Listening Lessons from a String Sextet

After attending a masterful performance by six members of the University of Colorado music faculty, I observed many lessons on listening that we can apply at work, home, school—anywhere that depends upon our ability to perform at our best.

Here are seven transferable musical lessons I learned:

Know the score:
Musicians: Each musician practiced over and over until they knew every note, sign, and sound. They knew the piece cold so they could concentrate on playing together.

Application for the workplace: When we understand the context, people, expectations and our own knowledge, we can concentrate on what’s being said.

Allow for different voices:
Musicians: There were six musicians with a range of experience, techniques and interpretations of the music as well as three different instruments with individual sounds. At various times one of the instruments might be most prominently featured, while the others play to support that stronger voice.

Application for the workplace: There are usually several people in an interchange, each with something to say. Turn-taking is crucial to allow for individuals to share a point-of-view or data that is vital to others. No one person should monopolize an interaction, which will drown out others who might have highly valuable information to add.

Follow different leaders:
Musicians: My friend Lina Bahn, first violinist, explained that leadership among musicians in this sextet is interchangeable as there’s no conductor, First violinist’s part is usually more demanding than second violin, but all are equally important. Responsibility is shared by everyone and determined by the music.

Application for the workplace: Sharing the platform is not always easy, especially when we have something we deem important to say. However, understanding that leadership is not a positional right, but an earned platform, allows for the problem or the situation to guide what is said and by whom.

Connect with one another:
Musicians: There’s a lot of body language being “spoken” among the members of the sextet. Eyebrows raise, heads nod, bodies sway, and legs move, all actions that encourage fellow-musicians to engage and stay focused. The audience is part of the performance, too. The sextet is energized by applause and appropriate body language (though humming along is not appreciated), so the audience and the performers feed off one another.

Application for the workplace: We learn to read one another’s signals when we’re face-to-face. Emailing will not relay all information that is required to collaborate and make fully understood decisions. Our listening habits are developed in our brain, body and emotions that emerge during interactions. Strive to establish a co-created interaction where it’s a give-and-give (not take) among all communicators.

Acknowledge strengths:
Musicians: Because I was watching so closely and at an ideal vantage point, I noticed that when one musician played a particularly demanding passage, a couple of the others smiled slightly or leaned their body and instrument towards their colleague in recognition of work done well. When I asked Lina about that she said acknowledgement of a musical idea is highly valued and greatly appreciated. The musicians can’t miss a beat, so the interaction has to be subtle and brief.

Application for the workplace: Even the smallest recognition makes a difference to people. Listening to someone and saying, “Thanks for making your points in a clear manner” or “I appreciate that you had to learn new software in record time” or even a smile, will probably make that person’s day and will increase the likelihood that behavior will be repeated.

Honor silence:
Musicians: A brief period of silence with its own place and quality, is as important as sound. The musicians, briefly at rest, are poised, expectant and ready to resume their “conversation.”

Application for the workplace: Moments of silence give people the chance to think and not feel obligated to fill the space with unnecessary sound. The gift of silence is golden.

Focus on the present:
Musicians: More than anything, the success of the sextet comes from their ability to stay focused. But on what—the score, one another, their instruments, the audience, physical comfort? Yes to all, but without losing concentration. They are on alert for what matters, split second by split second.

Application for the workplace: Giving full attention to a single task or person, unequivocally increases the likelihood that the fewer mistakes will be made. When we let go of the myth that we can multi-task and replace it with the knowledge that we can single-task, our listening proficiency will increase.

Whatever the context, consider how you can behave with the same degree of commitment, focus and respect as a sextet whose every performance relies on well-honed listening mastery.