Who Ever Said Listening Was Passive?

danny-practicing-torah-reading

One of my favorite scenes in A Serious Man is the one pictured above, about 25 minutes into the film, where Danny Gopnik (Aaron Wolff) is practicing his Torah portion with the help of a recording by Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt. He listens, imitates, listens again, imitates. That’s not how you’re supposed to learn your portion–you’re supposed to work with the text and trope–but this fits his character and allows us to hear the great cantor. But what gets me is how well he imitates. It’s transcendent. He picks up not only the melody, but the subtle textures, the ornamentation, the timing. (I have not found a video of this particular scene–but the bar mitzvah scene gives you an idea.) I was so intrigued by the excellence of this scene that I looked up the actor and learned that he is a cellist. In addition, this was his actual Torah portion when he became a bar mitzvah.

Here is a recording of him at age 15 playing Popper’s Hungarian Rhapsody. There’s a funny interview afterward, too. The point is not, “Wow, how amazing that he could play that at age 15,” but rather: This is serious musicianship. The little scene in A Serious Man is no fluke; there’s some exceptional listening in it.

Listening is the beleaguered art or skill; again and again I hear it described as “passive.” Egad! Listening is not passive. It’s some of the most active activity in action. It requires intense concentration and attention to subtlety. You must be alert to the structure, tones, rhythms, transitions, and those qualities that aren’t as easily specified, in the collection of sounds you take in. It takes practice, too; if you have never listened to a symphony from start to finish, you might not know what to  make of it, or  you might get restless; but if  you are used to it, you enter a welcoming country (unless the performance or piece is horrible).

In education discussion people often oppose “active learning” to “passive listening.” Such an opposition is not only false but destructive. Yes, students need opportunities to discuss their ideas in the classroom–but if they do not also learn to listen to a sustained piece or presentation, they will miss out on a great deal. It is in a lecture, for instance, that one can lay out an argument and draw attention to its less obvious details. Putting it together, and forming questions in the mind, a student becomes involved with the subject in a particular way. There’s a dialogue in listening; you make sense of what you hear, and you find your responses.

Now, some may say that music and lectures–and the kinds of listening that accompany them–are so different that they shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same discussion. I recognize their differences but also see a lot in common. In both cases, something is conveyed through sound, over an interval of time; its various parts come together in a whole. When you listen, you basically travel through it in time, exercising your memory and anticipation all along the way. Your reactions may be analytical, emotional, or both, but they will not be complete until you have listened to the whole piece, and even then they may be in formation. You carry away not only the content, but the sound, which can play in your mind for a long time afterward.

Yesterday I put this to the test. On Tuesday I revised the fourth chapter of my book, the chapter on listening–so yesterday I treated myself to a day of listening. In the morning I went to an open rehearsal of the New York Philharmonic; in the evening I attended a lecture by Christine Hayes, “Forging  Jewish Identity: Models and Middles in Jewish Sources.” In both of these, in different ways, I was absorbed in the details and the whole. After both, I walked away with sounds and thoughts.

The New York Philharmonic played Brahms’s Symphony No. 3 and Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto (with pianist Stephen Hough). Both of these I remembered from many listenings in the past; in addition, I remembered playing the Brahms in symphony in college. I had that distinct sense of it from the inside; not only that, but I remembered some of the places where we played it (we toured England and Wales in the spring). With both the Brahms and the Beethoven, I was alert to the interpretation–the many tiny differences from what I remembered, the dynamics, the dialogues between instruments.

As for the lecture, I immediately understood the three-part structure (Dr. Hayes discussed Jewish identity in terms of memory, covenant, and Qedushah, and went on from there to explore different historical responses to crisis.) Understanding the shape and motion of the lecture, I was able to enjoy and think about the details. When she read texts aloud in English, I would follow along in Hebrew, not only for the additional challenge, but for the sake of the Hebrew text itself. This allowed me to encounter, for the first time,  the wonderful line from Mishnah Sotah 7:8: “Fear not, Agrippas, you are our brother, you are our brother, you are our brother!”

אל תתיירא אגריפס אחינו אתה אחינו אתה אחינו אתה

I walked away not only with the lecture’s  ideas (and my slowly forming questions), but with these words.

In short, listening is not passive, simple, or easy. But just a little bit can add serious riches to a life, and the lack of it can lead to grief. (That’s a different subject for another time.) I end with one of my old poems, “Jackrabbit.”

Jackrabbit

This land has never been painted properly.
Mix clumps of juniper with moonbeam blue,
Throw in a bit of tooth, a bit of song,
to fill the silhouette with bite and tongue.

This is a real dirt road with imagined rocks,
senses, insensate dangers, destinations.
Headlights sweeping the long floor of the mind
pan a jackrabbit back and forth in time.

Caught in the blank emergency of beams,
he dodges his dilemma with a brisk
“what if, what if” that dances him to death.
He could not find a way out of the way.

Earlier that day I was on the phone,
missing all your relevant advice.
A wire had got caught up in my throat,
an answer-dodger. It distracted me.

It trembled so fast that it numbed my tongue.
It did this while you were trying to talk.
I couldn’t listen well because the dance
had blurred all trace of consonant and sense.

I think now that this may have been a crash
of my old givens against your offerings:
new junipers, or ways of seeing them,
new countries, or ways of getting there.

