Ears, head and heart:  they all play their part in listening to music

By October 3, 2016Commentary


After a relatively quiet summer – at least in terms of attending concerts – I find myself back in full swing.  We’ve had two Schubert Club concerts already and look forward to welcoming Renee Fleming and Hartmut Höll for their recital this coming Wednesday.  But I’ve also recently been to several other concerts locally, and I’ve been on the road to hear various artists and ensembles during August and September.

Especially when I go to hear a musician or ensemble we’re considering for a future Schubert Club invitation, I go with heightened senses.  I’m listening, I’m trying to figure out if this is music-making which would fit on one of our series, in short I’m in full judgment mode. 

When such performances begin, I’ve grown conscious that I’m usually listening very analytically.  How do I rate the technique, what about tempos, dynamics, phrasing, intonation, sound qualities, overall shape, stylistic choices appropriate to the music.  Does it all add up to something interesting?  It’s highly subjective of course, but these are all things that help us all assess a performance, and consequently help me to determine whether artist A or ensemble B are high on our wish list or not.

But I’ve noticed that on many occasions, after I’ve spent a few minutes organizing those thoughts, the really strong performers cause me to forget about analysis.  Instead, of thinking about the language, it’s what the musicians are communicating which takes over.  It doesn’t matter how they’re doing it, it’s the music they are making which speaks directly to the heart.   It might be uplifting and comforting, it might be unsettling, but it’s at that point that I’m won over.  After all, having a command of any language is only useful if you have something meaningful to say.  It’s not that the analysis isn’t worthwhile, but at some level we all respond to music and musicians at a gut level.  It can be difficult to speak or write articulately about how we respond to music and why a performance was good or not.  Sometimes we can only express a reaction in terms of “it was great.”

Have you attended any performances lately that have spoken to your heart? Please share with us.


Barry Kempton is Artistic & Executive Director of The Schubert Club. Originally from the UK, his previous management experience spans 25 years at the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and City of London Sinfonia.
More posts by Barry Kempton

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