Use these 3 tips to begin improving your ear

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In this episode, you will learn how to begin improving your ear.


Learn Flute Podcast 104

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Podcast Transcript

I cannot wait for you to use these 3 tips to begin improving your ear today! Having a good time with your flute and with music in general means we need to have some good listening skills, folks. Are you ready to make a list? Great! Let’s get going.

Welcome to this new podcast. I’m Rebecca Fuller, your host and all-things-flute expert. My site and members community can be found over at Learn Flute where there are hundreds and thousands of flute friends bustling around the members area, learning, and celebrating success on the instrument flute- And you can too.

We’re going to discuss 3 tips to begin improving your ear today because without developing our musical ear, we will always sound pretty stiff and mechanical.

So, one of the most common questions I get from people who are learning to play the flute is “when am I going to start sounding really fluid on my songs?”

I always get really excited when someone asks this because this means that they are really striving for something. They’re on a journey, and they know where they want to end up… just don’t want it to take their entire lives to get there. Haha, you know what I mean. You want to play a song you enjoy, and you want to sound and feel really good on it. Well, no worries, I have your back.

Memorizing a few fingerings and learning how to blow into a flute is not really how you make good music..

Well, that is how you create sounds of varying pitches, but it’s definitely not the end result to something that sounds tasteful or ‘musical’ is the word. 

So, how can we take these notes and learn how to place them more carefully in order to create a more musical sound?

Well, this is a really great question and definitely what every musician is striving for.

The first thing when recognizing that music is more than just notes is to start listening to others play and placing our reticular activator on certain skills that are being used.


Wait. What’s a reticular activator? 

Well okay, a little human psychology or physiology lesson first here. The reticular activator is a piece of your brain that helps you with ‘attention’.  It’s a piece of the brain that starts close to the top of the spinal column and ends upwards around maybe two inches higher. It’s small – like the diameter of a pen or a pencil. 

All of your senses (except smell) are wired directly to this bundle of neurons right here in this area.

This reticular activator acts like a security guard or something that is standing guard making sure you only have what you can handle as far as immediate available information.

Basically, the reticular activating system plays a giant role in the sensory information that you can perceive at any time, at any moment of the day. It helps you ‘notice things’ that might have been right there in front of you all along that you may have not really paid attention to before, but there they are now, now that you pay attention to them.

So why do we need to know about this reticular activator? Well, our senses are receiving so much information at all times that we can’t possibly pay attention to everything at the same time. Boy, I WISH I could though. I’d love to be a master multi-tasker, I would just get so many things done. 

Our skin has a million nerve cells that detect pressure, temperature, texture, location, etc. and our eyes capture more than three hundred megapixels of information visually every single second.

Apparently our mind just doesn’t know what to do with all of this so our reticular activator steps in to basically whittle down the information stack to just what is relevant at that very moment.

It’s responsible for motivation and goal setting, and things that we want to keep forward in our minds.. All of which are great and imperative to striving musicians like us.

So how can we decide what gets through the reticular activator gates?

Basically this is a fancy way of saying what we put our attention on is what we tend to see.

Once we realize we need to look past the actual notes (which is just the first step to a melody anyway) we see a whole world of details in music.

We can learn to put our attention on these details right from the very beginning of learning an instrument. Some people worry and feel that playing songs with simple rhythms and melodies is like staying in the baby lane. Well today I have news for you: Number two, as we use these 3 tips to begin improving your ear, is to take those beginner songs and play them forever while solidifying new skills.

Here’s an example: you’ve heard the song Twinkle Twinkle Little Star before, right? Played on a beginner level, it might sound like this:  (demo)

Which is really pretty great for someone who is learning and focusing on certain skills like fingerings and surviving breathing on the flute. It’s not easy to get the hang of the G F E D C sequence on a flute at first either. 

But what happens to this same combination of notes as one progresses through the levels?

Should we just stop practicing them?

