I am not a musician. I played the requisite songs on the recorder and fumbled through the finger moves at ten, took drum lessons at thirteen, and failed miserably at both. I don’t sing, not even marginally well, but have taken enough lessons to appreciate the gifts of those who do. I grew up listening to the piano, and even today my mother, with a little brush up, has nearly eighty classical pieces within grasp. When I was growing up she practiced with the discipline of a concert pianist, so notes were always adrift in the house. I can’t quite muster my way through “Chopsticks.” Never could.
But I do like listening to music. Sometimes I plug and play. Pop ear buds in and head off for a ski, a run, a workout on the treadmill (which I hate), or a maintenance painting session at the house (a Sisyphean undertaking). Music is a way to work with the pleasant rhythm and the multiplicity of underlying thoughts; the pitch of activity can modulate with the beat or the lyrics. It’s fun. I acknowledge that listening can present challenges to deeper thinking, and for me music cannot be playing when I am teasing out a story or simply trying to write a cogent email. Ever. The why behind that I leave for for another day.
How We Listen To Music, an Aaron Copland essay, looks at how we engage music on different planes. He writes about the sensual plane, where “one doesn’t have to think of the realities of everyday life”; the expressive plane, where “no appropriate word can be found to express the music’s meaning and that, even if it could, they (musicians) do not feel the need of finding it”; and, thirdly, the musical plane of “notes and their manipulation.” Of the three, this latter is the least appreciated by listeners, takes the greatest awareness and skill to access, and my interactions on this plane are rudimentary. At best. When I watch students move through practice or performance sessions, flipping sheet music, it’s like watching wizardry at work.
Sometimes I don’t simply plug and play. I work to listen deeply, and when I do this everything around me has to stop. I focus. I tease through the threads of a piece while at the same time am aware of the whole. I think of the mind that found that particular layering, that particular sound, sequencing the longer pattern those particular rhythms. It’s work, and deeply rewarding. Copland’s articulation is perfect: it is impossible to find the right word, or words, and maybe one shouldn’t even try. As brushing up against the possibilities of magic is thrilling, electric, so is deeper listening. There’s divine mystery at work, something ineffable loose.
Listening to music, really listening, has applicable lessons for much of what goes on around us in community. Sometimes I wonder if the art of listening, deeply listening to community, is being lost in today’s cacophonies of sound. The individual voices, the collective voices, the whole of it coming together at any one instance in a particular way and arranged in a particular sequence takes work to appreciate. The distractions are many, time is so short, the next is always beckoning. Isn’t it so much easier to plug and play? Why tease out the why behind the voices, the attitudes, the joys, the frustrations?
Going into these last weeks of the play, the art show, the ensemble concert, the culminating academic performances, the athletic competitions, I am going to deepen my listening. Slow it down. There are times during the year when a particular richness of community sound beckons. This is one of them. We may not all be musicians, but we are all listeners.
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Mike Henriques P'11, P'15
Proctor Academy Head of School