One of the best compliments you can give a musician is to say he or she has “big ears.” This means an ability to hear music at a deep level.

Singing is a skill that requires so much attention that the ability to focus on the music around us is often diminished.

In this episode, John gives some simple exercises to increase your focus and ability to listen on a deeper level.

Episode Transcript

Episode 74 – Training Your Ears

Hey there, this is John Henny welcome back to another edition of the intelligent vocalist I do so appreciate you spending your precious time with me. I’m pretty excited today, I’m usually kinda up and peppy when I do these podcasts but, today I’m kind of bouncing in my seat because I have my new book currently being read by a group of test readers who are coming through to catch any remaining typos. Give me any comments, make sure that the flow of information makes sense and very, very soon I will be releasing my book to all of you and I really, really can’t wait. The title of the book is drum roll rrrrrrrrrr Teaching Contemporary Singing. So the book is written for those of you who are thinking about teaching voice, maybe you’ve started teaching some friends and you’d like to look and see how to do this. 

And I’ve taken my teacher training and I’ve put them into book form and also, if you are maybe already teaching voice but, just want some more insight into teaching contemporary styles as opposed to a classical singing. So that’s who the book is aimed at and even if you’re a singer there are insights in there for you as well as to how the voice works at etc. So the book will be available on Amazon for the Kindle, also a print version and I am planning on doing an audio book version as well. So the whole process has been a learning experience that I’m really, really enjoying and it’s kind of amazing for all my early morning sitting by myself typing away before the sun comes up, cause that’s when I do my best writing and it’s just all coming together and I’m just really, really excited. 

So it will be coming your way soon. I will be announcing it here. If you want to be among the first to know and I will certainly let you know, there will be opportunities to get the voice, get the book, on sale rather cheaply. join my email list. Go to J-O-H-N-H-E-N-N-Y and you’ll see the little box there to get on the email list. Sign up for that because my email list is always the first to know when things like that are going on. Alright, today I want to talk about ear training. Training your ears but not in the typical way of learning to recognize intervals and chord sequences, etc. That is very, very important. But I want to talk about really learning to listen and to listen deeply so that you can respond as a singer to the music around you on a deeper level. 

Musicians are very good at this, producers are very good at this. I remember when I was playing drums and I played drums quite a lot. I actually made my living as a drummer. My late teens through my 20’s as I started teaching, segwaying into teaching but I did a lot of drumming and as I became a more and more experienced musician my head, my brain, my focus became less and less about what I was playing and more and more about what others were playing around me and I was responding and communicating to the music around me rather than being focused on myself. Now, singing is really, really tricky because I think other instruments it’s a bit easier to go on autopilot than it is on singing. Singing tends to take more of your brain bandwidth than other instruments. 

if you want to argue with me about that, that’s fine but that’s my experience and when people play in sync with you, you’re playing guitar and singing and I used to play drums and sing. The drums would need to be on autopilot because I would need to focus on the balance for the notes and the intonation because it’s not a fixed instrument. I mean I’m controlling these muscles. I really don’t have conscious awareness of getting the correct pitch and text trying to remember the words, all of these. So the act of singing it’s incredibly easy to just become focused on yourself and other musicians will often tell you that music, that singers are always focused on themselves. But putting lead singer disease aside the bandwidth again, is pretty wide for singing. So we have to develop the ability to not only control and monitor all of the complex balances of singing and the communication, but to also get our awareness net wider. 

We need to cast a very, very wide net because ultimately we are the ones that the audience is focusing on. When people listen to music, they will listen to the voice first and then everything else kind of blurs into this cloud that accompanies the singer and when you add on the fact that we are often when we’re performing the visual focus and we have to perform and connect with the audience on that way, there is a lot going on and your attention and your focus is one of your absolute primary tools that you need to improve. So I want to talk about a few ways that you can begin to improve your attention and your focus and these are things that I do, and what’s great is you can do them wherever you are. You don’t need to be listening to music. And I’ll tell you what I mean, we’ve all had or continue to have the experience of standing in line at the store. 