Of course not, that would be silly. There are thousands, millions, if not billions of tunes and melodies that include the combo of these exact notes. And this is just mentioning the fingering and getting the correct pitch out while blowing. I haven’t even considered working on good tone on individual notes by varying the shape, the size, and direction of the air stream, as well as the velocity or strength of the air. 

And this is just a start.

Duration – or how long each note should be held is also a factor to consider.

As a flutist progresses through the ranks of learning, there’s kind of an evolution that happens.

From this – what we just heard, our beginner twinkle little star: (demo beginner twinkles)

To this: (intermediate twinkles)

And finally to this: (advanced twinkles)

And all stages are beautiful and to be congratulated. 

So, just knowing that there is an advancement pattern that I, Rebecca Fuller, your teacher here at Learn Flute Online is taking you through is a very good way to improve your flute ear.

You’ll be more apt to perk up as I show you new exercises that in turn lead to more advanced skills and can be performed in all situations and levels. I also encourage you to keep the same simple songs on your daily repertoire list for a year or two as you make these skills solid as a rock.

Since I learned how to play a dotted quarter note into an eighth note (a long time ago), I haven’t stopped using and progressing that skill just because I learned it back when I was working on Mary Had a Little Lamb. 

Here’s an example of when I was brand new on this skill: (demo)

And how I might play it now as a more advanced player: (demo)

So, in order for you to take this tip of using your higher level skills on simple music to heart, you’ll want to listen to good players demonstrating skill. And it’s best done on music that is slower and slightly spaced out in order for you to be able to focus your attention onto what’s actually happening.

Here’s a quick list of what you can listen for:

  • The first would be the attack of a note. That means the very beginnings of each note. Are they punched hard, or are they so soft that you’re wondering if the tongue was even used at all?
  • Another would be the duration of notes – depending on the style of the piece, notes can be held anywhere within the allotted space of the type of note. For example: using this tempo on my metronome,  I can play quarter notes like this, (staccato), like this (smooth and long), or even like this (jazz doo daht). 

Those were all quarter notes, and there’s just some education that needs to happen and the more listening you do to good music, and the more education you get (hopefully from me here!) the better you’ll pick up on these nuances in playing styles.

  • Now another thing to listen for in someone’s playing is how they flow in their phrases. This is something that really improves as you become a more advanced player, and your breath control really will grow. Here’s an example of a passage of music being played as a beginner and then again as a more advanced player. Same notes. Same rhythms. Alright, here’s take one: (demo) And here’s take two as a more advanced player: (demo)


I’m so glad you’re here learning today! Should we go through one more tip? Great! I was hoping you would be up for it.

The third thing I wanted to show you today, as you use these 3 tips to begin improving your ear, is: 

Learn to dissect what you are hearing.

Improving your ear

Haha, every time I use the word dissect, I remember the poor frog from my 9th grade biology class. Not my favorite day.

But anyway, in music this means we’re going to listen to a passage or selection of music and use our minds to separate what is happening (our reticular activator) until we can more easily hear the pieces and the parts of the full sound.

Okay, here’s an example: Here at Learn Flute Online, we took a fun month recently and all learned a beautiful ensemble I put together in observance of the Olympic games. Well, once all of the parts were put together it sounded very full and very exciting – I know a lot of people were wondering what all was happening, at the same time!

Here’s a passage from it – and I would like you right now to listen comfortably- as if to take in the whole sound at once. (demo)

Now, this time I want you to listen for the accompaniment only. There’s a piano playing. Can you hear it? And did you hear it the first time? You may not have. But listen carefully, put your ear on the accompaniment, on the piano, and just listen to what it’s doing. So it’s basically like putting the other instruments aside, while you only pay attention to the piano accompaniment.  (demo)

Now, I want you to listen for the highest flute in pitch. It’ll sound like the main melody. I want to see if you can hear it above all of the other instruments, all that other noise that’s happening. Only put your focus on the highest sounding flute.    (demo)

Next I want you to listen for the bass flute. Yep, did you know there was a bass flute playing? It’s the lowest sound, the lowest flute sound that you hear. It’s kind of a counter melody, to the main melody that’s happening, so I want you to listen for it this time and see if you can hear it. You may have to listen to this several times, but you can do it, listen for that bass part.  (demo)

Once you can start to train your ears and mind to pick out the different parts to a full ensemble of instruments, you’re already on your way to even more greatness because this is what it takes to start using your reticular activator to put your attention onto what’s happening in music…. Besides the notes of course, right? We determined that right at the beginning of this episode. Listen to the same pieces over and over again as you pick out the different pieces, parts and nuances of what’s happening.

