

Last year, I got to see Joey Alexander perform. I first heard of Joey from a friend of mine who sent me a clip of Joey’s interview. And then I heard some of my musician friends talking about him as the prodigy kid. And then he was all over the radio and one day in my inbox I got an email from Jazz Alley announcing a presale for his show.

I did not waste any time getting tickets for the show (very next to the piano) because if he was really a prodigy, I wanted to see him in person. On the day of the show, I sat only a few feet away from where Joey was playing and kept asking myself, ‘What makes this kid a prodigy?’

Just a few feet way from him, I was watching like a hawk!

He was good. Very good. Not without some technical or musical challenges (after all, he was only 13 and had been playing the piano for only seven years) but completely immersed in his world of music.

So what makes him a prodigy? He is a prodigy because he hears music in his head. I was certain of it. This kid, he was hearing something wonderful in his head. I don’t know how it started, whether he had it before he ever touched a keyboard or it started as he was introduce to the keyboard. But it was clear to me that he heard music, fantastic music, and he was driven to play and communicate what was in his head.

In the recent years, there has been a growing awareness in the teaching community about the weakness of reading-only-based piano curriculums. The more I teach, the more I wrestle and puzzle over how I can teacher better, and the more I have introduced the world of music and piano to beginning students, I have not only become aware of the shortcomings of reading-only-based piano teaching but also the irreversible harm of it on a large segment of piano students (more on this in another blog).

Music starts from hearing and then being able to replicate it in our mind. This process allows a person to start forming the language of music, the ability not only to replicate but also to comprehend music (this process is called audiation, a term coined by Edwin Gordon). As a person gains competency in music, she or he is able to shape it, transform it and create new musical ideas. I believe that music prodigies like Mozart are those who are able to hear and imagine music in their head at exponentially more volume and speed than non-prodigies. I don’t necessarily think that they are born with extraordinary skills to play instruments; rather, they have the drive to work on their instrument for long relentless hours because they are driven to produce the sound they hear in their mind.

So what does this mean for us? For us teachers, it means that we have to teach our students to hear and listen well. We have to spend time on it. And we have to take time to understand what they’re hearing and not hearing. If a student isn’t playing something accurately, after corrections and repetitions, 95% of the time, it is because they’re hearing something else in their head. There is a fundamental misunderstanding that needs to be undone.

Words to live by for Kristina Lee Music in the school year 2017-2018 is DEEP LISTENING.

As we end this school year and start a new one, I also make this pledge for myself: I will try to listen to my students better. Listen to what the student isn’t saying. Listen to what the student is trying to communicate but doesn’t yet have the vocabulary, maturity or skills to express. Listen when they’re excited and listen when they are down or sad. Listen deeply to the music they make.

Selfie with Joey and his band.