Monday, September 24, 2007


Just listening is hard.

In choir last week, the director played a recording of the Bach cantata chorus we were working on and asked the choir to listen. By the middle of the movement, just about everyone was singing along. Sotto voce, yes, but concentrating on the notes in their own part, not on the big picture--the sweep of the music, the back-and-forth of the counterpoint, the conversation between orchestra and chorus.

Singing along is fine. In this situation, it was an opportunity to experience the tempo we are trying to achieve, somewhere between a lively allegro and zoom! there it goes. But singing along is not listening.

In kindergarten music the other day, I said listen, I have a story to sing for you. Listen. "Over in the meadow in the sand in the sun, lived an old mother turtle and her little turtle one." Most of them listened. (We were having a surprisingly good day in kindergarten.) But all the way through ten verses--little foxes two, little birdies three, little bunnies ten--one little girl persisted in trying to sing along. She didn't know the tune. She didn't know the words. She didn't pick up on the repetition from verse to verse and at least get those parts right. She just made a low, untuneful, unmusical quiet sound, even after I had reminded the class that their job was to listen. I don't think she knew she was singing along.

In church on Sunday mornings, as the lessons are read, most worshipers look down, following the text in their bulletin. Sometimes it's hard to hear or understand the reader. Ours is an acoustically lively sanctuary, friendly to music, less friendly to the spoken word. But I think we follow along with eyes as well ears mainly to keep our minds from straying, or to avoid looking directly at reader.

I went to church twice yesterday, so I heard the sermon twice. As I sat in the pew for the second time around, I tried to remember from the first service how it all came out. It was hard--something about righteousness? Had I listened all the way to the end in the first service?

Even in conversations with friends, my mind jumps off track and goes to work on what I an going to say next rather than on what is being said to me.

Listening means taking in someone else's thoughts, words, song, experience. Being aware of the bird in the tree outside. Letting someone else make the music. Letting someone else make the argument.

Hard to do.

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