Essential Listening

Author(s): 
Department: 

It is often said that music is a language; some say it is the universal language. As with any language, the spaces are essential. Without spaces on the printed page or pauses in speaking, we couldn’t understand what is being said. Likewise, silence is the canvas we paint our music upon.

Our perception of light depends on our understanding of darkness. The knowledge of our mortality gives meaning to life.

In music, as in worship, silence is essential. The moments between notes – and, especially, the moment after a piece of music ends – hold most of the meaning, most of the potential. The spaces between notes in a piece of music are where the energy lies, like waves about to crest, the moments of greatest tension. When making music, whether composing or playing, it is from stillness that the music comes. Stillness is the starting place, the place where you begin to listen for music.

To  “listen for music” is an accurate description of the process of composing or playing music, especially when playing with others. Jamming or improvisation offers an especially good picture of the practice of listening for music. When joining a jam session, the really aware musician will listen for what is going on first, before starting to play. If there’s something they can provide that is needed in the music, they will provide it; if not, they don’t join in.

The essential skill is determining whether something is needed, similar to listening for a message in meeting for worship. Of course, some people will join in a jam session and start playing right away, whatever is going on in their heads, regardless of what is going on around them.

So, listening is an essential part of making music. Playing music with other musicians is a conversation, and if you’re not listening, you’re only doing half the job. I heard the great soul producer Kenny Gamble compliment a guitar player once, saying the musician had “ears like Dumbo,” which was a huge compliment – the guy could hear everything, and he paid attention. Also, besides listening to the musicians you are playing with, you also have to pay attention to what you know yourself, what you can play. You have to bring your true self to the music, no hiding or pretending. You have to listen to the leading, the calling. Usually, you’ll be expected to create something new within the framework of a piece of music – just as we create something new each time we enter the familiar framework of meeting for worship. Both involve purposeful silences and searching for leading, searching for messages, whether in musical notes or in words. Both involve an attitude or awareness that complete silence may be the most profound message.

My first experiences in performing music came in the church choir that my mother directed. We sang, as most choirs do, from sheet music with parts written out and separated. Our attention was focused only on our own parts. Listening was a matter of trying to stay on the proper pitch. When I started to play my first instrument, guitar, I began learning by following notation in a book. Fortunately, I also grew up listening to music on records, radio, television, anywhere I could. I learned how music could sound, not just how it should sound.

When I tried to play songs by artists like Peter, Paul and Mary or Simon and Garfunkel, following the notation in my music books, I could tell that what I played didn’t sound like the music I heard on the radio. It took several years until I discovered something important: My music books had been arranged by people different than the authors of the songs. The arrangements were in keys that might have suited an alto singer with a piano accompaniment, but were not the original keys from the recordings. I also discovered there were many different ways to play various chords. C major chord could be played ten or more different ways, even though a particular songbook might show you only one. I realized I was trying to play music that was arranged by someone else to suit their tastes, to sound like they thought it should sound.

The artists I admired, the ones I was trying to learn from, were often making up their own rules, often changing tunings or combining several instruments together to create new sounds. The difference between their music and the church music I grew up with is similar to the difference between Quaker worship and the worship services of my childhood. Following someone else’s lead, saying their words, chanting or singing their songs, might work sometimes, but you can also choose to follow your own path, listen for your own way, like we do in silent worship.

Trust and faith are key elements in playing music with others. You trust others to listen and respond, to support you by playing in time, to provide opportunities for you to add something, like any good conversation. And you have faith that you can contribute.

As I’ve begun to teach music, I have come to see faith as the foundation of any musical learning experience. To learn to play, you need to have faith to see yourself playing the music before you actually can, to see yourself as a musician. Perhaps faith works equally through belief and imagination.

I can tell you the exact moment I became a musician – February 9, 1964 at 8PM Eastern Standard Time, when I saw The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. That’s the moment I became a musician, or more accurately, the moment I realized I was a musician. It didn’t matter that I didn’t play any musical instrument at the time. Faith is a powerful creator of who and what we become. I tend to believe that while some people may have an innate tendency towards a particular skill, talent is not innate, but developed. We may be born with a tendency to either lean in or to shy away from something. I have always been one to lean in to music. When I hear a new sound, I have always wanted to listen closer, have always needed to know how it was made. “What is that? A 12-string guitar? Then I have to have one!” Banjo, bouzouki, kalimba, djembe? I have to know more. When I first heard the music of Einsturzende Neubauten, which I later learned was called “industrial noise,” I was completely captivated. While I can completely understand why someone might never want to spend any time listening to that, I find it equally as interesting as Beethoven or Chuck Berry.

To have narrow tastes is not bad, simply limited. To be truly open-minded can be overwhelming and perhaps chaotic. It takes faith to be open-minded, to allow infinite possibilities to offer inspiration, rather than always going with what you know works or is pleasing to you. My desire to be open-minded is another tendency that inclines me toward Quaker silent worship, rather than worship services filled with prearranged scripture and song.

The language of faith, like the language of music, comes to us through our imaginations, through our souls. I have found that silence, for me, is the best practice for helping me cultivate the ground where faith and music grow – a silence open to the infinite possibilities of the universe. ~~~

Kevin Slick is a parent, musician, composer, visual artist, writer, and teacher – sometimes all at the same time. See www.kevinslick.com. He is a member of Boulder Friends Meeting (IMYM).