CD PlayerA new research paper in the September 22nd, 2010 Journal of Neuroscience titled Enhancing Perceptual Learning by Combining Practice with Periods of Additional Sensory Stimulation points to something that many music educators have believed for a long time yet few actually push as a part of their student’s practice routines.  The main point of the study appears to be that exposing a learner to additional auditory stimulation while attempting to learn an auditory task has a compounding effect on how much and how quickly the learner improves in completing the task.  In other words, if a student practices their trombone for twenty minutes and then listens to twenty minutes of a good trombone performance he or she will reap the benefits of the equivalent of forty minutes of pure practice time.  

This article touches not only on what this research means for us as music educators but also provides several useful options for teachers to incorporate these listening activities back into the curriculum.

So what does this mean for us as teachers?  It means that those forward thinking teachers who have been buying iPods and loading them with music then loaning them out to students as a required part of their instrumental or vocal classes have had the right idea all these years.  In fact, it appears to me that this idea should probably be expanded and made even more pervasive, being used in every performing music classroom, and that adding a listening component to regular practice assignments should become part of the routine.

We have always known that in order to be a good player a student has to know what good players should sound like yet how many of us have pushed students to do active listening assignments outside of a large group ensemble rehearsal?  At the same time we constantly beg and plead with our students to practice every night yet very few students do anywhere close to the amount of practice that we ask for.   Maybe it is time to break the mold of what it means to practice as a beginner and add some flavor to the routine?

Consider a situation where a beginning flutist goes home with an assignment to practice for two hours during the coming week.  The student goes home, practices once or twice, usually has no way to tell if they are doing good or not, and stops well short of the weekly practice requirement.  Now instead imagine a student being asked to practice at least an hour plus listen to an equal amount of flute recordings on a loaned CD.  The research suggests that having her do so will provide the equivalent of two hours of progress and will likely also be more received more positively by the student as well (perhaps encouraging even more practice down the road).  By listening to a good player she will be more likely to know what a good flute sound is and in turn be better able to self-critique her practice sessions.  Sounds like a win-win situation to me!

Now we should obviously be realistic about this research.  As Jonah Lehrer mentions in his critique of the study on Wired:

This doesn’t mean, of course, that we can just play Yo Yo Ma in the background and expect to master the cello, or put the textbook underneath the pillow and expect to ace the algebra test. We still need to practice. We just might not need to practice as much as we think.

Still, I am willing to do just about anything to help my students grow as musicians and to improve in their performance abilities.  If listening is as important as the research says it is then why the heck don’t we do more of it?

Why Don’t Teachers Require More Listening?

No one can deny the benefits of using listening projects in our instrumental and vocal education classes but the big question is, why the heck are teachers not doing it?  Perhaps the answer is that even in our era of constant information access many teachers feel that they still do not have an easy and quick way to allow students access to the music that they need to listen to.  Finding and compiling the desired listening tracks is one obstacle but beyond that also lies the legalities of making copies of the songs, burning them to CD or MP3 player, distributing them, and getting them back.  Simply claiming fair educational use is no longer an acceptable excuse.  To do things legally and ethically a teacher often has to jump through a number of technical and monetary hurdles, but there are easier ways to accomplish the same final goal.  Read on to find out some suggested ideas of how to make listening work in your classroom.


Four Good Ways That Teachers Can Incorporate Listening Into Home Practice Assignments and One Really BAD One!

GOOD IDEA #1-  Develop a listening library where students can check out CD’s to listen to.

Pros-  Easiest to set up
Cons-  Hardest to police and easiest to lose or damage the media.  Costs more than other options.

Buying a bunch of CD’s and loaning them out to students to listen to sounds like a great idea but depending on the responsibility and age level of the students can also be the most difficult to manage.  While a high school ensemble might be able to handle this kind of lending situation few teachers would dare loan out original CD’s to middle school or elementary school students.  Making copies of the CD’s is not recommended, not only for the legal gray area that it falls into but also because you may be opening the door to saying “Do as I say, not as I do” the next time you have to have a conversation with your class about copyright issues.

GOOD IDEA #2-  Purchase individual songs via iTunes or Amazon and burn them legally to CD

Pros-  Easiest way to make individualized listening assignments for individual instruments.  Cheaper than buying full CD’s.
Cons-  Requires CD-R media.  There is a software enforced limit as to how many times a set of recordings can be burned to a CD in iTunes.  Still has the logistical issues of tracking who has what and making sure it comes back undamaged.

The beauty of buying ala carte for music is that it allows you to buy only what you need rather than buying a whole CD for one track and paying for the rest of the filler.  With this method you are legally allowed to burn a certain number of CD’s with the same playlist before iTunes says that you have reached your limit.  Of course there are rather simple ways around this, but there is also that spectre of legality looming over everything.  You may be legally entitled to burn multiple copies of a song you have purchased in this manner, but yet the looming eye of the RIAA may make some students raise a cocked eye to you wondering if you did or did not really pay for the tracks.  Plus, a student can easily rip the CD you loan them onto their computer since the audio on a CD is not copy protected.

GOOD IDEA #3-  Buy MP3 Players and load them with the music you have purchased legally

Pros-  Simple, elegant, and probably the easiest way to do things.  Depending on the brand and size MP3 players can be very cheap.  You do NOT have to buy iPods for this.  MP3 players have a much larger capacity than CD’s.  Copy protection can be in place to prevent students from copying the files to their computers at home.
Cons-  Same as for the lending library yet with solid state MP3 players damage or breakage is less likely.  More expensive to set up.  Difficult to do regular listening assignments with large groups of students unless a large number of players are purchased.

While it may seem like this would be worse than the CD loan arrangement in truth it is a lot easier.  Instead of worrying about the location of dozens of individual CD’s a teacher can limit the hassle to dealing with a half dozen or so MP3 players, each loaded with every piece of music that the ensemble might need to listen to.  If the tracks are labeled properly finding the appropriate songs to listen to is a lot easier than searching through tracks on a CD as well.

IDEA #4-  Find legal recordings and link to them from your band web site

Pros-  Totally free, easiest, and perhaps the best way to do it.  Music will be available on any web connected device including most smartphones.
Cons-  Student must have an Internet connection and computer at home to listen to the recordings.  Selection of legal public domain recordings is rather limited.  Many such sites provide only streaming music rather than direct download of the audio file.

By using the legally provided MP3 and streamed audio recordings available on music distributor and publisher web sites like,, and others, you can quickly put together a list of links to almost any piece of music that your ensemble is rehearsing as well as to many solo and ensemble pieces.  

For more professional and instrument specific recordings of well known compositions you may also be able to find some legal public domain recordings of specific songs.  These are recordings of mostly classical pieces that are out of copyright that an ensemble has recorded and made available to the public for free.  

As a service to the music education public I have also compiled a list of sites that provide such recordings and this list can be searched using the custom Google search box below.  Simply type in the title or composer of the piece you are looking for.  Using more general terms like “trumpet” or “soprano” will also return results but they will be much less accurate.

REALLY BAD IDEA #1-  Ripping your CD’s and putting the files on your band/choir/orchestra web site for people to listen to.

Pros-  None
Cons-  Totally illegal even if the files are behind a password protected login.

Putting any piece of music up on the web is asking for trouble.  Unless you have specific, documented permission from the publisher to host and distribute their copyrighted material in this way you are breaking the law. 

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