And it is often a horribly boring thing. None of us enjoys it. We all tend to just take out our phones and just start allowing our brains to jump around on the stimulus addicting nonsense that’s out there and the clickbait and some of it’s legit and we’ve got to do work. But most of it, we’re just wasting time and I’m going to tell you, I think that this time can be better spent and what you should do the next time you find yourself waiting in line is to just listen. I want you to cast this listening net as wide as you can. I want you to see how many sounds you can hear at once. And I mean everything from conversations around you to the clicking of cash registers to the background in music and just absorb and see if you can just allow all of that to be in your awareness at once. 

And if certain things start jumping out at you don’t fight it, just allow whatever’s going to pop up at you to pop up and then see as that fades away, if you can go back to listening to the totality and then I want you to pick a single sound and I want you to filter that out of all the other ambient noise that’s going on and see if you can just track that sound and allow that to be your primary focus. Then go back to listening to everything again and then pick another sound and pull that out of the murky blend of everything around you and focus on that and the idea is you’re training your focus to be wide and narrow and that’s what you’re going to want to do as a singer is it certain times you’re going to cast your awareness wide and you’re going to hear the totality of everything that’s going on musically. 

Then at times you may need to just focus down and just listen to one specific instrument or just one specific element that’s occurring in the song depending on what it is that you need to do. Maybe you’re entering a tricky part and you’re waiting for a specific cue or you know the guitar is going to play a specific riff that’s going to be your entryway to coming back in or maybe you really, really want to lock in with the drummer because the song is pretty syncopated and you don’t want to be out of sync with the rest of the musicians and then you maybe go back to your wider focus and you’re bringing everything in and that’s going to allow you to choose, how you’re going to express yourself emotionally. The texture of the voice, the shaping of the vowel. If you are going to be crescendoing or pulling back all of these things how long you hold the note?

It’s vitally, vitally important that you be completely immersed in everything around you and not just locked into yourself, not just having this single focus and yeah, there will be times when a note comes up where you’re going to have to then pull back in your focus towards yourself because you know that this note is tricky and you’re gonna have to make sure that the vowels formed right and you don’t over muscle and you don’t push too much air. Whatever it is you need to do and that you’ve worked on, you’re available for that and then be able to instantly go back into the wider net and the other thing that you want to learn to do is as you are practicing this focus, you stop other thoughts from coming in and you can’t stop thoughts. You almost don’t control them in that sense. 

There was a great experiment, somebody was doing. I was listening to a lecture and the person said, Oh I’ll do it with you. And the person said okay, I want you to think of a movie, any movie that you’ve seen, go ahead now think of another movie. Now think of another movie. I would bet you the movies that came to mind were not what you would have expected. They may have been your favorite films, but they may not have been your favorite films. When I did this, I was remembering just these bizarre, obscure movies that I hadn’t thought about in years, even movies that I didn’t necessarily like and it’s because as thoughts spring upon us, we don’t have the capacity to think the thought before we think it. That’s impossible, right? So thoughts just present themselves to us and that becomes a problem in performance if random thoughts start to come in and distract us from the job of communicating emotionally, communicating with the other musicians and communicating with the audience. 

So in being able to do that by directing your focus, you stand a better chance of just keeping these random thoughts out of the way. I mean anybody who’s being honest, who has performed, there are times when you’re performing where maybe you start thinking, Hmm, what am I going to have for dinner tonight? Or oh man, I forgot to put air in my tire. I mean these random thoughts are going to come in and those don’t help us. Those don’t serve us or it may start the self critic. Boy, I’m not sounding very good tonight. This kind of sucks. I mean the self critic, and I’ve talked about this before, but it’s your own inner dialogue is probably the rudest, most vicious horrible person you will ever meet. I mean you say things to yourself that no one else would say. 

