The Three Levels of Listening


One of the most difficult things to teach students is active listening skills. I was very fortunate in my early high school experience to have someone present a schema for listening to me that was easy to understand and apply. I’ve continued to use it as a player and a teacher with success.

For any readers who haven’t taken Education courses yet, a schema is basically a model for understanding something that you create in your brain. For example, if you know the rules for the NFL, you’ve developed a schema. However, when you watch Arena Football, you have to adjust your schema (understanding of how football works) slightly to accommodate the different rules. It’s also possible to have to develop completely new schemata when the information you discover cannot be assimilated into an existing schema. Moving on…

The Three Levels of Listening


Developing active listening skills
takes guided practice. It’s like
developing a seventh sense.
(The sixth is Kinesthesis)

I don’t know who came up with this, otherwise I would give them credit. The idea is that there are Three Levels of Listening. You focus your listening on specific things in specific levels, and when you have achieved certain things on that level, you move up to the next one while still monitoring what you’ve already worked on at the same time.

Level One – Listen to Yourself
As teachers we understand that if a player does not sound good individually, it will be impossible for them to blend into the sound of the band. So, the first goal is to train students to listen critically to their sound and their playing, and to make adjustments. When you begin putting this schema into practice, you start with “Level One – Listen to Yourself”.
There are certain check offs at this level (as with all of them). They’re all related to individual playing. For example, “Are you playing with a good tone quality?” “Are you playing in tune?” “Are you playing with good articulation/style/musical shaping?” And you could go on. If they can answer “Yes” to all of these questions, then they move on to Level Two.
Level Two – Listen to Your Section
Before we can balance the sections, the players in each section must be balancing and matching each other. Their sound should become lost in the greater sound of the section. The goal of Level Two is to make the entire section sound like one player per part. This level of listening addresses those questions. You can ask:
“Are you playing the same tone quality as your section leader?” “Are you playing the same dynamic/volume as the people next to you?” “Are you playing in tune with your section leader?” “Are you attacking and releasing every note together?” “Are you matching articulations/dynamics/style/shaping/etc. with your section?”
Remind them that if the answer is ever, “No,” then they must come up with ways to fix it, and try them until something works. We have to train them to analyze what they hear and react to it appropriately. When they can answer, “Yes” to all of these, then they move on to Level Three. But also remind them that on Level Three, they’re simultaneously listening on the first two levels as well.
Level Three – Listen to the Band
Now we ask all of same questions that we did in level two, but related to the band. The trick to level three is that the section must act with one mind, so the question changes from what they are doing to what is their section doing.
“Is your section playing with the right dynamic/volume to balance the band?” “Is your section playing in tune to the lower voices?” “Are you attacking and releasing every note together?” “Are you matching articulation/style/dynamics/shaping/etc. with the other sections that share your part?”
Why I Think it Works
Master teachers in other subjects have developed simple ways for students to understand the content, and teach it in ways that are effective for students to not only learn it but to retain it. This mimmicks that more closely.
In fact, when I do this, I specify that it is the “Three Levels of Active Listening”, and define Active Listening as listening and analyzing what you hear while you play, and then making adjustments based on what you hear. They’re used to having simple definitions and models, and this provides one.
Many great band directors simply draw their attention to what they should be listening for at any given time in the music, and constantly tell them that they should always be listening around the band. Over time, students will improve at that and begin doing it proactively. That constant reinforcement is the most important part.
But I believe this model breaks it down into simple steps. Listening and adjusting while playing is a complicated thing when you get down to it. This gives them smaller chunks to accomplish it in. And who doesn’t want to reach higher levels… at anything?
It trains their thinking, which is something that Ed Lisk emphasizes in his “The Creative Director: Alternative Rehearsal Techniques” book, and which I know Elizabeth Green would talk about. We need to do more than train their lungs, lips, fingers, and reading skills. We also have to train their inner dialogue. That’s why we teach them counting systems, so that while they play they can focus their inner dialogue on counting in addition to being able to break down new rhythms. This is another way of doing that.
Introducing and Reinforcing the Three Levels
The first time you do this, introduce it during tuning exercises. In this scenario you can briefly explain the three levels, then have them play. While they’re playing a tuning note, you can say, “Level One”, holding up your index finger, and then say, “Ask yourself…..(insert question here)”. Give them a moment or two to make adjustments. Remind them to breathe and stay relaxed. After you have run down the questions, switch to level two. Do the same thing, then move to Level Three. You are focusing their inner dialogue and activating their concentration, so you should notice an improvement.
However, in a tuning exercise you can’t focus the levels with regard to dynamics, articulations, musical shaping, and so on. This is where you apply it to the music they’re preparing. Particularly when there is a section where they are not ensembling well. Simply reminding them to work on using their Active Listening on all three levels may be enough to hear improvement. If not, you can translate what you hear into the specific level and associated questions that addresses the problem. If it’s intonation in the band, it’s all three levels, but if it’s intonation with a section, it could be one of the first two levels (one person playing with a bad sound/out of tune, or a section out of tune). If a section doesn’t sound like one player, they’re not listening on level two. If multiple sections aren’t matching style/articulation/whatever, they’re not listening on level three.
A friend of mine tried this with his 7th Grade Band for the first time recently. It summed up everything he had been telling them throughout the year, but for some reason, it put it into a model they could understand. He introduced it during tuning, and then applied it into the music (because of course, as soon as they moved into the music, the students thought they could also leave the concept behind). He told me they struggled at first as they experimented, reacting to their active listening. But with some guidance, they achieved a much more “luscious” sound than they’ve had all year, and with some reinforcement of the concept in the music, the music itself sounded the best it has all semester. He’s feeling much more excited to present them at the upcoming middle school band concert next week.
The first day you use this, it’s important that you don’t leave the concept behind when you move on from tuning. Reinforce it all throughout the rehearsal. Make this your focus for the entire rehearsal. The more you reinforce it, the better the retainment. Reinforcing it for multiple days will focus them on continued improvement of their listening and adjusting skills. Pretty soon you’ll only have to mention the level, or active listening (or whatever you say that would trigger to them that they’re not using it), and it trigger their thinking to retrieve the entire schema, or at least most of it depending on how much they’ve been able to retain.
Three Levels Handout
I actually didn’t ask my friend to try this with his band. Originally I just developed a hand out as a visual aid for visual learners, to help increase their understanding and retention rates. I was soliciting feedback, and he liked it enough to go ahead and distribute it to his 7th graders and decided to work on it that day. I’m a strong believer in visual aids, and if you decide to give this concept a try, I want to offer the handout/visual aid another tool to help you and your students. I feel better about doing this since it’s been field tested.Follow this link for the Active Listening Handout or click the icon below.

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