Deep Listening

How often do you completely unplug from the world, even for a single hour, put on an album and just listen?

Recently, I read an article sent to me by a friend (shout-out to David O) about deep listening to albums. In this case, the article posed a challenge to the reader. Turn off your phone, shut off the voices in your head, and give full attention to not one, but three albums of your choice.

I’m about to get real with y’all on this Monday morning. I struggle with giving anything my full attention these days. I mean, I really and truly grapple with it. The idea of trying to do this for three hours while listening to albums feels very much like challenging myself to run a marathon. My brain can’t do it, much less my body! When I’m sitting on the couch watching a movie, I’m playing with my phone. If I’m not playing some sort of game, I’m crocheting. If I’m outside listening to music, I’m also reading emails, or reading a book. While I’m attempting to sit and listen to music, even on Spotify, my mind is racing in the background, thinking about whatever I should be doing (instead of listening). And those situations are just the tip of the iceberg, unfortunately.

Some of this, I believe, is training. In today’s world, we don’t allow ourselves any sort of time to just be still, unless of course we’re sleeping. (Which, by the way – I often wake up in the middle of the night, immediately thinking of the things I need to do, forgot to do, or don’t want to do) During the day, it’s a constant series of multitasking. What can I take to the laundry room with me as I drop off the clothes into the washer? While coffee is being made, do I have time to clean the chicken coop or collect eggs and get back up to the garage before it is finished? If I sit and listen to an album from a new band for 45 minutes, maybe I can read from a book I’ve been working on at the same time. “Whoosh” on Duran Duran Radio? I’ll listen to that while I’m pulling weeds. Can I run to the grocery store and still make it to school in time for pickup? It was, and still is, a constant series of tasks and time management. Sitting down, doing nothing and listening to music, or watching a movie, for an hour or more? ARE YOU NUTS?

My brain has grown very used to never focusing on one single thing at a time, but at least a few, if not tens of things. In some ways, it’s great, and in others, it’s horrible. Not one single thing ever gets my complete focus…unless I’m at band rehearsal. Oddly, as I was sitting here writing, I realized the one thing that still gets my complete focus is playing music. More on that later.

One might think that in times of a pandemic, I’d learn how to settle down and recenter myself. Maybe I’d slow down and take my time. I’d argue it’s been the opposite. Funny, I thought having my entire family home would be of great relief to me, and I suppose it is in some ways, but in others – there’s never a spare moment until the time my head hits the pillow each night. Having adult children at home doesn’t mean more help. In fact, I’d argue it means having them revert back to being teenagers in a lot of ways – with animals in tow. (I know it could be their own babies, and for my kids and their current situations – I am thankful it is not. They’re not ready. *I* am not ready, for that matter.)

The article couldn’t really have come at a better time for me. I needed the reminder that life can wait, at least occasionally. As I mentioned last week, I’ve begun challenging myself with the prospect of finding new music. I am forcing myself out of the box, I bought the premium Spotify subscription, and the search has begun.

What I’m finding is that while some music belongs in the background, other music takes my full attention. Things I may have written off as pure pop last week or last month may actually have a deeper message. You’d think I would have learned that from our own Paper Gods, but no. No I didn’t. My education continues.

As I wrote a bit earlier, the one thing that I have no trouble giving my full-self to is playing music. I think that is why I found band practice to be such a joy. For two full hours, I thought of nothing but the music on the page. In hindsight, I can remember that blissful feeling I’d have during rehearsal. Never once did I reach for my phone while in that rehearsal space. My full attention would be on playing clarinet. I’d leave the band room feeling completely calm and satiated, almost dreading walking back in the door at home because I knew that all of the same tasks I left (dishes in the sink, cleaning up from dinner, making sure the youngest was on her way to bed) would still be there waiting. Band rehearsal, and of course, practicing when possible, was the one thing I gave myself, and allowed myself to get completely caught up in.

Even when I had to force myself not to give into the urge to stay at home (those first few initial rehearsal sessions were brutal, and it was only the last rehearsal when I really hit my stride, naturally), once I got to the band room and dug in, it was total peace. When I think about it, even though practice was difficult – I felt completely centered, calm, and more “myself” than ever. I didn’t have to think about anything else other than playing the right keys, hitting the correct notes, my timing, counting the measures correctly, listening to the people around me, watching our director, and performing as part of an ensemble. Compared to the daily rigors of life, for me anyway, it was simple. I miss that.

I have yet to take up the full three-hour listening challenge as described in the LA Times article, but I might -just as soon as I find the three empty hours in my daily schedule. Maybe it is better to just take an hour. A single album, even! Could you do it? If you try it, let me know how it goes, and what you listened to!

-R

One thought on “Deep Listening”

  1. Great article (and the 1st that I’ve read). First, agreed on the personal tranquility of playing music. It just takes you somewhere else (a better place I’d argue) which is why I recently decided to start another band.

    Second – there is massive value in pausing to listen. This past weekend, I stood still in my studio to listen – deeply & intently – to Simple Minds’ “New Gold Dream,” The Cramps “Gravest Hits,” and Echo & the Bunnymen’s “Crocodiles.” I’m here to say all 3 are as transcendent as I recall and I’m a little bit better of a human for taking the time to hear and remember.

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