Teaching Students to Harness the Transformative Power of Thoughtful Listening

By Nicholas Cords

Ironically, listening is a musician’s greatest challenge. We spend a lifetime with the instrument under our ears and yet, as listeners, we tend to grow complacent. As violist of Brooklyn Rider and co-artistic director of Silkroad, my ears are challenged daily. But my viola studio at the New England Conservatory of Music is the place where I have come to understand the importance of deep listening perhaps more than in any other arena.

I was once told that the best way to enjoy a concert is to take it in from the performer’s point of view. Believe it or not, listening intuitively is indeed one of the many magic powers musicians possess! I try to engage in the same way as a teacher—if I can truly listen to the inherent needs of a student, bespoke solutions can be created that benefit the path of that particular violist. A teacher also needs to approach the process with flexibility: Students have their own ways of internalizing information, and allowing for a pace of work that takes this into account is an essential piece of the teaching puzzle, which requires deep listening as well.

“I encourage my students to understand good intonation as not only a function of correct finger placement, but about the search for specific and recognizable resonance.”

On an instrumental level, true listening implies something more thorough than simply hearing. For instance, I encourage my students to understand good intonation as not only a function of correct finger placement, but about the search for specific and recognizable resonance. Playing free of tension is not about textbook posture, but metaphorical “listening” to our bodies. And true sound quality is not found in the illusory search for the perfect vibrato or bow hold, but in developing an infinitely adaptable palette. And of course, producing anything of beauty on the viola first requires hearing a specific sound in one’s inner ear.

Listening in the broader sense entails embracing tradition. There is so much to learn from our string counterparts of the past, and it’s never been easier, thanks to YouTube. You might not always love the scratchy recording of Lionel Tertis or the Capet String Quartet, but if you can manage to listen beyond the surface patina and imagine the sound in full spectrum with an accompanying cultural context, considerable empathetic sensibilities are exercised. Aren’t some of the same intuitive skills required when you interpret a Bach Cello Suite?

Students can also drive curiosity and further knowledge by attending as many concerts of as great a variety as possible. Beyond the obvious musical benefits, a live concert brings the audience into a musical community. Plus, it’s powerful for fellow performers to know that they are being listened to—that they offer something of worth.


Speaking of performance, while students often hold some apprehension around this topic, the stage is a place where they can hone and harness listening with the right approach. I encourage students to ask themselves the following questions:

1. Are you able to listen in the face of nerves?

2. Are you truly listening to the way your sound reacts with the acoustics?

3. Can you, in a sense, listen to what the music is communicating as you profess it in front of an audience?


4. Likewise, can you listen to how the audience receives your performance as you play?

If the answer is affirmative to all of the above, the stage can be transformed from a place of fear to a platform for exponential learning.

And for those worried about the future (pretty much every student I have ever met), the more you hear about the pressing needs of the world, the more success you can imagine for both yourself and the field of music. Music has a purpose, after all!


Two lofty examples to keep in mind: Haydn modeled the rise of democratic society through his string quartets, and Yo-Yo Ma imagined an empathetic world when he founded Silkroad.

But you can also start humbly by building musical projects with friends and serving those in need in your community. For as many hours as it takes practicing and perfecting your art, an artist also needs to be out in the world with all senses deployed. To sloppily paraphrase Debussy, music should smell of the field and not of lamp oil. 

This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Strings magazine.