People say far, far less about you and you’re furious and yet you say these things to yourself and it’s just all part of your inner dialogue and so we can put this inner dialogue at bay by learning to focus our attention and then you can take this to music. The next time you are listening to music, I want you to just pick a song, one song and listen through it one time with a wide focus. Try and hear everything all at once. The bass, the keyboard pads, any percussion guitar, the vocals, background vocals. In modern production there are so many layers and layers of sounds and as you begin to cast your awareness and see what new sounds you can pick up that maybe you haven’t noticed before and then listen to it again and focus only on the bass track to the exclusion of everything else. 

Just let that stand up and relief to you and follow that bass track. Let the bass come to you and follow that from the beginning of the song to the end of the song and then choose the drums and then finally choose the lead vocal and let that lead vocal and I mean every part of that lead vocal. The texture of the voice, the way that the consonants are pronounced, whether they’re allowed to be a little bit softer or whether the singer punches them a little bit harder. How long they hold out notes? If they have vibrato, how they approach high notes? How are they shading the vowels and really, really hear as many details and nuances as possible? And then try the backup vocals. See if you can just pick out one voice within that maybe the high part or the low part. 

And if you really, really good find the middle part and work the song that way. See how precisely you can direct your focus and then listen to the song again with a wide focus and hear everything again and see if it’s not a little bit deeper. And then when you go to sing a song, if you’re using a backing track, a karaoke track, really hear the track, listen to the track more than you listen to yourself. Cast that wide focus and allow yourself to respond to what it is that you’re hearing and get in a communication and a dialogue. And if you’re in the position to work with live musicians, oh, that’s even more beautiful because then you can really begin reacting in the moment, which is one of the true magic experiences of singing and of making music but allow the other musicians to occupy more of your focus than yourself. 

See if you can begin to diminish to the point where you are really just experiencing what everyone else is doing and you’re reacting to what they’re doing in real time and with human empathy and human connection that that’s really where you want to be. You almost can’t be a good enough listener. You can’t connect deeply enough. There’s always more earth to be dug up. There’s always more riches there and the more that you can get into just this Zen state of being completely in the musical moment and experiencing that music, reacting to that music, expressing yourself, giving of that energy, and then accepting the energy back, you’re going to get into some beautiful, beautiful stuff. Even if you don’t sing perfectly, even if you’re a little pitchy here and there, no one will care because now you’re creating magic and that’s why people listen to magic. 

People turn on music, people drive and show up to shows because they want to feel some kind of way. They’re not coming to listen to you sing perfectly. I mean there are areas of music where that’s more important than there are listeners who kind of listen to music in that way. But most of us just want an emotional connection. We want to be pulled out of our own internal dialogue to be pulled into the moment and to be part of that expression and that connection that you are finding. And, and it becomes this communal experience. So go try those experiments with your focus and if at first you have trouble picking something out and following it and thoughts begin to intrude, that’s okay. It’s really the awareness of starting to do this. It’s much like a beginning to meditate. 

It’s not that the thoughts won’t come, it’s just that when the distractions come and you catch yourself and you bring yourself back, that’s like one rep on the dumbbell. You’re building this muscle, you’re building this focus muscle. So go out, experiment with that. Let me know how that goes.

Hey, I want to thank you again for spending this time with me. If you want to find out more about me again, my website is You can always email me [email protected]. I do try and answer all of my emails personally. If you are interested in studying with me, you can reach out to [email protected]. I have been told by my front desk person there are two slots, available for my monthly commitment challenge. As of right now, this will be going out. It’s February, 2019. This is probably going out, I think on the 19th of February. So as of the 19th of February, there are two slots open. If you commit to studying with me on a weekly regular basis, I will offer you a pretty significant discount in my rates. I put together put aside a small portion of my teaching schedule to do this and I’m just really enjoying working with people who are able to commit and focus and work towards sustained vocal improvement. So until next time to a better singing. Thank you so much. Bye bye.