This afternoon I taught one of my most advanced students, a graduate student who is preparing her recital. She performed the final movement of the Rebecca Clarke Sonata, but throughout the performance, I was unhappy with her sound. We went through a few steps to make it better: First technically, we talked about altering her bow speeds and placements, the angle of the hair depending on the passage, bow distribution, and as always, altering her arm weight (I'm a big fan of arm weight!). Her sound got better. Then we talked about characters and moods and the feelings of the piece, and her sound got even better, but I still wasn't totally satisfied. And finally, she stopped playing and said something to the effect of, "I think I rely too much on what I'm hearing in my head, instead of what is actually coming out of my viola."
This is not the first time I've heard this. Far from it, in fact, and I am always surprised when a student tells me they don't actively listen to the sounds they are producing. For me, SOUND is the most important thing! It's what music is all about! A few wrong notes here and there are no big deal, as long as the sound you produce is rich and sonorous (if that's what the music calls for), and speaks to your soul. If you're listening to yourself, you can quickly address intonational or volume or sound quality concerns, etc. etc., which immediately makes your performance stronger.
Now, I'm not saying that you shouldn't shape the phrase and sing along in your mind as you play. Those are also incredibly important and beneficial processes. But unless you are aware of and satisfied with what is actually coming out of your instrument, you're not fulfilling your musical potential.
After we discussed the importance of active listening (meaning, "if you don't like what you hear, change it immediately!"), she played again, and I got goose bumps. Literally. The change in her playing with simply phenomenal, and the introspective and wandering opening of the third movement of the Clarke Sonata sounded out loud exactly how I hear it in my mind. The change was astounding.
And the amazing thing is, it wasn't the discussion about technique or emotional landscape that procured this result (though of course knowing what to do technically and having emotional clarity about the music are necessary)-- it was simply the student taking charge of the sounds she was producing.
Active listening, people. It's what it's all about.