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Learning to listen
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Learning to listen
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Learning to listen
Pass it on
Pass it on
Articles
6 January 2016

Learning to listen

Listening with care is crucial to good music-making. And a basic tenet for living.

Written by Genevieve Lacey

This story originally ran in issue #42 of Dumbo Feather

“Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. When we are listened to, it creates us, it makes us unfold and expand.”— Karl Menninger

To listen suggests an open, receptive stance, without necessarily knowing what will arrive. It suggests alertness, willingness. Listening is essentially an act of respect and generosity. It is a time for keeping our egos quiet, for hearing others’ needs and opinions. Listening connects us deeply to others. It can change how we perceive the world, and then how we decide to live in it.

Many of the great leaders of historical and contemporary times, the visionaries, the peacemakers, the activists and healers, are essentially great listeners. A great leader can listen acutely to the concerns of their era, to imagine what might be possible, and to bring that to life.

I’m a musician, a recorder player, and my instrument exists on the fringe of Western classical repertoire. I have at best a fleeting cameo in the grand scheme of that history. The reality of being a recorder player based in Australia is that there is no ready-made job for me here as a performing musician. My work is to invent possibilities, contexts and audiences for the music, people and ideas I’m passionate about. This requires intense listening, tuning myself in to the silences and not-yet-heard spaces of this time and place.

Musicians are consummate listeners. Our attentiveness is a gift, with potentially broad-reaching applications. When I’m nervous before a performance there’s one thing I try to remember: “Just breathe and listen,” I tell myself. “It’s as simple as that.” And it is. I know that if I can get there, there’s a place where all existence is pure breathing and listening. In that place, I’m immersed in sound. I’m part of something much older and bigger than I am. It’s beautiful. In that place, I am tenderly, powerfully connected to the people making sound around me, to the people listening, to a long line of music-making ancestors, to people whose spirits I love and carry, and to people I’ll never meet.

Some of the clearest, truest times I have known have been encounters with people and music, when it has felt as though, together, we have inhabited that elusive breathing and listening place. I have sat in prisons and at funerals, with groups of people immobile with despair and loss, and music has given us solace. I have seen children come wondrously alive to themselves, to each other, and to their world, thanks to music. Listening to someone play, I have felt whole, and I have been torn to shreds.

Sometimes composers ask me to produce sounds I thought the recorder couldn’t make. Trying to find them is like being an inventor. It’s about endless listening, lateral thinking, patience, stubbornness and sometimes a fleeting, Hang on, what if…? that spins everything on its head and crashes me unsteadily through to a new place. Where I land is somewhere unexplored; my instrument and I take on new dimensions. It’s one of my favourite parts of being a musician.

This sensitivity to tone, nuance, sound and silence is invaluable beyond the dedicated listening spaces of rehearsal rooms and concert halls. In my everyday I am learning to be attentive to silence, to sit and listen to the sounds of a place, as well as to those who inhabit it, and to wait in conversation, without filling pauses, to truly connect with another person. Listening with care, hearing complexity and noticing subtlety need not be purely professional music practices, but tenets for living.

Such listening has radical potential.

Genevieve Lacey

Genevieve Lacey is a recorder virtuoso, serial collaborator and artistic director based in Melbourne.

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