Listening Closely to Great Performers

Hands playing piano

Over the past year, I have developed a fascination with listening to recordings of great musicians in slow-motion. In an audio software on my computer, I import recordings I like and then change the playback speed to anywhere from 90% to 40% the original.

This started when I was transcribing an up-tempo piano solo by Keith Jarrett and needed to slow down the recording just to hear what notes he was playing. But then, at this slow tempo, I began to appreciate the intricacies of his swing feel, his emphasis, and his touch that passed right by me when I was listening at full speed. The way he hangs on to certain notes a split second longer than others puts subtle accents in certain places and trails off on other notes all comes together to create phrases that are just dripping with jazz intonation. And it amazes me that he was maintaining all of this at such a high tempo. His swing feel is better at 200bpm than mine is at 100bpm!

This works for classical music too. Phrases played by pianists like Arturo Michelangeli or Rudolf Serkin have seemed to be played so musically as to be inimitable. Listening in slow-mo has increased my appreciation for how much intentionality can be put into each note. But then, by listening closely to the timing, articulation, and relative emphasis of each of the notes, I can figure out what the building blocks are that make up that tasteful musical effect, and it becomes clearer how I could achieve it myself. Be warned, though, listening in slow-mo can also make inaccuracies in certain performances more painfully clear. It’s both a process of figuring out what you like, and what you don’t.

A mainstay of my practice now is transcribing music by ear and then playing along with the recording, trying to match the performer’s feel. This type of practice has the added benefit that you hear the other musicians on the recording while you play, thus simulating what it’s like to play with a world-class ensemble.

I think listening to great performers in slow-mo, and playing along with their recordings, is a way to sharpen your musical ear and your awareness of high-level performance. It can show you in detail what makes great musicians so great. And by imitating the phrasing that you like, you internalize some of this feeling into your own playing. Many free audio programs can be downloaded off of the internet that can do this (for example, Audacity or GarageBand). I’d recommend plugging in some of your favorite recordings and giving it a try.

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