Many people today talk about the function of classical music in our modern society. On the one hand, there is the growing inclination that classical music has pragmatic value to educate and enrich schools and communities. There is also the more traditional perspective that says that music is art for art’s sake and that its aesthetic worth is enough. Both of these are true. However, in my opinion, the single greatest value of studying, practicing, and performing classical music at any level is that it teaches us the all but forgotten art of listening. Not only musically speaking but, more importantly, what others have to say.
I think that musicians (including myself) assume that because we practice a communicative aural phenomenon, it means that we are good listeners. This makes logical sense because listening is something that we are trained to do. Music theory, music history, aural skills, lessons, rehearsals, and concerts all develop our minds and refine our ears. Countless hours in the practice room hones these skills by application.
Yet so much of the time we hear but don’t listen. Like my mother says, “many people only listen with the intent of speaking their own opinion”. The expression of someone else’s perspective is only a commercial break for the regular scheduled programing: me. Whether it is communicating in or out of the rehearsal room or on or off the instrument, we have a tendency to marginalize others in favor of our own agendas. The ego distorts the expressions of others. Even when listening to a concert we tend spoil the music in our own ears because we only take notice of the things we don’t like.
If there is anyone at fault of this it is me. And that is why I enjoy the WMU Graduate String Quartet, WMU New Music Ensemble Birds on a Wire, and Orpheus Chamber Orchestra cycle. A smaller ensemble setting means more interaction between members. This inevitably leads to heated discussion about the way things should be done. Faster here? Softer there? No, I think an up bow, or, you do down? Yet what separates a lively debate from a costly argument comes from mutual respect, patience, and personal sacrifice. It involves actively and intentionally trying to understand another person. Sometimes you have to interpret someone’s statement at face-value by removing your preconceived biases and sometimes it requires reading between the lines and asking “what is this person really saying?” In all cases we must leave our insecurities, selfish attitudes, inflated egos at the door.
With this in mind, consider Aristotle’s categories of friendship. In his model, there are three basic types of friendships: Utility, Pleasure, and The Good. A friend of utility, also known as a friend of “advantage”, is a mutualistic relationship which is useful to both parties. A friend of pleasure brings happiness and satisfaction from the kind of activities that you do together. A friend of The Good is a virtuous endeavor because it requires each person to altruistically put the best interest of the other person as their own priority. Thus, friendships are like classical music as a whole. Music or friendship may involve a pragmatic advantage for ourselves, it may bring us pleasure, or it may allow us to put another person first by trying to understand them. Friends of Utility and Friends of Pleasure are wonderful. Nothing remedies a long rehearsal like an equally long dinner with food, drink, and colleagues. Yet what endures the changing of the tides? It is the music and the relationships that bring us to better understanding of each other.
Thank you Graduate String Quartet for a great performance on Tuesday night, best wishes to the New Music Ensemble for tonight’s concert, and good luck to the next cycle of orchestra with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra residency.