Active Listening will be an occasional feature extolling the virtues of ear training in everyday life. You may have noticed that sounds are all around us! Why not use those sounds to our advantage and really hear what’s going on in the world we live in?
The first step to active listening is to practice switching from listening to the voice of your conscious mind (that voice in your head that never seems to stop) to listening to the sounds that are outside of you.
In the book A Separate Reality by Carlos Castaneda, his mentor Don Juan answers Castaneda’s question of “How can I stop talking to myself?” by saying “First of all you must use your ears to take some of the burden from your eyes. We have been using our eyes to judge the world since the time we were born. We talk to others and to ourselves mainly about what we see. A warrior is aware of that and listens to the world: he listens to the sounds of the world.”
I am fortunate to live next to the Pacific Ocean and it provides ample listening opportunities. For those unfamiliar with living by the seashore, the ocean is quite noisy most of the time. “How do you stand it?” visitors often ask. Well, after a while you don’t hear it anymore.
In his book, The Outermost House, writer Henry Beston chronicles time spent living in an isolated cottage on Cape Cod in the mid-1920’s. He explains the act of selective ocean listening in this passage:
“Friends are forever asking me about the surf on the great beach and if I am not sometimes troubled or haunted by its sound. To this I reply that I have grown unconscious of the roar, and though it sounds all day long in my waking hours, and all night long in my sleeping ones, my ears seldom send on the long tumult to the mind. I hear the roar the instant I wake up in the morning and return to consciousness, I listen to it a while consciously, and then accept and forget it; I hear it during the day when I stop again to listen, or when some change in the nature of the sound breaks through my acceptance of it to my curiosity.”
In addition to selective ocean listening, I have another aquatic ear-training exercise I use. When sitting on a bluff right above the sea, I close my eyes. I start by listening close in, listening to the waves breaking and crashing right below me. Then, gradually, I start to listen further out to sea. I direct my ears as far out as possible, trying to hear whatever might be happening there.
If you are more apt to find yourself on public transportation instead of sitting by the seashore, you can still practice selective listening. If the bus or subway train is crowded, try focusing in on individual conversations instead of listening to the entire cacophonous mix of voices.
You don’t have to be sitting at home with your instrument to practice the most important aspect of playing music, listening.