I have come to the conclusion over the years that what you don’t play and how you listen are of the uttermost importance in improvising. All the best improvisers I’ve had the pleasure of working with know when to stop, when to sit back and listen to what is happening around them. They leave gaps for others, they play for the group not themselves. They also know when to take over and run with an idea.

The worst improvisers I’ve played with are all go, all playing, no space for others, impossible to coerce into changing direction. Maybe it’s an ego thing? It would be very easy to talk in vague notions of zen states of the now, that these players don’t play in the now, they are somewhat ahead of the game and thinking of the ovations waiting at the end for their gymnastic playing? The worst example of not listening has been leaving the stage in frustration and another player not even noticing…. Well the very worst was two of a trio leaving the stage and the performance lasting another 5 minutes….

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What do you do when you become stuck? Play through the stuckness? Or maybe improve your listening skills and really listen to your fellow musicians. If you don’t find something to reinvigorate your own playing, maybe just enjoy the moment. Maybe it’s not that you don’t have any ideas coming out, maybe the others are playing the best thing that could happen at that moment and your silence is the best contribution to make? I like to think so. I have become very conscious of over playing in the last couple of years, of not giving others enough space to really play their best.

It really is that old chestnut of the whole being better than the sum of it’s parts, a symbiosis happens that makes sparks fly, that transcends music and sound. Playing free improv takes me to these places, when you are part of something that takes off and becomes absolutely astounding, those performances that end with wide eyes and smiles of acknowledgement, that leave nothing more to be said.

Listening is a great art to learn, something that I think I’ve worked harder at than my technical playing. Search and Reflect has many exercises about listening. John Stevens knew how to listen, he understood how important this deep listening is.

Many people hear others, but don’t listen. I can’t recommend listening enough.

Shaun Blezard – December 2014

On Listening
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