That quotation is actually an old Turkish proverb. I offer it to you because over the past couple of weeks, the art of listening has been on my mind.
Did you know that, for a musician, one of the MOST important skills is the ability to listen? Correct. And, in many, many instances, a performer’s ability to listen will make or break a performance. Listening is important for tuning, for ensemble singing and playing, for taking direction from a conductor or a stage director — if you as a performer cannot listen well, you will never be part of a great performance. That is right — “part of”. No matter how famous you are, how talented you are, or how “whatever” you are, unless you are playing one of the Bach solo pieces for viola or cello, or any of a few other strictly solo works in the classical repertoire, you are not making music alone. And, I might argue that even someone playing one of those solo works is not making music alone, because the composer is present in the work you perform (but that is another whole discussion).
Okay, so if you are Renee Fleming or some great star, most of the people participating in the performance will be listening to you and therefore building their own performances around you. But for me, a truly great work of art, a truly great performance, is about collaboration (which requires listening), and in an interesting way, hospitality. Without a sense of hospitality, all the performers do not feel a part of the creation; without hospitality in our souls, there is no room for the the ultimate listener, the audience.
I have long been obsessed with listening well, not just because of my work in the field of music. In fact, my involvement with listening goes all the way back to Mrs. Wiley’s 4th Grade class at the C.A. Burke Elementary School in Kansas City. For one full semester, we worked every week from a box of programmed learning materials about how to listen well and thereby enhance our learning skills. I can still see the box, with its color-coded progress tabs, and I have long remembered the skills that box taught me: make eye contact with the speaker, maintain an open body posture, and well, listen.
So it will probably not surprise you that my own ruminations and and my recent explorations have led me to a pick up a book titled Holy Listening by Margaret Guenther. I’ve just started it, and I’m sure that I will have more to say about what I find there, but this morning I’ve been reading about the importance of true hospitality in the act of listening…and it made me start to think about the role of true hospitality in the art of performance. A former teacher of mine used to say to me that, while singing, if you as the performer do all the work, there is nothing left for the audience to do. If you have all the emotion, what can they feel from your performance? The best performers I know and that I know of empty themselves of the “stuff” of their daily life to let the music come in and through them, and so that they might share with those who make music with them and those who hear the music they make.
Making space for “the other”. Opening your arms and your heart to the stranger. That is, after all, the true meaning of Christian hospitality as stated in the book of Hebrews: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares (13:2).” And, I think, that truly listening may be the greatest act of hospitality that one can offer…