Now this is a lot of fun to me, in fact:

I’m going to give you a challenge in this podcast this week. Yep, I’m challenging you right now. I want you to take a few moments each day this week. Yep, 5 to 7 times this week and create yourself a listening exercise from music. Any type of music, it can be very random if you want. Open your favorite music playing app or station and just sit there and listen. 

I want you to dissect what you hear. 

Take a moment to use what we learned in this podcast: What else is happening besides the notes? Are the notes short and staccato-y or are they smooth and drawn out within the beat?

What other instruments are playing besides the melody? What’s happening down in the bass line? Is there even a bass line? Is there any percussion  playing? Any drums? Does it change during the selections that you chose?

Pick it apart and imagine a room full of happy musicians. How many are in the room? And what instruments are they playing exactly? I think you’d be surprised at how many layers are actually laid into a popular piece of music on the radio. It’s really quite amazing, and it’s really fun to listen to. And it’s great to use this exercise and listen like this. 


So, go ahead and get lost in this exercise. You’re going to emerge on the other side a much better musician no matter how much training you’ve had on your flute so far. This is a good skill to learn, you’ve got this. 

Well, it sure has been a fun time with you today here learning about how to become a better musician and of course, have more fun learning how to play the flute here at Learn Flute Online. I’ve spent the past 10 years creating content for you to enjoy.

In fact, did you know that as a member of the Learn Flute Online levels you have 24/7 access to the learning modules. This means you have learning videos (created by me, for you), you have pdf sheet music – it’s included, and you also have the mp3 audios to accompany you and demonstrate even more the one-at-a-time skills you need to process, practice, and perfect as you move along through the sequence here. It works! 

Hundreds and thousands of striving flute students can demonstrate and attest to it. In fact, I’m going to play you out with the audio from one of our recent flute choir recordings we made here – from real students and members here at Learn Flute Online. You’re going to love it! It’s part of what I used as the demonstration during this podcast anyway, so now you can hear a little more.

So, come on in and join us here in the Gold Level or in the Intermediate/ Advanced levels – we are your best cheering section… and remember that you get to learn from the comfort of your own home, at your own pace, and on your own schedule. You can’t beat that! Also, go ahead and use these 3 tips to begin improving your ear today.

We’ll see you again soon! This is Rebecca Fuller, Over and Out!

Thank you for Tuning In!

Please consider subscribing and taking a minute to leave a review and rating for the podcast on iTunes.

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about how to fine tune your mind, in order to begin improving your ear.  Join us for the next episode!

Have any questions? Comment below and I will help you out.

Rebecca FullerRebecca Fuller
Get Flutie with us! Learn and enjoy every musical minute.

1 thought on “Use these 3 tips to begin improving your ear”

  1. Hi Rebecca,
    I really enjoyed this podcast today, b/c this was one of my 2021 goals….to improve my ability to listen intently, and identify different nuances in music. I’m committing to listening daily ( as you threw out the challenge) and since the beginning of the year, I’ve listened almost daily to the local PBS CLASSICAL station. Many days, I hear Orpheus, or other pieces we’ve already learned in LFO modules. I continue to struggle to be consistent in tone, however, I have given up the pursuit of perfection, and focus on the commitment to improve. Thanks for always cheering me on. I really appreciate the Flute Family in FB , everyone is so encouraging. Thanks for organizing the recitals, and the flute choir ensembles…..I enjoy ALL of it! Have a great August, chat again soon!

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