You may think listening is an innate skill that improves with time—it’s not.

From the early days of learning their instrument, a clear priority must be for each student to listen intently to their individual tones while matching the tones around them. This important skill—and it is a skill—is often overlooked as students work to master the technical and other musical aspects of their instrument. It’s taken for granted that, as their playing matures, so will their listening skills. To some degree, that’s true, but for it to develop fully, there must be strong intent. When each student develops strong listening skills, any ensemble will sound more cohesive, refined, and musical!

Ask any discerning student, and they will tell you they’re very concerned about playing correct notes and rhythms. Without your consistent reminders and encouragement, there is little regard for listening to balance and blend. “Practicing” listening during rehearsal should happen early and often.

Of course, to achieve the next level of musicianship, correct notes and rhythms produced with a good tone are critical, but listening to pitch is also crucial. As band directors, we often tell students to listen, but do we say what to listen for? For example, instead of saying, “Play letter B again,” what about saying, “Play letter B again but if you can’t hear the melody in the clarinets, you’re playing too loud.” Allow your language to become this specific, this nuanced, as it relates to listening and perfecting balance and blend.

When a student’s listening becomes more advanced, they are primed to begin listening also for correct style and matching style with those around them. This obviously is also paramount for a superior band. With this cooperation among sections, it becomes easier to ensure that articulations match across each section and then the whole ensemble.

Of course, intonation is what we usually think about when a band director says to listen. In a practical sense, students must take on the responsibility of matching pitches with students on either side of them, plus those in front and behind them. In that way, listening becomes manageable. No one student feels responsible for listening across the ensemble—that’s your job. In this way, it becomes like playing in a small ensemble, it “turns on the ears.” As we all know, it’s much harder to “hide” or lose focus in a small ensemble.

The bottom line is that you and your band are best served if everyone (including yourself) talks less in rehearsal while playing more. The key is for you to give concise directions on what exactly to listen for.

We all know the old adage—”God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason.” In the rehearsal room, that translates into “Listen to the ensemble twice as much as you talk to its members.”

About the Author

GREGORY SNYDER mentors band directors and holds clinics for band programs in Nashville and across the U.S. He is an adjunct professor for Bowling Green State University and Belmont University. Greg is director of bands emeritus, Lakota West High School, West Chester, Ohio, and an elected member of the prestigious American Bandmasters Association. He is an education clinician for the KHS America Academic Alliance. For more information, go to

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