Teaching Collaborative Listening in Chamber Music

Reflections on  Youth  Group Project, All Angels Artist Residency, 2023

Upcoming Chamber Music Masterclass: https://acmp.net/event/chamber-music-masterclass-collaborative-listening/

As the All Angels' Youth Group Music Ensemble prepares to make its debut as part of the finale of my artist residency, I remember vividly the early days of trying to get my baby to walk all by herself. I would step back a foot away to wait and see if she would take the risk of "falling" towards me. It is that crucial action of stepping away, not too far but not too close either, that creates space for growth and confidence to happen. She was my collaborator with co-ownership of her own growth. 

During the teenage years, our kids face a double challenge. On one hand they have lost the blissful unconscious state that made being awkward such a natural part of life. Now they are super aware of everything that other people think of them or might think of them. At the same time, societal pressures to gain social approval and maximize productivity are becoming increasingly unrealistic. On top of that, our patience is eroded in this world of instant gratification. It certainly doesn't help that the world wide web also feeds us new videos about someone somewhere having more success, achieving higher grades, looking more beautiful, all the time! How do we create new spaces, not for self-assertion or competition, but for building trust and collaboration?

When I first approached the topic of playing chamber music with the All Angels' youth group, I wanted to invite them to take a step forward in taking ownership of listening to each other. At the first rehearsal I was thrilled that so many players contributed ideas to how we can create our own arrangement of a well known hymn. At the second rehearsal, I delayed my entrance a couple minutes to see if any natural leadership might come forward. I resist the customary "don't make mistakes" mentality by inviting participants to take creative risks and decide whether they are ready to accept my help. As a chamber music coach, my chief interest is to create gaps that are small enough for anyone to step over, and big enough for those who are ready for juicier challenges. 

Playing chamber music builds active listening skills and emotional empathy, as well as the more advanced social skills of learning how to cue others what you need and learning to intuit the group energy accurately. I believe we are designed not only to create, but also to collaborate. And to do that, we need to practice our listening, in music and in life, in order to expand our awareness and diversity of skills, and simultaneously integrate our learning into an ever evolving new version of ourselves. 

As a natural shield from negativity, chamber music comes to "play", with its innocent demand for eye contact, emotional empathy, and active listening. Music can be an abstract art that invites our imagination and an integration of ideas and memories and intentions. If we can create space for "play", we can approach chamber music the way it was meant to be: a social engagement, an opportunity to have camaraderie, maybe even a way to pray.

Hsing-ay Hsu 2023