Monday, June 6, 2011

Metheny on Improv

This article in the NYT covers some work of neuroscientists I've already posted on, so I wasn't going to link it until I read this quote from Pat Metheny:

The best musicians are not the best players, they're the best listeners.

To me, there's a world of truth in that. It's so very easy to get so caught up in various technique and performance issues, that it can become sort of a vicious downward spiral leading away from good music making; and mindful listening is what can break that spiral and get the technique back into serving the music rather than itself.


  1. Absolutely spot on with that quote.

    Playing in chamber groups is especially good for reminding people of the need to listen and helping them to work out how.

    There are sufficiently few players that it is easy to hear everything that is going on, and there is no conductor to rely on as an alternative to having to listen.

  2. Jonathan - Very validating for me you like that quote too. Your point about small ensembles is very apt.

    You might enjoy Dave Wilkin's latest post, as it is, to my mind, sort of related to to this. It gets to the point that technique isn't music from another direction.

  3. I took a look at Dave Wilken's post. It seemed to me that in it he is talking mainly of ensuring that the player listens to himself. That's all well and good, and unless the player listens to himself he has no means of correcting any errors at all. I have no major disagreement with Dave on that point.

    But Pat Methany's point, as I understood it, was that when playing in groups, it is equally necessary for all the players to listen to each other, so that they can fit their individual contributions into a harmonious and satisfying whole.

    That means for instance listening out for tuning, and being ready to minutely adjust the pitch of every note you play so that it matches the chords around you, it means matching the style of phrasing of the other players, it means listening to how short everybody is making their staccatos, it means listening and matching with everybody else in how they respond to the conductor's rubato or stringendo.

    Players who don't listen to their surroundings are intensely irritating to their colleagues. In a professional environment, they simply don't last - they don't get asked back, no matter how technically proficient they are. A note played with the most magnificent tone is still a wrong note if it is played at the wrong time relative to everybody else.

    So you have to listen. In addition, you have to watch. In orchestra or band, you should always have half an eye on the conductor to see what changes of speed his is making, but at the same time you listen to how the rest of the group is responding so that you match their response. And so by a strange mixture of everyone both leading and following, everyone changes speed at the same rate.

    In chamber music, you have no conductor, so you watch whatever gestures can be made by the players in the course of playing their instruments. It's much easier to do this with stringed instruments, which is why the string quartet is perhaps the most intimate of all musical groups.

  4. Jonathan - I agree with you. It's the primacy of listening they're both talking about that struck me, even though they are talking about listening to two different things, as you say. It all goes back to our original back and forth about the nature of "musicality", and here are two ways listening can help a player break out of simple technique into that expressive world of musicality.

    I love your formulation, "by a strange mixture of everyone both leading and following, everyone changes speed at the same rate."

    Your comment on the gestural component of string quartets, given my interest in gesture, was like a light coming on for me. Maybe if I'd seen more perform as opposed to merely hearing recordings, I wouldn't think of that ensemble as the dry academic preserve of fully theory minded people.

  5. Absolutely. The best conversations and chamber music happen when both partners are completely attentive to what the other is saying and responds accordingly.

    Two related statements come to mind:

    •Improvisation is not about virtuoso playing. It's about virtuoso listening.

    •First horn must be a soloist. Second horn must be a musician (i.e. great listener)

  6. Jeffrey - Thanks so much for that comment. Particularly like the second point. For the first 5 1/2 years of playing was the only horn in the community band, but 6 months ago a real player showed up. Going from struggling to play parts really too hard for me to playing second has been a much bigger transition than I'd imagined it would be, and your formulation sums up the situation nicely.