by Kari Miller
There are many ways to listen to music. The music student taking a dictation exam listens in a very different way from the casual listener enjoying a favorite piece at the end of a long day. We bring different ears to a new or challenging work than we might to a familiar pop tune. Our listening can be active or passive, critical or curious. We can listen intently for certain things or we can wait for something to catch our attention. We can focus on the details or bask in the big picture. We can let ourselves be taken beyond the sound to those memories and associations which sometimes rise up spontaneously and unexpectedly.
None of these listening modes is right or wrong in itself, but it is important, and certainly useful, to be aware of how we are listening and to be able to change our way of listening if it is not appropriate to the occasion. This can be harder to do than one might think. As trained musicians, many of us have spent so many hours and so much effort learning to fully engage our critical listening that we seem unable or unwilling to turn it off even when it gets in the way. We spend our days teaching, practicing and rehearsing. We can get stuck – comparing and measuring, noting every irregularity, suffering over every deviance from our “ideal,” sometimes feeling very intelligent and superior even as we deprive ourselves of whatever listening pleasure might be had.
It would be sad to think that the uneducated listener enjoys music more than most of us do. Yet sometimes it seems to be so. It can be so very hard to let go, to lighten and loosen up, and to just allow a performance or a piece of music be what it is and take one where it will. I once worked with a wonderful musician who became irate after a performance when I told him that I “enjoyed it.” He considered that to be a woefully inadequate response. He wanted a blow-by-blow rundown of his specific superlative qualities; he wanted me to wax poetic about his tone and phrasing and articulation. Stupid me – I thought my “enjoyment” was a big part of what it was all about. He just thought I hadn’t been listening very carefully.
Don’t take me wrong: I am not suggesting that we should abandon our discriminating standards, give up hoping to hear that “perfect” performance or pretend things are great when they are not. But until we can learn to listen with an open mind and generous heart there is faint chance we will ever experience music as in these beautiful lines from T. S. Eliot’s The Dry Salvages: “…music heard so deeply /That it is not heard at all, but you are the music/While the music lasts.”