The Art of Listening

Nymphs Listening to the Songs of Orpheus
Charles François Jalabert
Okay... for the interval of your next five breaths,  just focus on your hearing and make a catalog of the number of discreet sounds you’re perceiving.  Go ahead.  How many different sounds or sources do you identify?  Some are near at hand, others are out of sight and some, I expect, are off in the distance.  At present, I’m hearing a fan next to me, the call of a bird out the window, a mower off in the distance and, oh, yes...much closer ...a high-pitched whine ringing in my ears (tinnitus?).   Some sounds you may be quite conscious of, while others may have surprised you that they were even there to be heard.

Our sense of hearing is designed primarily as an early warning system to inform us of opportunities (“It’s a prospective lunch!”) or threats  (“I’m a prospective lunch!”) that are not visible.  It’s a function of the auditory processing parts of our brain to filter out some sounds and make them wallpaper - they no longer signal a threat or opportunity and the brain files them away so we can be more aware of any new sound that comes along.  Other sounds are given precedence - sirens,  squealing tires, or,  inexplicably, the voices of kids playing “Marco Polo” in the pool next door.

At some point in human history, our sense of hearing became a very important component of the communication system - the receptor of that system of audio symbols we call spoken language.  At another point in our history - perhaps even before the advent of language - we began to create music: art that was to be perceived through the ears.  Music functions like verbal communication, sometimes, but at others it does not and it is unique in our experience.

So unique is that experience that, in western culture, we built concert halls and created events that were specifically designed as music delivery systems.  This tradition still continues, but it is being transformed (some would say “threatened”)  by technological and social changes that adversely affect our aural attention span.  I firmly believe that for music, and especially symphonic music, to remain viable, we have to re-capture and do whatever we can to enhance the magic of the listening experience for those in attendance. 

As music director of the Tuscarawas Philharmonic, I am passionate about its present and future.  The music director’s traditional concern can be summed up as: “What is the orchestra playing and how well is it playing it?”.  But I must be as concerned with another question of equal importance: “What are people in the audience hearing and how well are they hearing it?”   

Orchestra education programs are certainly nothing new, but I believe that the emphasis on the act of listening to art for the ear may be lost under a plethora of well-intended details about flutes and Bach and sonata form.   In our concerts, the orchestra is on stage in bright lights, and the soloist and conductor make their entrances, but it is actually the listener in the seat who is the featured artist.

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