At this point in the semester we may forget the power of music in our lives, even while we are likely surrounded by it. How often do we really stop to listen - really listen, and immerse ourselves in the sounds around us?
As musicians we may take listening for granted, but many professions cultivate a variety of forms of listening in order to achieve success. Musicians are no exception! Although generally considered an interpersonal skill, active listening can be a musician's wide-eyed and wide-eared, fully-engaged and ever-faithful companion.
Wilton Elder makes a clear and simple point in this post: the opposite of active is passive. Actively listening to music consumes our attention and focus. It is a skill that requires practice to acquire, flex, and stay in shape. Like other similar skills in the "use it or lose it" category, we need to exercise this ability to not only maintain it but also keep it fresh. Being invested in creating music takes practice, as does being completely engaged in and focusing on actively listening to music. Musicians should practice actively, exclusively listening on a regular basis - and consider this a form of practicing.
When we practice, however,we may be challenged to actively listen while we are also focusing on the many activities and processes necessary to play at the same time. We may need to shift our attention away from these elements, pushing ourselves to trust our playing skills a bit more and use other "cues" to help us execute a passage, in order to listen more carefully. In a practice session, musicians often consider this to be critical listening rather than active listening, since our overall goal for listening while practicing is to assess our progress.
The cost of this effort and trust can tempt us to take an easier, shorter path and simply not listen actively when practicing. If we find ourselves not actively listening while we play, we can slow the tempo, reduce the demands (make one or more practicing tasks simpler), or shorten the length of the passage we are playing. We can also record ourselves - and then actively listen!