I had the privilege of taking a real vacation last week, spending a couple days on the central coast of California at friend's wedding, followed by five days on the Gulf coast of Florida. I say real vacation because I've taken a few short "mini-vacations" in the last 5 years––a day or two here and there––but I'm talking about a real, week-long, sit-by-the-beach/pool-and-do-nothing vacation. Away from practicing, away from teaching, with no real agenda (other than finding a place to live in Lakeland while we were in Florida, which we did)
One afternoon, after my pale skin had taken all the beating it could handle from the Florida sun, I decided to put on some headphones and listen to music. As soon as I pressed play on a playlist of mostly piano and marimba music*, I found myself searching for something else to do while I listened to my iPod.
"I should check Twitter or Facebook. I have a few games on my phone I could play. Maybe I'll read a bit. Oh, I can catch up on how Brad Stevens became the new Celtics coach! I could flip on the TV and just mute it. I should at least get a snack so I'm doing something."
There was something very odd about just sitting and listening to music, and I quickly realized that I very rarely intentionally and actively listen to music. I'm always doing something in addition to having my music playing.
Listening to music and driving.
Listening to music and playing around on the computer or phone.
Listening to music and cleaning the house.
Listening to music and setting up or tearing down my marimba.
Listening to music and running or working out.
So it got me thinking about why. Why do I (and I know I'm not alone) feel like I have to be doing something else when the music is playing? Is it because our culture values doing so much? Is it because I'm so used to multiple sensory stimuli that a solitary input seems too boring? Is it just because I never do it?
I think I'm often controlled by the thought that listening to music doesn't accomplish anything, so it's not really a worthwhile activity in and of itself. But is that really true?
We have made music consumption almost entirely a passive activity. Of course there's nothing wrong with listening to music passively or while engaged in other activities. I think it's far better than not listening to music at all. I do not intend to suggest that we should never listen to music while mowing the lawn or doing whatever else. I only question the impulse to press play and then feel like we MUST do something else. And I believe that we may be missing out on something.
Those moments of listening I did last week left a lasting impression on me. I heard many nuances I had never heard before. The stereo image brought the 5 Browns' five pianos to life (good headphones/speakers really help with this). I enjoyed that music more than ever––probably the way the artists intended. Think about it; so much money, time, and heart go into recording and producing an album (of any genre). Surely every artist would want their fans to really listen to their work at least once. Speaking from the artist's perspective, I am honestly thrilled if you listen to my music at all, in whatever circumstances. But I do sincerely hope that at some point you'll take the time to listen to my work intentionally, in a quiet place, with good speakers or headphones, and really experience the depth and ambience and nuance that went into the recording.
One last question that came to mind in thinking about all of this. Is the way we tend to listen passively to music in any way related to the dwindling number of concertgoers, especially of younger generations? In this case, I mean mostly concerts of the "classical" variety, including orchestral, band, chamber, etc. Is it hard for us to simply sit and enjoy a concert with nothing added?
Try taking a few minutes this week and stop doing, and just listen to some of your favorite music. Are you tempted to do something else when you listen to music? What's your "and"?
* In case you're curious, the playlist consists of all four of the 5 Browns' studio albums, Thomas Burritt's All Times Identical album, Makoto Nakura's Wood & Forest album, and a few other random "classical" genre pieces.