Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Sound of Silence

How often have we seen someone jogging, or taking a walk, or walking their dog, wearing headphones, completely oblivious to his or her surroundings? How often have we walked by a car, windows rolled up, but feeling the pounding bass of the subwoofer? Restaurants, shops, malls, gyms, would inevitably give you, like it or not, layers of musical wallpaper. Of course this is not new, which is exactly why we need to talk about it.

No wonder we are a generation of poor listeners. When we are constantly bombarded with sound, our ears become desensitized. When we really have to sit down and listen to a musical performance, we become fidgety, we want to check our e-mail, we text, we look at our watch to see when the concert will be over.

I was attending a performance at London’s famed Covent Garden Opera House, and noticed the man sitting in front of me e-mailing on his Blackberry. Does he really need to pay £100 so that he could check his e-mail? Are we not able to sit and listen to Mozart for a few hours without having to “multitask”?

In at least the last decade, when I attend performances by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, I noticed that people would applaud between movements of a symphony or a concerto. I have often attributed that to a lack of awareness or education in how to behave in a classical music concert, but I now wonder whether the need to applaud is merely a need to do something, a release of pent-up energy. 

Radio stations have marketed themselves to broadcast music for “easy listening”. Listening is probably one of the most difficult things that engage our brains. Listening to music is far from being a passive endeavour, not just catching the beautiful melodies whilst tuning out the other “bits”. True listening involves our total concentration, and should, ideally, elicit an emotional response within us. When listening becomes secondary to other mental activities, music becomes nothing more than one of the many sensory inputs clamouring for our attention.

Arts organizations everywhere are suffering, not only because of the financial climate, but because more and more people are unwilling to spend an entire evening listening to live music-making. Music is something we can access with the press of a button, so why pay and have to “waste” an entire evening when we can hear music and check our e-mail and surf the web and read our e-book?

I believe that we can learn from parents who give their children “quiet time”, and thank goodness there are still parents upholding such a lifestyle. Only by learning not to be bothered by silence can listening becomes, once again, a special experience. For those who learn music, the time to practice is really such a time, a time for listening to one’s own playing, and not merely repeating the same notes over and over again. I love the German word for practice or rehearsal – probe – to probe, to delve into the deeper meaning of the music. In order to probe, one must first listen. In order to listen, one must first have silence.

In our age of sensory overload, it really is worth our while to make time for silence.

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