Taking Time to Listen

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.

Listen to Rostropovich play the Sarabande from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1


4 comments for “Taking Time to Listen”

  1. Thank you for these thoughts.

    For me these are an indication of just how unmindful one can become of what is happening in one’s immediate environment. It would be one thing if one were operating a jackhammer in the street. It’s quite another to find that one is ignoring some of the world’s greatest art.

    Very strange but true.

    Posted by Bill Bell | September 5, 2009, 8:16 pm
  2. Well, first, this discussion brings the term “sonic wall paper” to life! And once you get married, your husband will teach you very quickly the difference between hearing and listening. But seriously folks… I find that since (classical) music is my career/ vocation, I don’t like to listen to it in my free time that often. But I do listen, with varying degrees of attention ranging from barely noticing to intensely focusing, to pop, rock, folk and jazz in my free time. And with near constancy. Zoe, you and I both knew people at the Big H who ONLY listened to classical music. I think this ghettoizing is also part of the problem you name above. It’s a bit sad, frankly. I think Brinkmann really nailed it.

    Posted by Sue F | September 5, 2009, 8:37 pm
  3. Maybe part of the problem is, that wherever you go, music is already there. Thus, when you hear music all the time, it seems impossible to focus on it all the time. Have we kind of unlearned to really listen in that way? The problem reminds me of a song written by Reinhard May (I know, different kind of music, but nontheless sensible text and somehow capturing): “Ich hasse Musik, die aus den Ritzen quillt, Musik, die mir den Spaß an der Musik verdirbt. (…)”

    Posted by wölkschen | September 22, 2009, 8:49 am
  4. […] song is simple, but its delivery and message are profound. As an interesting post by Zoe Lang at Zeitschichten reminded me, even as a trained musician — or perhaps, because I am a trained musician — […]

    Posted by Are you listening? « Organic Musicology | January 16, 2011, 7:40 pm

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