In my large and surprisingly diverse family, being opinionated is the norm. I don’t think any of my relatives will quibble with this — in fact, many of them are proud of it, and see it as a sign of strength. So I grew up talking a lot, trying to be truthful and saying exactly what was on my mind. But for a long time, I had too much to say to have time to listen. This is problematic, to say the least. It got me into trouble as often as it “helped”. There is no easy cure for what we often call “foot in mouth disease.”
But then, a lightbulb: I vividly remember a moment in college when I heard myself, and suddenly realized that I had developed a bad habit of pretending that I knew things, because the alternative seemed too terrible to bear. So I made a conscious decision to say things like, “I don’t know much about that” when the opportunity arose, and I started learning so much more about the world that it was staggering and beautiful and deeply rewarding. I have tried to practice that specifically honest habit ever since.
In recent months, I have found myself spending a lot of time with several people who struggle with some of the same issues. Whether their loquaciousness comes from arrogance and certainty, or from insecurity and the desire to prove themselves, the end result seems to be the same: they speak much more than they listen. This produces a lot of platitudes, stereotypes, insensitive statements… and sometimes, nonsense. They end up alienating the people around them rather than building connections, hurting their credibility rather than showing their value, and they are often mystified as to why. It’s as hard to watch as it is to live it.
The truth is, simply having things to say does not build relationships. It does not offer an opportunity to learn. That urge to speak can too often become a roadblock rather than an open door. Observing this has taught me far more than I was ever able to figure out on my own. I am not cured of that drive to “contribute”, by any means. Blogging and social media are near-daily evidence of that. I will struggle with this balance throughout my life. But hopefully the urge to connect is stronger than the urge to pontificate, and that may help move the needle a bit.
Listening gives us a chance to gain insight, not just opinions. Being a “doer” is essential to reaching our goals, but insight can help us set better goals in the first place. It can help us choose the right collaborators, the right tools, and the timing to not only achieve, but to exceed those goals. Listening offers us a chance to take in other perspectives while challenging and examining our own. The clarity (rather than certainty) that results from this habit can move mountains.
As a musician, one would think that I listen to music a great deal. When asked, I tend to say that I “listen to everything”, but I resist quantification. Over the years I have discovered that a surprising number of performers do not listen to their own genre much, unless it’s part of a project. Even when tickets and time are available, they may not find going to concerts and shows rewarding, because sitting rather than performing is frustrating to them. This is not necessarily self-involvement, or even a struggle with self-esteem, although either of those maladies may factor in. But the “why” is less important than what they are losing. Those performers are missing the opportunity to gain insight into their own work by listening to others. We need to learn from other interpretations. We need to regularly feel the joy and the power of the art form we have committed to. Those acts of listening and those experiences glean understanding and develop instincts that we cannot gain solely from our own performances. Every act of showing up matters, and supporting each other in this way can build a stronger arts community.
For all of these reasons, you will be seeing me at more events, and I will be listening to even more recordings in the coming months and years. I will continue to enjoy learning about your work, and I hope you will share your excitement with me, whether it’s in conversation, by email, or by other means. This “new season’s resolution” is one that I make joyfully, and I hope some of you will take it on, as well. Whether we are listening to each other in conversation, online, in our teaching, or in performance, it all matters, and our ears can teach our minds how to change the world.
See you soon.