When we’re unprepared for something, it often goes by without us even realizing what’s happening. As a result, one of the most important new habits to build as we work with dictation is setting an intention before each hearing.
What does it mean to set an intention? Basically, we make a plan and prepare to carry it out. That intention will often be something like, “I’m going to focus on memorizing the second half of the melody,” or “I’m going to double-check the rhythm in the second measure.”
What are the benefits of setting an intention? Perhaps most obviously, it helps us not get distracted by other elements, making sure we’re on track while taking dictation. But in addition, it’s a really good habit to have in general. Ensembles are typically most productive if they set an intention for each time through a piece. Jazz musicians typically improvise with more direction if they set an intention for each solo. Music theorists typically come up with better analyses if they set an intention for what they are looking/listening for. These are different kinds of intentions, but all rely on the habit of going into an experience prepared.
We also encourage you to use your attentional focus skills that we worked on in the relevant chapter of this text. You may wish to review those as we dive into dictation.
That said, attentional focus is a limited capacity, and its exact capacity varies among people. It is also affected, like memory, by stress, tiredness, and anxiety. If you find that you are consistently having trouble focusing on dictations, it is worth discussing what to do with your instructor. You may not be able to build the desired skills if you’re not able to focus, so your instructor may decide it’s more valuable for you to focus on transcription, work with a tutor or in a different environment, or something else. This doesn’t reflect poorly on you as a person; dictation can be beneficial but can also require an unrealistically high level of executive function.
Goal: Develop the habit of goal-directed listening.
Before you start: This activity can be done anywhere you listen to music—at home with a playlist, in an ensemble rehearsal, or in an aural skills class. We don’t necessarily always want you practicing goal-directed listening (that might be exhausting), but the more situations in which you practice it, the more you’ll be able to integrate it into your musical life.
Instructions: Set an intention before listening. Most dictation-relevant intentions are about what you will try to remember or what you will try to work out, such as “I will focus on and remember the first phrase of the melody” and “I will work out the rhythm of the cadence.” Nevertheless, other kinds of intentions are also useful.