Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Listen (Play It the Way You Would Sing It)

Family Camp a few weeks ago: we were singing, and Youngest crawled into my lap. When she pressed her head against my chest I must have stopped singing, wondering if she was okay.

She sat up slightly. “Keep singing.” Then she pressed her ear against my chest. That’s when I realized she was listening, feeling the vibrations of my voice.

I asked her about it later. “Were you listening to me sing?”

“Yeah. I could kind of hear you differently. Like, ‘Doooooooooooooh’” she held her hands out by either side of her head and shook them slightly to illustrate.

    *     *     *

I remember as a child calling my mom for something; she was upstairs, I was downstairs. And once while I called out, “Mo-ommm!” my lips formed a spit bubble, and the word sounded different. Soon I was trying to make a bubble every time I called “Mom!” and then I tried the word with my hands over my ears, then with my fingers stuck in my ears, then one-eared, then ears rapidly covered and uncovered. I don’t remember when my mom showed up to see what was the matter. By the time she got there I can’t imagine I knew what I’d wanted. I was too busy playing with sound, listening to my voice in all its permutations.

I wonder, now, how many times that happened.

    *     *     *

The summer between my junior and senior year of college I attended a wonderful music festival in the mountains of Colorado. It was a fabulous opportunity—9 weeks of intense orchestra playing, two programs a week of important repertoire, much of which I had never before played. What I kept to myself while I was there was that I was there as an alternate. Second (or maybe 3rd?) choice, and I didn’t want anybody else to suspect that maybe I didn’t really belong there. I practiced a lot, but there’s only so much cramming you can do in 2 ½-3 days.

What helped me more than anything was learning a new way to listen.

Maybe a deeper way says it better. I don’t know how to describe it, exactly, except to say that I learned to tune in to the other instruments, and to the orchestra as a whole, in a way I never had before. I needed to do more than simply play my part at the same time as everybody else. Really participating meant a kind of listening that followed along with my peers. I had to anticipate, respond, join in.

*     *     *

Playing on automatic is frighteningly easy. Finger here, finger here, note, note, note. This-then-that. When I was a child and teachers were trying to get me to engage with the music, they most often told me to play it the way I would sing it, or to sing along with myself as I played.

It works.

Singing along with yourself in your head makes for playing that is engaged, aware, alive. It creates music that communicates and responds.

That’s something more than playing with the right timing, or being completely in tune.

And I’ve been thinking that this is something that extends into the rest of life. I think about basic interactions, and conversations, and relationships, and it’s true of them as well: hearing is good. Listening and understanding is even better. But listening in a way that is active and engaged, that follows the other person as if you were singing a duet together—anticipating where the other person is going and moving-with, but at the same time always ready, responsive, for the quick 180s and subtle inflections you never expected—that’s the kind of interaction or conversation or relationship you remember and crave and strive for.

What would that be like, living it the way you would sing it?

Some inspiration for you (Leontyne Price and Carlo Bergonzi, Aida, "O terra addio." 5 ½ minutes, but feels longer, in the best of ways.)



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  1. "that’s the kind of interaction or conversation or relationship you remember and crave and strive for.
    " That is such a good reminder this morning. Somehow this is so much easier with friends and other adults than it is with my own kids. Thanks for the reminder. (And it's beautifully written, too.)

    1. I find it a lot harder with my own kids, too. I suspect they do with me, too. But the times when we do really connect--those are extra good, I think.


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