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Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Art of Listening

Listen Up

Did you attend the Spring Garden’s Moravian Church service in celebration of the Diamond Jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II? No one I know will say it publicly so I will. The members of the Royal Antigua and Barbuda Police Force Band should be locked up with their musical instruments, and maybe also with small rations of bread and water. The keys to their cells should be smelted and the amalgamated, melted mass poured, over separate locations, into the Atlantic…no... the Pacific Ocean; far, far away so that they can only get out of musical jail after doing penance for the harm they are doing to the ears, minds and hearts of normal people and to themselves.

Listen here. At some time in the life of a musician or any professional, a decision must be made on the quality of service provided. Even prostitutes know this. The problem with the members of the police band is generic to a fundamental issue facing all professionals in a developing country (including doctors, and not excluding myself).

Music is a listening art. The innumerable times I have not listened and fallen flat (or sharp) are testaments to how easy it is to miss the beat; to stray; to get caught up with oneself; to think one is wonderful and smart, and brilliant like some big, bad musical wolf; when all the while even Little Red Riding Hood can see under the blanket cover. You cannot hide inside the music forever.

The fundamental paradox boxing all of us in a developing country is how we balance the sands of opportunities against the singular rock of reliability, hard work, and the quiet satisfaction of a job well done. It is difficult. It is not impossible. We have to learn to listen and set limits and standards. Three disciplines in life with which I am familiar enforce the importance of listening.

Medicine demands listening. And this listening is not just listening to patients and colleagues. A good doctor must listen to the inner voice. Allow me to add this virtue to the list of deserving accolades in respect of the recent celebration of the life and work of our eminent surgeon, Mr. Cuthwin Lake. (Someone else will say why doctors respectfully refer to surgeons as Mister instead of Doctor). Mr. Lake is a great doctor because he is, above all else, a great listener.

Marriage demands listening. A young, female friend of my wife once revealed that she had discovered the hidden secret of a good marriage. She was buoying (and “boy-ing” ) as if she had had a moment of eureka (probably in a bath tub too). She let out that husbands will do whatever their wives tell them to do; and so all wives have to do is to tell their husbands what to do. It was that simple, like all great discoveries. This lovely, neophyte wife must never be told that her good, listening husband had made the simultaneous Archimedean discovery (in the same bath tub) that if he wanted peace (and its homophone) he must, at least, pretend to listen.

The problem with music is that it is all timing. It takes time to learn an instrument, to play it well, and to listen. In the life of a musician there are long periods of being away from others, immersing oneself totally in sounds of music. There are many stories of some women who swore they would be the happiest women on earth if only they received even less than one per cent of the love, care and attention their musician partner showered on their instrument. There are also stories of some women dropping musical instruments “accidentally”.

It is extremely difficult to be a policeman or a doctor or any other professional, and also play music well. We have to be prepared to make huge sacrifices in securing and maintaining a good instrument, spending countless hours and years practising and listening to the inner voice that tells us when our playing is neither cerebral nor cordial but simply anal.

In a developing country like ours, anything passes for everything. We argue that checks and balances are not in place and official standards are lacking. But how can we call ourselves musician, transfused with the healing elixir vitae from Apollo; entrusted to speak and heal with this wonderful universal language, as all musicians must be, and not have that inner, personal, listening sense of good and bad, right and wrong? Yes, we do not get sufficient time off to practise and yes, we have to have more than one job to make ends come a little closer to meeting. So what do we do? What song shall we sing that is acceptable in our sight in this strange land?

The words of our mouth and the meditation of our heart must be in consonant harmony. Those in professional and national authority must stop pussyfooting, understand the immense value of music, and stop devaluing musicians. On the personal level, we musicians must either find the flipping time and make more than the flippant effort that music demands, or stop disturbing, and provoking, the beautiful instrument. Play it right or do not play it at all.

A friend of mine, who is also a doctor and a musician and married, and hence is a great listener, reminds: “Some are deaf; many more do not listen.”

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