This week, a close friend of mine emailed me in a panic: she is getting married in two weeks and needed some suggestions for repertoire that could be played during the ceremony. She has hired a solo cellist and so I thought of the Bach Suites, which are not only enjoyable to the ears, but can be lengthened or shortened as required by omitting/taking repeats — necessary for any good wedding piece. She wanted to hear examples and I created a list for her on YouTube, where there are numerous performances by Mstislav Rostropovich of the Suites. There are worse ways of spending an evening and I wound up listening to many of the available clips even after sending her my suggestions.
As I was doing this favor, I thought about the fact that I spend a significant amount of time hearing music but very little actually listening. This reminded me of a comment made by musicologist Reinhold Brinkmann when I was a teaching assistant for a class he taught that examined Vienna (including, and especially, the Second Viennese School) for non-majors. He noted that students today were so accustomed to hearing music everywhere that it was almost impossible to convince them to listen. They would experience great difficulty staying focused in lectures when musical examples were played, almost as thought they thought it was a chance to break their concentration rather than remaining engaged. At the time, I thought that this phenomenon was limited to non-majors. But now I am teaching students who want to spend their lives as musicians and music educators, and I’ve seen much of the same behavior. I am constantly amazed by how often I need to remind them to be quiet when I play an example in class.
Of course, I assumed that I wasn’t like that: I listen. But as I took the time to focus on the Rostropovich, I realized that much of the time, I didn’t. Music is often around: I have it on in the car, I play it in my classes, I even run through entire operas in the background while I am working on time-consuming tasks. But the music in the car is to distract me while driving, music in class is a form of work, and the operas are to try and absorb them on almost a subconscious level (if I listen to Siegfried enough times, maybe I will finally remember it). Actual listening, for me, happens very infrequently. Perhaps this is a function of music’s ubiquity or the fact that it is simply too easy to listen to music with all of the devices we can use to do so today (when I am at a concert, I have far less difficulty paying attention). My experience with the Rostropovich, though, reminded me of how listening to a wonderful interpretation of an intricate piece has no parallel.