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SoundCheck: The Art of Listening – Exercising the Earbone

Jesse Tyler

This month’s episode of SoundCheck features the practice of exercising the earbone. Musician Calvin Todd explains.

“Kind of viewing the act of listening as a muscle that the body has, or that the mind has, or bone, and exercising that. Making it stronger or weaker and how we use that,” he said.

I told Todd that I had never heard the term earbone before when it comes to listening and playing music.

“I might have just made up, even, at the time, trying to put a word on what I wanted to – you know, thinking about listening and exercising yourself as a listener. So, I think maybe that was just the way it came out of my mouth at the time trying to describe that,” said Todd.

And it’s not a surprise that the term works so well – our ears actually do contain three little bones that work together to allow us to hear.

Having played in rock ‘n’ roll bands and country bands to performing solo or as a duo, Todd has found himself listening closely to those he’s performing with. This act of listening helps him be on the same page as the other musicians.

“So, a big thing I think for country is trading off lead instruments and using dynamics,” said Todd. “So, if you’re just listening to yourself play, I feel like you won’t have as much to contribute or you won’t know when you don’t need to contribute as much. In a setting where you’re playing with other people I think listening to the who band and what other people are playing is a huge ordeal, whether it’s having fun and trying to copy the lick that your bud just played on guitar, or whether it’s waiting your turn for a solo, or backing a singer exceptionally well. I think that you really have to focus and that’s where the sound coming in your ear meets the brain and the earbone’s between there.”

Because this is radio and we love a good visual description, I asked him what this particular kind of listening looks like.

“It could be verbal. That’s one thing I love about old country music, you can hear so much excitement, you know. Someone would call out, ‘And now we got Buddy Emmons on the steel guitar!’ But, when you get below that, a lot of eyes. A lot of eyes. Looking at other people and again, just listening. If you can tell that someone is playing really loud or someone is playing really quite or really busy somewhere, you can adjust your playing to fit overall, to what everyone’s doing together. So, it kind of happens naturally. But, I think there’s a lot of communication, whether it’s passing the solo around gesturally or with your eyes.”

Exercising the earbone isn’t just for playing live music shows – it works in band rehearsals and when playing solo. The pandemic has helped with the solo aspect.

“So, for a while there, it was like, ‘Oh, I can really hone in and listen to what I’m doing here. How can I play this rhythm better while I’m singing?’ And so, listening even to yourself is super important and I think that’s how you can become a better musician,” said Todd.

Be sure to tune into Calvin Todd’s performance on Studio Live Friday, April 9, 2021 at noon on KSMU.

Jessica Gray Balisle, a Springfield native, grew up listening to KSMU. When she's not wrangling operations and compliance issues, she co-hosts live music show Studio Live and produces arts and culture stories. Jessica plays bass in local band the Hook Knives. She and her husband Todd live with their two cats, Ellie and Jean-Ralphio, and way too many house plants.
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