• Keith Pray

Active Listening, the Lost Art

In today's world, music is everywhere. Not only is it everywhere, almost any song, composition etc. is there for us to hear and only a click away. Now with the pandemic and being forced to slow down a bit, perhaps we can revisit an almost lost art form. Active listening.

Growing up I was obsessed with music in a household that didn't listen to much music. At an early age I discovered a bucket of 45's in our closet and we had a record player. My Grandmother had worked at a bowling alley in the 60's and used to be in charge of changing the jukebox and apparently brought home some of the records. I would sit and listen to them one after another consuming them like potato chips (the bucket by the way was a potato chip bucket). I eventually also got a Fisher Price cassette player and was now obsessed with recording (hmm, I guess that explains a lot about this last year). I recorded everything, but mainly I would put it up near our Zenith TV and record TV show themes. Week after week re-recording them as I always wanted a better sounding recording. In 4th grade I received my first real recordings for my birthday. A friend gave me two cassettes. Culture Club and Michael Jackson's Thriller. I know you are picturing me jamming out to Culture Club right? Well yes I did for a while. It was new sounds! I listened to them over and over eventually with Thriller taking over and then an older cousin gave me Led Zeppelin IV on vinyl and that was a game changer. Had recently acquired my first stereo from my grandparents after mowing their lawn for the whole summer (A Zenith stereo with circular speakers), The sound of a new album on vinyl was something else! Not to mention the artwork and the physicality of carefully placing the album on the spindle and the needle on the record in hindsight was like mindfulness practice. It prepared you for the journey you were about to embark on. It was simply exciting! My obsession for listening to music only intensified and another older sousing was very much into music the way I was and we would listen together. First heavy metal and rock, then classical and jazz. Over and over we would listen to the music. It was always an event. Prepare the stereo, prepare the recording and press play or drop the needle. Then with no computer or phone to distract us, we would turn up the volume and our journey would begin!

In High School being a musician had become my focus and my obsession for listening still continued to intensify. Collecting change from the couch cushions, returning bottles, whatever it took to get yet another album or cassette. I would play them over and over trying not to miss anything (funny thing was I had no idea what I was listening for, I just knew that every time I noticed something else). I began realizing that I was curious about what made each recording tick for me. Was it the guitar solo on Ozzy Osbourne's Crazy Train? Charlie Parker's famous break on A Night In Tunisia? The dense harmony and orchestration of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring? YES!!! All of the above! As I said earlier each listening experience was an adventure. There was no such thing as background music in my life. I was always trying to listen.

The first purposeful experience with active listening happened thanks once again to my cousin. He had returned home from music school and said he had something for me to check out. He said we needed to listen to it with our eyes closed (sounds like a set up to me, but it worked out!). He turned on the stereo, put the recording on, we turned off the lights and just listened. This beautiful hypnotic melody came across the speakers sounding distant over time more instruments entering, building, whirling then the release to an intense rhythm vibrating the room. As the piece went on I had visions of people dancing around a fire in a primal way. The piece consumed me and at the end I was so excited to learn what we had just listened to. It was the Rite of Spring. Once again I became obsessed with the piece and listened again and again (40 minutes a pass by the way). I needed to know every part, when it came in, where it went to and what went with it. Eventually I ended up in music school and immediately went to the library to get the score (sheet music of the whole piece) for the Rite. I would follow along listening to it, again over and over and eventually trying to learn how to play parts that intrigued me the most, which would shape my musical approach in the future.

To this day I can tell you where I obtained almost all of my albums, cassettes and CDs. I can often still smell the environment, see the room, hear in my imagination the imperfections of a worn cassette, a skip in a record. It was the entire experience that permeated my soul. Each experience was just that its own experience etched into my memory. My desire to find out what made each recording "tick" for me, became one of the most important tools for me as a musician, although I never did it for that reason. I just needed to know!

Today, I have joined the rest of the world, consuming most of my music on a device (which has its positives). The problem is listening is no longer an event for me. I am usually studying something to learn or again learning what makes it tick and then moving on because music is so readily available. In the car, on a walk, just listening to tunes on shuffle (not always but much of the time), rarely listening to new albums over and over again and rarely listening to the whole thing in one sitting. But early on in the Covid world I had my son and wife sit with me in the dark listening to the Rite of Spring and it was a great experience once again and has brought me back at least a little to the more simple yet deep soul fulfilling times of active listening, being in the moment just listening with no other agenda, no distractions, nothing more important than the vibrations coming from the speakers at that time. I hope we can all re-discover some of this lost art. Active Listening.



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