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INTERVIEW | Pay Attention Toronto, Rob Kapilow Is Here To Teach Us How To Listen

By Robin Roger on October 28, 2018

How conductor, composer, commentator and author Rob Kapilow reveals the inner workings of music in a way that anyone can understand.

During his tenure as a visitor at the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto, Kapilow is presenting three of his extremely popular What Makes It Great concerts at Walter Hall, starting with the Schumann Piano Quintet performed by the Gryphon Trio and Friends on Monday night at 7:30.  In the first half of these concerts, Kapilow takes apart the featured piece of music so that the audience can hear the myriad of separate details that work together in it.  The musicians assist by playing small phrases in a variety of ways so that Kapilow can demonstrate how minor alterations can make a powerful difference for better or worse.  He also asks the audience to clap, sing, tap, sway, or otherwise feel the music in ways that space and time permits.  After all these details are highlighted the audience listens to the uninterrupted performance, with new awareness of the rhythms, repetitions, rests, harmonies, chords, melodies, and other complexities that are part of the masterpiece.

Kapilow describes this as “listening to music from the inside out”.  The phrase has a double meaning: not only can the audience notice more of what is inside the sounds of the score; it can also feel more of the music inside themselves, as the gratifying jolts and pulses of recognition register in their entire beings.

Even though Kapilow’s presentation of The Schumann Piano Quintet will be my first, I’ve already felt that transformative zap, after reading his first book, All You Have to Do is Listen and watching him teach a class on the Kreutzer Sonata to Doctoral students at the Faculty of Music.  It’s not only that he brought details to my attention that I might have overlooked on my own, he enlivened them, with his own intense physical and emotional reactions: leaping, stretching, gesturing and vocalizing to express how truly astonishing these vibrational sensations are.

Since my encounter with Kapilow, details of the Chopin Waltz I’m practicing these days — a dissonance here or an ornament there — are suddenly bowling me over as their amazing effect registers in me.  It’s not that I hadn’t noticed these details before, I had, but in a more detached and cerebral way.  The difference between listening to a piece of music before Kapilow and after (henceforth B.K. and A.K.)  Is like the difference between reading a recipe and finding some appeal in the list of spices and ingredients and then actually eating the prepared food and being transported by the tastes and after-tastes, the blending of flavours, the stimulation of your palette.

The Schumann Piano Quintet is a good example.  I’ve enjoyed it many times in many ways:  I recently grappled with the challenge of turning pages for this work heard several live performances of it, watched performances of it on YouTube and listened to recordings of it, but now I’m hungry to discover what Kapilow will make me aware of that so far has passed me by.

While it’s humbling to discover that I’ve missed something that was clearly audible in a composition, I’m not alone.  Kapilow himself told me of many such epiphanies in his own musical development, when I met up with him for a chat this week.  On the piano in Annalee Patipatanakoon’s studio at the Faculty of Music, he demonstrated the first twelve seconds of Mozart’s Sonata in A minor that caused fabled pedagogue Nadia Boulanger to hit him before declaring his performance “grotesque”.  Becoming  — painfully — aware of the nuances he’d missed in those twelve seconds inspired Kapilow’s lifelong resolution to notice everything there is to notice in music.

Kapilow’s description of the profound personal changes that resulted from these twelve seconds led us to a general discussion of the character-building potential of learning to really listen deeply to music, for amateurs and professionals alike.

For example, Kapilow points out that good listening requires patience because composers set up expectations in their audiences’ ears and then delay fulfilling them.  “How much patience they demand changes historically,” he told me. “Mozart and Haydn composed during an era of servants and masters so they would not strain their masters’ patience too much.  But Beethoven demanded that his audience wait longer than anybody had ever before — the social structure had changed by then.  Beethoven also widened the palette of emotions that are suitable for music; there’s room for it all, beautiful or ugly.  Listening to his music can expand your emotional range, and allow you to feel in ways you may have not felt before.”

“Music can also develop a willingness to persist in a state of confusion and accept ambiguity,” added Kapilow, while playing a few notes from Chopin’s “Mazurka No. 13” so I could hear the dissonance and irresolution that creates an unsettling but intriguing sense of uncertainty.  “A piece of music can be finished but not complete,” he pointed out.  “Chopin expects us to manage in a suspended state and just stay with the journey.”

We agreed on a variety of other positive traits that are fostered by listening to music including becoming more observant, perceptive, empathetic, and sensitive, to name only a few.  But to Kapilow, the most important outcome of learning to listen deeply to music is that it transfers to how to listen to people in every circumstance.

“The more I do this, the more I realize that listening is critical in everything, and the skill is needed by everyone.  Whatever I do, I’m listening extremely attentively.  When I’m performing I’m listening to myself and how I’m communicating with the audience, and I’m also listening to the audience’s response every single second.“  In other words, listening creates a “virtuous” circle: one person sends a message to another person, who, by sensitively receiving it and fully registering its impact, sends back a response that stimulates something new in the first person.  Change takes place on both sides.  It’s the ultimate win-win.

“I’m here to expand the listening ability of the University, ” he told me.  “I’ve told the dean I will meet anybody from any department who is interested, aside from coaching and teaching the students at the Faculty of Music.  I’ll be doing a program at Rotman, and any other department that approaches me during my three visits.”  Kapilow will be returning in February to give a What Makes It Great concert on the music of Duke Ellington with the University of Toronto Jazz Orchestra and in March when the U of T Strings will perform Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings.

Robin Roger

Robin Roger

Robin Roger is a psychotherapist who emphasizes the importance of learning new things as part of developing and maintaining mental wellness.She is a committed amateur pianist as well as a writer, book reviewer and frequent contributor to Ludwig Van.
Robin Roger
Robin Roger

Robin Roger

Robin Roger is a psychotherapist who emphasizes the importance of learning new things as part of developing and maintaining mental wellness.She is a committed amateur pianist as well as a writer, book reviewer and frequent contributor to Ludwig Van.
Robin Roger
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INTERVIEW | Pay Attention Toronto, Rob Kapilow Is Here To Teach Us How To Listen

By Robin Roger on October 28, 2018

How conductor, composer, commentator and author Rob Kapilow reveals the inner workings of music in a way that anyone can understand.
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Share this article

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