Am I a Good Listener?
I remember my first student recital in college very well. I had prepared some unaccompanied Bach on my cello. I came on stage to an auditorium scattered with about 20 students, slumped in their chairs, filling out the little pink card that they would need to turn in after the recital to prove that they’d been there. That way, they would get proper credit towards their music major at the end of the semester. After I played, I saw my teacher offstage. Soft-spoken and thoroughly “Minnesota nice,” he was also slumped, perched on the arm of the couch in the green room. He tilted his head, tugged at his ear, scrunched up his face, and said, “Hm. I don’t think you listen to yourself while you are performing.”
Now, I pride myself in being a good listener. Talk to me about anything, and I will listen. And as it turns out, I was listening. To lots of things. Just not necessarily to all of the notes I was playing. I listened very intently the first time I made a mistake, and then I started listening even more intently to the panicked voices arguing inside my head about what to do about the increasing shakiness in my tone, and what all those other kids were thinking. In fact, I was listening to the whole room, and the whole school. I was sensing the energy of a place that was getting sucked dry by an obsession with fulfilling requirements. Music students had to play at recitals. And they had to play the music that their teacher chose for them. And if they were going to require students to play said music at said recitals, they had to require other students to go to the recitals so that there would be an audience.
I listened. In the music halls, I heard a faint soul-sucking sound. I heard a slow dying amongst the faculty. I heard a lot of people trying too hard. I heard a lot of fear. And, my cello teacher was right. I was listening to everything BUT myself. What I needed was to somehow learn to listen to myself.
Who Is The Self?
It was in the basement of the chapel, where the religion classes were held, where I started listening to myself. That’s where I studied Hinduism and read Ramana Maharshi. Where my teacher, Anantanand Rambashan, asked me, “Who is the self? Where is your consciousness? Who is it that knows you are a self?”
I listened. I listened to my teacher, to myself, to my school. In the religion halls, the faculty felt alive and I felt alive. So the path that would, over the next 20 years, lead me to songwriting, vocal improvisation, and performance art – first led me away from a music degree, and towards a degree in religion, instead.
Later, I would study music theory and composition, and learn to paint with the colors of harmony. I would listen intently to an ancient poem and find the melody that wanted to bring it to life. I would train my listening hands with the Alexander Technique, hone my interoception, and my ability to sense the patterns of tension and release within my own body, and the body of another. Then, I would dive back into the world of religious studies at Claremont School of Theology and find my home in contemplative practices, watching the flow of my thoughts and my emotions. And, in the years since, as I sought to heal my trauma, I would learn to enter the World of the Spirit in my meditations – and to dive deeper than conscious reality.
Through it all, I became fascinated by this art of listening within. My listening led me right back to the core of music – to singing my own, wild song.
A Path from Listening to Singing
Today, I consider myself one who births songs. I improvise. I let my body’s knowing become audible through the sound of my voice. My music-making is, quite simply, the practice of listening to myself and translating what I hear into musical sound.
Making my music – my own, wild song – requires deeper self-listening than any other form of music I have ever made. After all, I am not listening for how well I am melding my sound with another person’s sound, or how well I am repeating a cadence that I heard someone else sing. I am listening, simply,
to. my. Self.
Big S. The deep me. The one behind the masks. The conscious one, the creative one. The one who has the power to name which inner voices are helpful and which are not. The one who has the power to rewrite my story. The one who remembers who I am and who I’ve always been.
This Wild Song Path is a mystical path. Along this path, I seek to create music that is new, and yet pulls at our oldest memories and brings the truest version of ourselves to the surface. This, I can only do by asking, “Who is this, at the core of me? Who is it that knows I know? Who asks these questions? Who sings these songs?” These aren’t music theory questions. These are the questions of the spiritual seeker.
Yes, yes. I am grateful to have learned my solfeggio and my chord patterns. My brain loves patterns, and needs something to keep my prefrontal cortex busy so it won’t get in the way while the real work is being done. And, patterns are beautiful.
But the Wild Song Path goes far beyond pleasing patterns – it is the path of awakening the soul.
Music created along this path has the power to shake us all awake.
I know this, in the deepest parts of me.
And yet, there are the other voices:
“Wait, whaaat? Me?? Make music that has the power to shake us all awake? But I have a cold! I need a nap! What if it isn’t as good as last time? Maybe I’ve lost my touch. Heck, I don’t really NEED to write a song. I already have a bunch. I’ll do that next week. When the laundry’s done. When the taxes are done. When I’ve finished all my homework. When I’ve booked six clients. When I’ve made a million bucks…”
Haha. They just keep echoing. No, they are not me. When I dismiss them, one at a time, and listen, REALLY listen, I don’t actually hear any words at all. It just occurs to me, somewhere in my body, how good it would feel to hum right now. And that’s where it all begins…
The first step I took along this path years ago, and the one I must return to, fresh, each day, is the step towards mindfulness. Each moment, I strengthen my ability to CHOOSE where I place my attention. I let excuses fall away. I listen to the real me. And, I make music.
Not Just to Listen, but to Re-Memeber
As I look back on my own journey, on my path to finding my own Wild Voice, I see four signposts, or portals, as it were. These four portals have each led me into deeper levels of artistic freedom and spiritual awakening. I don’t see them in a line, but rather surrounding an entire world, waiting for us to enter, whichever way we will. Learning to move through all of these portals has made creative flow extremely easy to come by.
These are the portals I see on the WildSong Path:
Mindfulness – strengthening the ability to choose where to focus my mind, where to listen, at any given moment.
Liberation – shedding the confines, both inner and outer, created by all the systems of oppression that would keep our powerful voices hidden away.
Love – specifically, love for my own body and the ongoing deepening of that love by choosing, again and again, my own pleasure.
Mysticism – finding a way to connect with, and channel that which is deeper than, and far beyond my own consciousness.
This is The WildSong Path. A gift I received, and that I give, now, seasoned with wisdom of so much listening:
Listening beneath the excuses – for possibility, and for delight.
Listening for that moment of recognition – when a voice is found – when a song is born.
MB Bolin, The Mystic Bard
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