As a teenager in high school, I practiced classical piano for two hours a day. I could play really difficult music—as long as it was notated. I ran into trouble when it came to playing music with other people, because I’d never been taught how to listen to my fellow players. If I lost track of what measure we were on, I would be completely lost and would have to look busy until we got to a place I recognized.

Then I joined a rock band, where I learned a lot about performing. And when I began playing in classical groups again, I was surprised at how much easier it was. The secret was learning to listen, something that will do a lot to improve your experience and value as a musician.

To learn some ways to improve our listening skills, we spoke with drummers Brian Chase and George Marsh, who have spent significant time honing their own abilities in that area. And while we lost composer Pauline Oliveros in November 2016, she famously created and wrote extensively on a unique approach called deep listening, which we’ll tap into for clues toward improvement.

Listening Versus Hearing

Listening is very different from hearing. Hearing is automatic—you can’t help noticing the car alarm out in the street, or the ring of your phone. But listening is intentional. As auditory neuroscientist Seth S. Horowitz wrote in a 2011 New York Times article titled “The Science and Art of Listening,” “The difference between the sense of hearing and the skill of listening is attention.”

Sometimes when we’ve played with a band for a while, especially one that’s been playing the same compositions for a long time, we can fall into bad habits of hearing but not listening. We might begin to pay close attention only if something goes wrong. After a while, we can begin to get bored, and the group can begin to sound sloppy. By reminding yourself to actively listen to your bandmates, you’ll find that you can get a lot more out of the experience. You can be aware of, and respond to, small changes, creating a richer, more interesting musical stew.

In styles like free jazz and avant-garde music, where improvisation may be a fundamental part of the piece, listening to your bandmates can actually make the difference between success and failure. As Modern Drummer Pro Panelist George Marsh says, “It’s really important to have communication between the players. If it’s noise or just other sound, and people aren’t listening, then it’s really not any fun; I don’t even understand what it is.”

Listening Will Make You Sound Better

If you’re acutely aware of what your bandmates are doing, it’s easier to accommodate all the little details that make a piece better—that crescendo the flute is dropping in, or the extra accent from the bass player. When each musician is aware of the others, a group becomes more of a single, expressive entity.

Brian Chase, drummer with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, says, “There are lots of reasons why [listening’s] important, the most important being that it serves the function of why the musician is there in the first place. The other thing is that it removes doubts.”

This can be extremely helpful when you’re improvising, especially if you’re a little nervous about it. Chase says, “If you take the emphasis off whatever dialogue is happening in your head and you kind of listen from the larger perspective of the music, then the music will often answer any questions.”

Active listening will not only make you a better ensemble player, it may send you farther along on your own solo journey as a musician.

Improving Listening Skills

As with everything else in music, you improve your listening skills through practice, and there are many exercises to help you do this.

In the 1960s, when George Marsh lived in Chicago, he was friends with Allaudin Mathieu, who at the time was a keyboard player for the famed Second City theater company. After hours, Marsh and Mathieu would take the improv games used by Second City and apply them to their own music. They found that despite any differences between the two art forms, applying the acting tools to their music making helped them respond to each other more sensitively.

Copying each other’s riffs is also a great way to ensure that everyone in the band knows what everyone else is playing. “If you’re playing with people and you think you’re not being heard,” Marsh says, “you can ask them to focus on what each person is playing, one at a time. Instead of criticizing, you’re inviting people in. It solves the problem immediately.” Opening up the lines of communication can do more than fine-tune and focus your hearing; it can also help defuse any possible conflict at rehearsal.

Pauline Oliveros created many exercises designed to improve listening skills. In one, called “Heartbeat,” taken from her book Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice, she directed, “Each person detects and then expresses their own heartbeat, first by tapping on the body. When everyone is tapping, then switch to hand clapping. Each person keeps their own heartbeat and listens to the composite rhythms of the group.” Playing polyrhythms like this is definitely challenging, but at its deepest level the exercise is as simple as focusing on your own heartbeat.

Chase says he focuses on his own place in the ensemble and how he can contribute to the overall sound. “If you’re playing drums in a band,” Brian explains, “and the band is playing a song, the more you listen as a drummer, the more you’re kind of giving yourself to the song. And the less you listen, the more you shut out the rest of the band and the rest of the song. So the more that listening is happening for the song, the more energy is devoted to supporting the song.”

Deep Listening

Oliveros conceived the term deep listening to describe a meditative, highly aware form of listening. She drew on meditation practice, yoga, and tai chi to create listening exercises. As a composer who used improvisation as the basis for much of her work, she designed the exercises to also help with improvisation skills. “Pauline was really amazing about bringing our attention to the process of listening,” Chase says. “I think part of the deep listening process’s meditation is bringing awareness to the way we respond and react to sound.”

The exercises, laid out in a set of creative instructions called “Sonic Meditations,” range from the relatively mundane to the deeply spiritual. “Teach Yourself to Fly,” for example, involves vocalizing within a group. But “Native” is a more spiritual exercise: “Take a walk at night. Walk so silently that the bottoms of your feet become ears.”

Everyone Can Benefit

Actively focusing on listening to the musicians you’re performing with, and making an effort to internalize the process so that it becomes automatic, can only improve the results of your collaborations. And it matters little if the pieces you’re playing are completely improvised or following strict charts; the music always benefits the more in-sync you are with your fellow performers.

Suggested Listening

Pauline Oliveros/Stuart Dempster/Panaiotis Deep Listening /// Timeless Pulse (George Marsh/Jennifer Wilsey/Pauline Oliveros) Trio /// Brian Chase Drums & Drones

George Marsh moves back and forth between the worlds of jazz, rock, classical, and the avant-garde. Among the artists he’s worked with are Joe Henderson, Mose Allison, Jerry Garcia, the Kronos Quartet, David Grisman, Pauline Oliveros, and Denny Zeitlin, with whom he’s recently released the album Expedition: Duo Electro-Acoustic Improvisations (Sunnyside Records). Marsh also recently updated his drum method book Inner Drumming: Drumset Exercises for Developing Mind/Body Awareness.

The late Pauline Oliveros, one of the pioneering forces behind the creation of electronic music, began her career at the San Francisco Tape Music Center. In 1989 she cofounded the Deep Listening Band, a title that references not only the form of listening she had evolved at this time but also the location of the group’s first album: a cistern fourteen feet below ground.

Photo by Peter Gannushkin

Brian Chase studied jazz drums at Oberlin College and Conservatory, sticking to the classics like Miles Davis and John Coltrane until a friend introduced him to John Zorn and the downtown New York City music scene. In 2000 he joined college friend Karen O in her band the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. He’s since played with, among others, Seth Misterka, Man Forever with John Colpitts, the Sway Machinery, Peter Aaron, and his own Brian Chase Duo.