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"A masterwork awakens in us reactions of a spiritual order that are already in us, only waiting to be aroused. . . [M]usic cannot persuade; it makes evident. It does not shape conduct; it is itself the exemplification of a particular way of looking at life. A concert is not a sermon. It is . . . a reincarnation of a series of ideas implicit in the work of art." — Aaron Copland, Music and Imagination


LISTENING TO MUSIC

It really makes sense to start with listening to music, because this is one place where we are used to listening. It's not foreign to us. And yet, perhaps there is a deeper listening possible than we have known to give ourselves to. And perhaps there is music in places we have not realized, very close to home.

I am a musician as well as a writer and an artist, and so listening through music is a very real experience to me. When I open my mouth and sing, I listen not only to the trueness of the pitch coming through me (some of those high notes can be tricky if I'm not 100 percent present) but also to how the music feels as it vibrates through my body. When I sit down to play the piano, as soon as my fingers touch the keys I am listening with my body to what happens. It certainly takes place in my ears, but it extends beyond only my ears.

It was not always this way. Just liking to sing, just being able to sing, does not necessarily imply listening. It is totally possible to sing just to get the sound out, to express something in you, to open the valve on the inner pressure-cooker by singing, to hear the sound of your own voice (especially when you have not felt very heard by others, in life) without listening to it. For years, this was my relationship to singing, and to music; although I loved music.

One of my most important teachers about listening to music was my first husband, a concert oboist. We were only in our mid-twenties when we married, and I knew very little of the experience of creating music as a true art, a discipline, at the time. I would watch him in amazement as he sat and whittled tiny, thin slivers of bamboo into even thinner slivers, then wrapped a special thread around the two pieces to make them one cylinder that would vibrate when he placed it in the top of his oboe and — his lips pursed tellingly — blow just the right amount of air through that homemade reed to get the plaintive, resonant sound he was after. It was a lot of work on a very small apparatus, but the quality of the sound was worth it to him. He was that sensitive a listener.

I learned some things about music, during the span of our marriage, that went into me like pure water after a long span of unknowing dehydration. It would be many years until I was able to apply them to my own life and my own experiences of making music; but something in me paid attention when he told these things to me, and stored them in some "for-later" place within. The ingenuity, wisdom, and sheer awakening of a kind of attentiveness not before known to me impressed me, and I began to try out some of his suggestions. Here's one of the first I took on, and I've always been grateful I did.

PRACTICE: Listen for the non-dominant instrumental and sung voices in a piece of music.

When we listen to a work of music that contains harmony -- that is, more than one "voice" (even if the voice is an instrument) — we naturally tend to focus on the dominant voice: the melody. There's good reason for this. The melody is, in many ways, the composer's point, and all the other voices are included mostly to bolster the effect that the melody produces.

But if you were to listen with the intention to also hear the supporting voices — the harmonic lines, what the cello is doing while the solo violin is arcing across the airwaves, or what the tenor part is doing while the soprano part is carrying the melody line — something interesting might happen in your awareness. You might realize that you can focus on aspects of the music that were going on all the time, but you didn't consciously realize were there. It's amazing, how a whole substrate of designed sound begins to come out of the woodwork and announce itself to you, once you begin to "look" for it. It's all there. And then, the experience of listening to that piece becomes far more rich, layered, textural. When you can follow the accompanying bass part, say, and make it the foreground of your attention, while the flute that's meant to be the "star" plays on but is now perceived as only one voice rather than "the" voice -- some deeper strata of listening is growing inside you, allowing you to hear in a more spatial, inclusive, yet able-to-pick-out-each-strand way. So it's not just that your experience of listening to the music is expanded and enhanced: you yourself are expanded and enhanced. Your listening has more eyes.

You might try this with some of the Romantic composers of the 19th century, because their beautiful harmonies are largely of the supporting-the-real-thing-of-melody kind. But if you really want to get into the simultaneous, spatial listening that can plump you up into a certain kind of listening-ecstasy like a raisin marinated in rum, try Bach. Bach is the master of counterpoint. Contrapuntal music weaves simultaneous, and related, melody lines together so that there is no dominant/subordinate structure (melody and supporting harmonies), but a partnership of melodies — done in the most masterful, exquisite way. If you want to learn to listen to individual musical lines (to differentiate one while another is playing) and also to hear them as they weave into a magnificent whole -- Bach is your man. Your listening will be exercised in marvelous, infinitely varied ways. You will come away fuller than when you went in. (And if, in your writing, structuring does not come easily to you, listening to Bach contrapuntal music may actually help you become more adept at structuring — not by learning how in a cognitive, instructive way, but simply by taking in what it's like to listen to such music. it will rub off on you.)

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