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Listen to the Angel and Devil on Your Shoulders

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When I was growing up I used to love Looney Toons cartoons. One of the visual themes that was used in various ways was a person with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. The two mini characters would try to convince the main character to do something bad or something good. That was an effective tool for the stories, and its use dates back millennia (in somewhat different forms!). An early Disney Pluto cartoon used it as well. It continues to be useful to today's audiences, as shown in this clip from "The Emperor's New Groove" (2000).

The continued usefulness is because it portrays a facet of human nature.

I have used a similar principle for most of my musical life as a tool to improve my own playing. But doing this requires the use of both shoulders.

Devil shoulder: You should listen to your own playing critically. If possible, compare your rendition of a piece or solo passage with one by a professional or at least an older player. Try to hear every detail. If you find it helpful, focus on 4 bars at a time, comparing back & forth. Something may sound different, but you may not be sure why. There is a fine learning opportunity! Keep listening until you figure out what is different. Tone? Rhythm? Projection over the accompaniment? Articulation? Intonation overall or on a particular note or two? Dynamic level vs. the written level? Dynamic changes during the passage (good or bad)? Musical expression? Evenness of notes in the passage (do any stick out excessively)? Etc.

You may not have regular, quality music lessons. If that is the case, this critical listening is especially important. You can, and should be, your own teacher, whether or not you are currently studying with someone.

Angel shoulder: Some players only focus on this one, and some ignore it totally. Either is a serious mistake. If you focus only on what you do well, then you are missing learning/improvement opportunities. Not being aware of your own weaknesses will irritate others and limit your growth.

But you must appreciate what you do well as part of your overall perspective! If you have no confidence, your playing will suffer. If there is a contest coming up, knowing your strengths will help you choose a solo that fits you the best. And from a self-constructive-criticism point of view, knowing your particular strengths may help you understand your weaknesses better so you will work on improvements with a better attitude. So give yourself a pat on the back when merited!

Pay attention to both "shoulders" when you listen to others as well. You can do this with other similar-age players and also with older, more proficient players. If you enjoy a passage you hear, figure out why. Sometimes we don't stop to learn from a good listening experience, but if you can figure out what made you smile inwardly when you hear something, it is important to know why. That can help you learn a new technique/style or to enhance one you already do "pretty well." In addition to the small observations, try also to appreciate the overall effect created by the performance. Musical playing is partly strategy.

Does the player or group hold your interest throughout the piece? Do they drop the ball and let tempo sag when it shouldn't or skim over a note or phrase that needed more time and attention? The "Pines of the Appian Way" is a good example in classical music. It is one long buildup, overall. If the ensemble (band or orchestra) reaches their maximum volume a couple minutes from the end, those last minutes can be just a lot of noise. Sometimes we see only a few volume levels: soft, medium, loud, really loud. That won't build the tension very well over a piece like this that lasts 5+ minutes.

Notice the repertoire as well. Make a mental note when you hear a piece that would benefit you to learn. On the other hand, you may hear a piece that is not well suited to the instrument used; note that, too, and avoid a weak choice for your own recitals. (Either that, or make up your mind that you will develop such a high level of technique and expression that you will make the piece exciting!)

I have more-or-less done this through all but the first couple years of my playing life. By junior high school I was buying sheet music for tunes I liked (often from pop radio) and trying to practice them to get them to sound "right." By high school I was very aware of other players in the band and learning from them. And by college that accelerated. I learned I could benefit, as a senior, from at least some of what I heard in a freshman recital. During those years I was also transcribing solos from Doc Severinsen and others and trying to play them with the same style and technique. Notice that everything I just described was in addition to what I learned in lessons… and free!

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