Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Tuning Slide 3.41: Learning to Listen

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

For the rest of April I’m going to tackle the theme of “Listening.”

We think that Music stops at the ears. That is a mistake.
Vibrations can be felt in all places and at all times,
even with the eyes.
- Victor Wooten (or Michael?)

Victor Wooten, Grammy-award winning bass player talks about listening in chapter 11 of his wondrous book, The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music. The whole book is a lesson on different aspects of making music. He finds a spirit guide or muse named Michael who pulls him into all kinds of different situations.

One night Michael takes him into woods at night and teaches him to listen. He hears the frogs and other animals and is introduced to the idea of noise pollution which can be just as deadly as other types of pollution. Noise pollution can hide the sounds of danger or keep animals from communicating with each other. He gets a couple different lessons from Michael about the importance of the practice of listening to everything that is around.

Victor talks about music as vibrations. We don’t need to have a degree in physics to know that this is true. All atoms and molecules vibrate. The universe itself vibrates. The “background radiation” of the universe is the “sound” the vibration of the Big Bang. (Yes, oversimplified, but the general idea is correct.) We see vibrations of light, we feel vibrations of heat, we hear vibrations of sound. Our whole body “listens” to vibrations of many types and makes decisions based on what we experience in these vibrations.

This helps explain part of what many of us may have experienced- playing in tune. There are times when I cannot actually hear myself as clearly as I would like, but I can tell when my tuning is not right. Some of it is through the ears- what I am hearing of my note is not in synch with what I am hearing from the musician next to me or the rest of the band. But there is also the other piece- the vibrations. I can sometimes feel that I am out of tune. Self Two says, “Lip it up. You’re flat.” The vibrations are not together.

As with the animals in Victor’s forest, noise pollution can be deadly for us as musicians. I don’t know about the forest animals, but I do know there are two types of noise pollution that get to me.

The first is “Outer Pollution”. This comes from the things happening around us that take our attention away from what we are doing. This is the noise of the crowd, the extraneous sounds that are often around us. It may even be things we want to have around us- TV, radio, iTunes. They are the things that can distract us. Sometimes it may even be the words and actions of others aimed at us that we take to heart.

When we take those words and actions of others and turn them into directions for us, they can add to the second noise pollution, “Inner Pollution”. We have often talked about Self One who is always trying to find out what we are doing wrong and setting us up to fail, proving our incompetence or lack of ability. It can be the words we have internalized from others or experiences that have hurt us or kept us from achieving what we know we can do.

Both of these sources of noise pollution keep us from truly listening to what is around us and what is within us. Which is why Michael took Victor into the woods. He wanted him to discover what music can do when we allow our whole body to “hear” music.
I closed my eyes and let the music envelop me. It was easy to do. It was the first time I’d ever felt music with my whole body. I thought I’d done it before when I heard music that made me get up and dance, but even then, I was only hearing with my ears…. (p. 182)
There is a “silence” that is enhanced by this kind of sound, music, enveloping us, allowing the inner self (Self Two?) to relax and get creative. It is partly the vibrations, as I have said, but it is more than that. It is the smells, the touch of a breeze, the feel of the ground we sit on. All of it together, what can be called the “ambience” or environment, contributes to the music that we can listen to. They are in harmony as Victor discovered.
I closed my eyes and sat inside the music.I listened to all the sounds around me and noticed how they fit in. Like different instruments in a band, each sound served a purpose. Each animal made a sound that somehow supported the other sounds while leaving enough space for all to participate. (p. 183)
Victor talks about a time a few months after this encounter when he was playing in a band and decided to apply what he had learned about listening from Michael. He is aware that his time at the lake in the woods gave him a new way of utilizing the skill of listening.
I noticed that most musicians seemed to reserve their ears for themselves rather than open up their ears to the rest of the band. I found that when I listened to the other musicians more than I listened to myself, it caused me to play better. I realize that listening is a choice. (P. 184)
I mentioned in a previous post how I was taken by a performance of the band I was playing in that almost got me lost. What really happened was that I was far more aware of the band than of myself. I could relax and “go with the flow” in a way that I wish were more common. I guess it can be if I take the time to choose to listen to something other than my own inner pollution of fear and uncertainty. The music of the pieces we were playing truly did carry me to playing as I very seldom get to do. Not because I don’t want to, but at that moment, the whole sound I was part of was more powerful and entrancing than my own sound.

Of course, as the theme of this blog has stated over and over, there is a correlation between music and life. They are interconnected. Learning to listen in music can be a way to experience listening in other ways. Victor adds:
The same is true in conversation. When I listen to other people more than to myself, I know how to respond and support them in a better way. It also helps me know when to remain quiet. (P. 184)
Music, even well “scripted” music played by a band or orchestra is a conversation. It is like watching a well-written play. The actors say the same lines in every production, but it is how they interact and respond to each other that makes a play come alive. Otherwise it is just a dull reading. In music we learn to listen and interact with others. If we can’t do it in our music we will most likely have a difficult time doing it in conversations.

We are just scratching the surface of the skill of listening. What’s next? How about learning to listen with a new set of ears and digging for greater insight?

Only through the power of listening can you truly know anything.
- Victor Wooten (or Michael?)

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