Listen As You Play

When you’re a beginning music student, it’s hard enough to learn the instrument, let alone play with other people.

I remember when my first violin teacher would play piano accompaniment to whatever beginner piece I was learning, I struggled to hear what she was doing and what I was doing.

And when I first played in youth orchestras, I couldn’t understand how everyone seemed to be able to read music for the first time and listen to each other while correctly playing their own part.

But like anything in life, these are things that you can practice…

Musical awareness practice with drones

I want to share a simple practice you can do to expand your musical awareness. It will allow you to hear yourself along with other voices. We’ll use drone tracks to flex our listening muscles.

  • Start by just listening to this D drone track.
  • Next, play an open D string.
  • Key step: Shift your awareness from the sound of your own fiddle to that of the drone.
  • Continue to shift back and forth between listening to yourself and listening to the drone.
  • After doing that a bit, see if you can hear both at the same time.
    • Don’t worry if you can’t. Just keep alternating between the drone and yourself, keeping a good tone.

If you simply practice shifting your consciousness from the drone to your own playing, the two will naturally sync up in time.

Once you can do this, simply extend the practice to more complex things: intervals (two notes), scales, tune phrases, whole tunes.

Even the most advanced players can benefit from this practice.

In fact, advanced players may already be doing this without realizing it.

Once you can do this with a single note, try to do it with intervals (two-note patterns), scales, tune phrases and whole tunes.

Musical awareness practice with play-along tracks

You can also do the same basic practice with a play-along track. Alternate between listening to yourself and the play-along track.

Let’s try it with the first quarter of Blackest Crow.


Start by just listening. Then just play it. Then try to shift your attention from the play-along track to your own playing. Keep alternating. Once you can do that, try it on the rest of the tune.

Playing with others, listening broadly…

If you get the hang of this, it will be a little easier to play with others.

You’ll be able to hear what the banjo, guitar, accordion or bass is doing as you play.

The practice also makes listening to music fun. As you listen to a recording or performance, shift your attention to different instruments. Then see if you can pull back and hear it all as a whole.

What’s truly powerful about this practice is how it can carry over to the rest of your life. Can you listen to what others are saying while you also hear your response? Can you close your eyes and shift between hearing “external” sounds (like street noise) and “internal” sounds (like ear-ringing, internal dialog)?

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5 responses to “Listen As You Play

  1. I play fine when I’m alone, but when I get to a jam my brain goes blank. I’m going to try playing along with tracks and CDs to see if that will help. I’ve really been struggling with this for awhile now, so having someone else who’s experiencing it, too, gives me hope. thank you!

      1. I have same problem. I find that trying to mentally shut out one or two people before I’m due to play and concentrating on my music- yes, I use music, – I finger over it slowly before I have to play. It seems to help me tremendously. I’m elderly- that’s being kind to myself- and have only been playing a little over two years, so I have given up on trying to memorize the music. It comes when it comes. I’m in it for pleasure and socialization. Anyway, if you memorize, do it mentally a few times through before you have to play it openly. I hope this helps. It’s not the end all for me but certainly has been beneficial.

  2. Jason,

    Wanted to say this post is right on. I find it very difficult to listen and follow along with either a video of a guitar playing a fiddle tune or a fellow jammer at a bluegrass jam. It is great practice to search for guitar or mandolin videos of tunes and then try to play along; but oh so hard to listen and follow. Luckily, i find that some of these videos have a little “gear” speed control in then bottom margin, and thus I can slow the video till I can “catch up”