Maria Popova made a BrainPickings post about Elliott Schwartz’s book, Music: Ways of Listening, about four years ago. The link to it just came to my attention recently.
Popova notes, “you can substitute “reading” for “listening” and “writing” for “music,” and the list would be just as valuable and insightful, and just as needed an antidote to the dulling of our modern modes of information consumption.”
Reading Schwartz’s thoughts, I think you could probably make a similar substitution for most arts disciplines.
As I mentioned last week, I have been trying to be more active about answering Arts related questions on Quora. Yesterday, I received a request to answer a question about what things should one think about if they wanted to become a better dancer. I started thinking what my answer might be if no one else stepped forward to answer. To my slight surprise, many of the general approaches I was thinking of suggesting are included in Schwartz’s list from 1982.
I wouldn’t necessarily include all these in a Quora answer, but among the things Schwartz wrote that jumped out at me were the following:
Develop your sensitivity to music. Try to respond esthetically to all sounds, from the hum of the refrigerator motor or the paddling of oars on a lake, to the tones of a cello or muted trumpet. When we really hear sounds, we may find them all quite expressive, magical and even ‘beautiful.’ On a more complex level, try to relate sounds to each other in patterns: the successive notes in a melody, or the interrelationships between an ice cream truck jingle and nearby children’s games.
I liked this one especially because it isn’t necessary to do a substitution at all to make it applicable to other arts disciplines. It can be just as valuable to an actor, dancer, writer, visual artist, etc to pay attention to mundane sounds around them and be sensitive to how that might manifest in the work they produce.
The same is true regardless of whatever discipline you might insert. Actors frequently people watch to gain deeper insight into the way they can depict characters and relationships. Dancers, musicians, writers and visual artists can all use people watching to inform their work. And then so on with each discipline.
Try to develop musical concentration, …It may be easy to concentrate on a selection lasting a few minutes, but virtually impossible to maintain attention when confronted with a half-hour Beethoven symphony or a three-hour Verdi opera.
Composers are well aware of this problem. They provide so many musical landmarks and guidelines during the course of a long piece that, even if listening ‘focus’ wanders, you can tell where you are.
The idea that is it okay and normal to lose focus and become bored when participating in an arts experience goes back to the early days of this blog. (obligatory nod to Drew McManus) It is important for people who are relatively inexperienced to be aware that such guideposts exist for them.
Try to listen objectively and dispassionately. Concentrate upon ‘what’s there,’ and not what you hope or wish would be there. At the early stages of directed listening, when a working vocabulary for music is being introduced, it is important that you respond using that vocabulary as often as possible. In this way you can relate and compare pieces that present different styles, cultures and centuries. Try to focus upon ‘what’s there,’ in an objective sense, and don’t be dismayed if a limited vocabulary restricts your earliest responses.
I thought the idea of concentrating on “what’s there” and not what you wish would be there is especially relevant these days when you can get the exact form of gratification you desire upon demand by pulling your smartphone from your pocket. (Though I suppose there were similar issues people were bemoaning in 1982. Can’t think of what since cable and VCRs weren’t ubiquitous presences.)
Popova excerpts seven tips from the book and I have pared down the ideas expressed even further. At the very least it is worthwhile to view the Brainpickings post and ponder what Elliott Schwartz had to say.