Have Your Ears Become Lazy?

When I first moved to NYC for grad school I was keenly aware of the constant din of honking cars, sirens, and people. It seemed to go on 24 hours per day, 7 days a week. I missed the peace and quiet that I had grown accustomed to after spending most of my life in rural midwestern towns.

Of course, it wasn’t long before I got used to my new home and didn’t notice the noise anymore. It happened so gradually that I wasn’t aware I’d changed until I went home for the holidays and was struck by how exceedingly quiet my childhood home was. Like, deathly quiet. Not even any frogs or crickets to liven things up.

This is a phenomenon that psychologists call habituation. As in, we eventually get used to the things around us. Whether it’s NYC traffic, snakes, or spicy food, with enough exposure, our brain tags it with the label “same old, same old” and filters it out.

So how does habituation relate to peak performance?

Idle hands (or unused attentional capacity) are the devil’s playthings

We’ve been listening to our sound every day for years, decades in most cases. We’ve also been playing the same excerpts for as long as we can remember. It’s safe to assume that we’ve habituated to our sound, and much of the standard repertoire as well.

With our ears on autopilot, it’s really only the anomalies that stand out – like mistakes, glitches, and other imperfections.

That may be helpful for identifying what to work on in the practice room, but on stage, having “lazy” ears leaves too much of our attentional resources free to wander. And in pressure situations, our focus is likely to drift off to unhelpful thoughts that will derail our performance. Like worrying about a tricky shift in advance. Bemoaning the un-evenness of our tonguing. Kicking ourselves mentally for not having prepared better. Wondering what the listeners are thinking. Wondering if the audition panel is going to stop us soon.

We’re much more successful when we are fully engaged in hearing what we want, blending with colleagues around us, or to quote a colleague, “leading with our ears.” When we are so busy listening that there are no attentional resources left to engage in task-irrelevant worries, doubts, and distractions.

It’s all about developing our ability to listen with “newborn ears”, if you will.

Newborn ears

Ever notice how fascinated newborns are by the world around them? How they can sit and play with the simplest thing seemingly forever? My daughter used to spend hours, happily filling and emptying cups and bowls with water in the sink until her little hands were all wrinkly.

I suspect this is possible because to the newborn, pretty much everything must seem like a miracle. After all, wouldn’t the feel, texture, wetness, temperature, sound, etc. of water be pretty fascinating if you’ve never experienced it before?

Which brings up an interesting question. What do you suppose your reaction would be to hearing music for the very first time?

Hearing music for the first time

Filmmaker Austin Chapman had heard about music his whole life. But he had never experienced it for himself with his own ears until getting a set of hearing aids that enabled him to hear music for the first time.

Here’s what he had to say about Mozart’s Requiem:

“When Mozart’s Lacrimosa came on, I was blown away by the beauty of it. At one point of the song, it sounded like angels singing and I suddenly realized that this was the first time I was able to appreciate music. Tears rolled down my face and I tried to hide it. But when I looked over I saw that there wasn’t a dry eye in the car.”

Can you imagine what this must have been like?

Sound is indeed a remarkable phenomenon. When you listen carefully and really marvel at everything that is there to hear, the subtle nuances and details of pitch, timbre, texture, melody, harmony, rhythm, and so on, you’re liable to get chills and goose bumps.

Give it a try. Listen to the following 9-minute excerpt from Mozart’s Requiem. You’ve probably heard it before, but just close your eyes and listen, as if you are experiencing music for the first time in your life.

What happened? Any chills? Did the random irrelevant thoughts and internal “chatter” quiet down when you dialed your ears up to 11? When you really listened?

This level of focus, of being completely immersed in the task at hand, is one of the keys to peak performance. To be so occupied by the present moment, that we don’t have time to process anything else.

Take action

Practice listening more intently throughout the day.

What do your tires sound like as they roll across the highway? What does your significant other’s voice sound like? What does your refrigerator sound like when you open the door? What does your instrument sound like when you begin playing?

Can you shake the cobwebs off your ears, really listen, and sappy though this may sound, fall in love with your sound and music all over again?

The one-sentence summary

Just remember – the key is depth, not breadth.

photo credit: seanomatopoeia via photopin cc

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6 Responses

  1. Great post Noa,

    I think that really listening to music is one of the lost skills. We are living in such a noisy environments and music is everywhere in supermarkets, banks, malls etc.

    I also think that we are slowly loosing our capability to really focus on the present moment, on the task at hand even though this skill is very essential for us. That’s why articles like this one are really important as reminders to cultivate the power of laser focus.


  2. I find that the only time I can really listen to music intently is either when I am in the car – preferably on the highway or, in the gym. The car is great because the only thing I am really concentrating on, especially on the highway, is making sure I don’t miss my exit! In the gym it’s easy to pay attention to what is on my headphones while doing things like lifting weights because there is little conscious thought involved other than the basic movement.
    I do sometimes sleep with music on but, I don’t get into much of it because I tend to fall asleep pretty fast. Still, I guess I do it so that maybe it will seep into my subconscious.
    I read that Carlos Santana used to sleep with a tape of John Coltrane playing all night, back in the 70s in his “Devadip” stage. If you listen to that period, the live CD “Lotus” from Japan is a great example, you can hear that Coltrane influence coming out in his playing: he played mostly in minor modalities and he would even quote “My Favorite Things”, which was made famous by ‘Trane. The other influence you can hear in Santana’s playing that he got from Coltrane is the intensity and feeling of transcendence. No doubt that this was also brought on by his spiritual studies that he was involved with at the time.

  3. This is very Zen. Just the idea of having more awareness in your daily life will improve your demeanor in all aspects of your being including focus.

    I try to take a morning walk every day and focus on really hearing and seeing what is going on around me.

    Sometimes I try to harmonize with electrical transformers since they give off a steady tone haha!

  4. It’s cool listening to the sounds around you and to those you produce too! Throughout the day.

    What does depth and breath mean in this context ? What’s the difference between them ? How can I recognize each of them, how to use them ? Why is depth more important than breadth in this context ?

    1. Depth would involve really immersing yourself in the elements of a single sound, like pitch, timbre, and so on. Breadth would be scanning the aural horizon, as it were, and taking in everything around you.

      I think we need practice at listening more intently and deepening our focus, which is a skill that can keep us engaged in our own performances (or even practices) more effectively.

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