Renowned pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski1 once said “Miss one day of practice, I notice; miss two, the critics notice; miss three, the audience notices.”

Indeed, it does seem that keeping our playing at the highest level requires some daily maintenance.

But what are we to do when we come down with some sort of bug and feel dizzy and nauseous every time we get out of bed? Or desperately need every spare minute we can find to finish term papers and study for finals?

Is it just inevitable that our skills will begin to slip when we take a few days off? Or is there something we can do to minimize this slippage and keep our skills up even if we don’t have the time to practice?

And sure, visualization or mental practice can help – but what if we don’t even have the time or mental energy for that?

Learning by listening?

Previous research suggests that we can improve motor skills by observing others. Like watching a teacher demonstrate a new technique. Or even by watching videos of expert performers.

But what about listening?

Recordings offer lots of clues about the motor movements involved in producing sound – whether it’s bow weight or speed, vibrato, use of air, or the kind of force involved in pressing down the keys on a piano.

Might it be possible to improve motor skills simply by hearing the music we’re working on?

Three listening groups

A team of researchers recruited thirty-six non-musicians to learn a simple 15-note snippet of music. Everyone practiced until they could play this figure perfectly, without any note or rhythmic errors.

Then, after a 48-hour break, everyone returned to the lab on three consecutive days for one of three types of follow-up sessions.

One group – the passive-listening group – listened to the musical passage they learned for 20 minutes, as they sat quietly.

The distracted-listening group listened to the piece as well, but did so as they solved a jigsaw puzzle on the computer.

A third group – the nature-listening group – spent 20 minutes listening to nature sounds instead of the music they learned.

How’d they do?

A week after their initial learning session, everyone was asked to perform the music they learned – in just one take, with no warmups or opportunities to hear the passage again.

Then their performance was evaluated in three areas:

1. Did they play the right notes?

The passive-listening group played significantly more of the right notes than the distracted-listening or nature-listening groups.

2. With the correct rhythm?

When it came to rhythmic accuracy, there wasn’t a significant difference between the passive-listening and distracted-listening groups, but these two groups did outperform the nature-listening group by a significant margin.

3. In a consistent dynamic range?

The passive and distracted-listening groups also performed better than the nature-listening group when it came to consistency of dynamics as well (i.e. keeping the loudness of notes the same, instead of some notes sticking out and some failing to speak).

Lahav, A., Katz, T., Chess, R., & Saltzman, E. (2012). Improved motor sequence retention by motionless listening. Psychological Research, 77(3), 310-319.

Would this work for skilled musicians?

It’s important to note that this study was conducted on total piano newbies, who had no previous experience playing the piano. So it’s not 100% clear exactly how these results might transfer to experienced pianists, or other instrumentalists or singers.

That being said, previous research suggests that this sort of listening might actually have even more of an impact amongst skilled musicians, who have a better sense of which motor movements correspond with which sounds.

Take action

So whether you listen to some solo Bach while walking around the grocery store searching for a jar of capers (they’re never where I think they’re going to be), or as you sit in the airport on a long layover, you can usually find little pockets of time every day that could be filled with some active or passive listening.

And while it’s certainly no substitute for real practice, listening sounds like a pretty easy and painless way to minimize the slippage that might otherwise occur until you’re able to practice again.

After all, with the holidays coming up (yet auditions right around the corner), it probably wouldn’t hurt to listen to the more challenging or less-well-learned sections of your repertoire anyway – and if it helps your fingers remember what they’re supposed to do when you make it back into the practice room, even better!

Footnotes

  1. Or Heifetz or Liszt or Rubinstein, depending on where you look…