The Art of Listening

Thursday, November 10, 2016 - 09:32 AM

Nipper the RCA dog, painted by Francis Barraud (1929) . There is a difference between hearing and listening. (Wikimedia Commons)

A number of years ago I created a seminar called “The Art of Listening” for the Smithsonian Institution. I have taught versions of this course in music classes and have been hired by corporations and law firms to teach their employees to how to listen better. In this context, the impact of listening more actively and intently is that we take in more information, enabling us to be more effective at our work.

Most of us hear but not all of us listen. We are almost always surrounded by sounds (music, speech, radio, television, the hum of machinery, the cacophonous din of urban life). We do not endeavor to listen to all of this but, like it or not, we hear it all.

Active listeners closely follow words or sounds we are most interested in. To do this, we want to eliminate all other sounds that would distract us or interfere with our listening. As listeners, we should not multitask. I try to avoid restaurants with music or high-decibel noise if I want to engage in conversation, hear the clink of wine glasses or, for that matter, savor my food.

I happen to have unusually good hearing, which is a blessing and a curse. I realize, whenever I sit in the Metropolitan Opera house, how wonderful is the sound of the glorious unamplified voices of singers combined with the splendid playing of the Met orchestra. I derive immense pleasure from actively listening to the music-making. These sounds enter not only my ears but, seemingly, my whole body as sound waves come toward me and I feel the vibrations on my face, in my hands and sometimes even my feet during a booming choral passage.

When listening to music, I resolutely do not analyze what I am hearing. In school and in our professions we are expected to analyze as we use our senses but, as much as possible, I try to let my senses work without my thinking about them and, only after, I consider what I have perceived.

My acute hearing also means that, during the opera, I hear conversations, candy wrappers, people who rustle their programs or tap their feet. These sounds are very distracting when trying to fully listen to the music. To overcome this, we must develop the skill to listen to what we are focused on and hear as little as possible of other sounds. This can come in the presence of music and, sometimes, words.

Recently, I attended performances that made me consider anew the art of listening. On Nov. 3 at the Kennedy Center, I attended Gianandrea Noseda's first appearance with the National Symphony Orchestra since becoming music director designate. The program was the full score of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. I have heard this music numerous times while attending the ballet but never played as scrupulously and dramatically as it was by Noseda and his orchestra. Also, at the ballet, I heard the music (rather than listened to it) while watching the dancers. In this case, without choreography, through active listening I could “see” every moment of the story of these star-crossed lovers. It made me realize the genius of Prokofiev’s creation.

On Nov. 4, Anoushka Shankar played the Rāgā-Mālā Sitar Concerto No. 2 by her father Ravi with the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Manfred Honeck. Also on the program were Haydn’s Symphony No. 93 and Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. Music without words is a gorgeous abstraction and, when we hear a piece that is new and different, we get a frisson of pleasurable discovery.

Listen, activelyto music in which Anoushka Shankar plays the sitar. I would prefer you do it with your eyes shut and allow the sounds to enter your ears and perhaps circulate through your body. This music is not literal in that, if it tells some kind of story Shankar might know, it would not be a story you know. Do not analyze what you are hearing or try to create a narrative. Allow it to permeate your system in all of its sublime abstraction and then, after, notice how different you feel.

On Nov. 7, I attended Women of a Certain Age, a play written and directed by Richard Nelson, at the Public Theater. It is the third in a cycle called The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One American Family. Like Hungry and What Did You Expect?, which premiered earlier this year, this play is set in the kitchen of the family home in Rhinebeck, N.Y.

The cycle will be at the Public Theater in December and moves to the Kennedy Center in Washington in January, ending on the weekend that Donald J. Trump will be sworn in as president. The plays are not about politics, per se, although national issues occasionally surface in poignant ways during the conversations that take place around the kitchen table.

The LuEsther Theater at the Public is relatively small, yet more than a few audience members complained during the first two plays that they had trouble hearing (and therefore listening to) the actors. In response to this, the Public sent an email to ticketholders attending the third play and posted some of that text on its website. In it, Nelson discussed his artistic intent:

“‘Why don’t the actors speak up?' It has long been assumed that it was the actors’ job to ‘project’ their voices out to the very back row of a theater. To achieve this, actors found ‘sweet spots’ on stage; and of course found it helpful to face directly out to the audience. The effect of this, of course, was that the play was being 'shown' or 'presented' to an audience, who could then sit happily back and watch it.

“With The Gabriels ... I am trying to create something else: an intimate world of very human conversations that you will want to lean forward to witness and overhear, as if you were watching and listening through a half opened window or keyhole. My hope is that with these plays, you will want to actively participate, by leaning in and actively listen.”

More than ever, listening (rather than simply hearing) might foster understanding through better communication and will enable us to derive the unique pleasure and solace that only music can give us.

Special note: New Yorkers have the rare opportunity to see Gustav Mahler’s 232-page score of his Symphony No. 2 in his own hand at Sotheby’s through Nov. 14. It belonged to businessman Gilbert Kaplan (1941-2016), who devoted his life to learning this symphony and conducting it more than a hundred times.


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Comments [2]


Nov. 15 2016 05:23 AM
Joseph Lewis Heil from Suburban Milwaukee

I always enjoy Mr. Plotkin's essays: well-written with good ideas, reasonable opinions, and useful things to be learned. Thanks to WQXR for posting them.

Nov. 14 2016 02:19 PM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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