There are different levels of awareness. We can be aware of the overall quality (or lack of it) of something without being aware of the detail that makes it so. It’s the difference between hearing and listening. Hearing is taking in the whole, the gestalt; listening is focusing on the detail. The one is getting an overview; the other is making fine distinctions. The one seems passive; the other is active.
When asked about the intonation of a scale they have just played, students are usually aware of less than perfect intonation (they “heard”), but often they have missed the details - of which notes exactly were out of tune and how specifically. They weren’t really “listening”. As soon as they are asked to identify specifics, they start to really listen to the intonation, note by note, and become aware of where and how specifically they play out of tune (is it sharp or flat, and by how much?). Such focused, zoomed-in awareness usually affects a rapid cure.
Dorothy DeLay used to complain that many players don’t listen intently enough. They vaguely hear what is going on in their own playing, but they only intermittently listen to the detail. Or they might listen to the detail of some facets of their playing, but not to others. So for example, they might play with good intonation, but with one-dimensional sound, or with vibrato too randomly controlled. The ability to really zoom in with focused listening on the detail of all facets of their playing is what separates the masters from the rest.
In a discussion with students at the Aspen Music School and Festival, Itzhak Perlman said that he thought the greatest challenge for a performer is to really listen to themselves. Indeed, to really listen with attention that is both objective and focused on the moment to moment detail is not easy. It takes discipline and practice.
Simple failure to listen intently is one part of the problem. The solution is to understand the difference between different levels of awareness - between hearing and listening - and to develop the skill and discipline of focused listening.
The power of questions
For focusing one’s listening it helps to ask yourself about specifics. When you hear yourself playing out of tune, ask which notes, specifically, are out of tune? Then play it again with laser-sharp focus of attention to find out. Awareness of the details is essential for fixing it. In fact, very often problems seem to disappear by themselves when our awareness is sufficiently sharp. Another example: which notes, specifically, have no vibrato, or need a different kind? Truly listen this time, attentively, so that you can gather the required information for making a change.
Another part of the problem is the limits of our awareness at any given moment. Since our attention is limited, it is impossible to be aware of all the relevant details, and very difficult to be truly objective.
That is why we need tools for supplementing our awareness and changing our perspective. Not only students have such a need, but professionals also do. We have two resources: other people and technology. Your teachers, other professionals, your peers and friends can provide much useful feedback. They can help you become aware of details you missed, and give an objective impression that eluded you. So can your cell phone and other recording devices. To hear and see yourself objectively can be extremely sobering and enlightening. It is surprising how keen our judgment can be when we have a different perspective. Few experiences can be so instantly effective. Make use of it. Play for other people and record yourself regularly. It will expand your awareness and enhance your objectivity immensely.
Awareness does indeed cure. By not simply hearing, but listening actively to the detail, moment to moment; by asking ourselves questions to elicit specifics and make distinctions; and by making regular use of the feedback provided by others and by technology, we can significantly improve our playing.