When I hung up, there was no wire or word.
The moon was gone, the road a long fur coat
on some unwitting wearer, blissed and hushed.
I forgot all about it until years later.

You had said: “You can go left or right.”
Take me straight! I shouted. Straight to the remedy.
Gallop like the nineteenth century
down to the police station or cemetery.

Striding answerless, a station incarnate,
a cop ticketed me for not listening.
Now I can bear the rabbits and the wires.
I inch through forks and roadkill, listening.

Note: I made a few little corrections to this piece after posting it.

A Sense of Tuning and Timing

In Book VIII of the Republic, Plato explains how the beautiful city, the kallipolis, succumbs to decay as anything else does. First, the leaders start having children at the wrong times; then the children, who are not raised properly, mature without a sense of poetry and music. Lacking this sense, they also lack a sense of proper governance.

Why might this be so? I asked my students. Why would good leaders need education in music and poetry?

The answers they offered said a lot about our times. “Music allows you to be creative,” said one.

“It’s self-expression,” said another.

“This is true, but is there more? What does it mean for Plato?” I asked.  They were momentarily stumped.

I directed them to a passage in Book III:

Aren’t these the reasons, Glaucon, that education in music and poetry is most important? First, because rhythm and harmony permeate the inner part of the soul more than anything else, affecting it most strongly and bringing it grace, so that if someone is properly educated in music and poetry, it makes him graceful, but if not, then the opposite. Second, because anyone who has been properly educated in music and poetry will sense it acutely when something has been omitted from a thing and when it hasn’t been finely crafted or finely made by nature. And since he has the right distastes, he’ll praise fine things, be pleased by them, receive them into his soul, and, being nurtured by them, become fine and good. He’ll rightly object to what is shameful, hating it while he’s still young and unable to grasp the reason, but, having been educated in this way, he will welcome the reason when it comes and recognize it easily because of the kinship with himself.

Now they understood that Plato saw music education as a conduit to good taste and judgment—because, having learned to discern good craft in one sphere, one can recognize it elsewhere as well.

One can dispute this, of course. There are plenty of examples of people with musical prowess who show poor judgment in other areas of life. Nonetheless, there’s something to this idea of timing and tuning. When you learn to play or sing in tune and in rhythm, you do become more alert to form and detail. You come to sense the relationships between different parts of a work, whether it’s a sonnet, an opinion piece, or even a sentence. You may even notice when your mood is out of tune or out of step.

None of this transfer of sensibility is guaranteed. It’s possible to perform a sonata splendidly and then get into a needless argument. It’s possible to sense a flaw in a sestina but not in a policy proposal. Nonetheless, music and poetry can make a person more alert to tunings overall.

But of course music isn’t only tuning and timing. There’s tension between control and release, between discipline and abandon, between form and departure from form. You need both, but in what proportion? There’s no final formula. That’s where keen sense comes in.

Young people do not lack that sense. It’s just that many of them haven’t thought of music in that way. Why not? Much of it has to do with a popular belief in self-expression. It needs a counterbalance, and a strong one. Self-expression of a kind is important, but it’s the shaping that makes it interesting. It’s the shaping that allows works to speak to each other and to seep into the memory. It’s the shaping that allows us to carry a sensibility from one sphere into another.

This shaping, of course, requires knowledge; you must listen to many sonatas to understand what a sonata can be, or to depart from a sonata. Beethoven’s Opus 111 arises from the earlier sonatas; it could not have been composed in a void.

A good curriculum would include many works that help students understand form and shape. It would involve a great deal of listening to poetry, music, and speeches. It would not preclude self-expression, but it would lift that expression, enriching it with literature, history, mathematics, languages, and more.

Update: For more on self-expression and its pitfalls in the classroom, see Robert Pondiscio’s piece in the Atlantic.

The Solitude of Good Collaboration

Not long ago, I attended a meeting where a teacher presented her own definition and explanation of “analysis.” She suggested that other teachers do the same: think about analysis on their own, put their best definitions and explanations together, and then bring these ideas to the next meeting. As I listened, I understood what she was after. She realized that the discussion would be more productive if the teachers first thought alone about the matter. In other words, she saw that collaboration requires an element of solitude—an idea that seems obvious but is often forgotten.

We hear, over and over, about the need for cooperative learning and collaborative planning. In a recent article in the Atlantic, Jeffrey Mirel and Simona Goldin put forth the familiar argument that teachers want to collaborate, bless their souls, but end up spending most of their non-instructional time alone, in their isolated rooms. It is time, they say, to create more opportunities and resources for collaboration. But why do Mirel and Goldin pit solitary work against collaboration? Take away the former, or reduce the time for it, and the latter will lose meaning. Meetings will gravitate toward the lowest common denominator—that which everyone can readily understand and accept.

In many schools, teachers are required to spend time in teams every day, but there is no protection of solitary time. Most of the day is taken up with instruction, meetings, and various other tasks and duties. Even when alone in the room, the teacher is usually gathering materials and correcting student work. One of the most important parts of teaching—mulling over the subject itself—gets pushed out to the edges of the day.

Yet is this very mulling, this solitary relationship with subject matter, that preserves the integrity of teaching. When we bring our own work and thought to the group, the group does not hold us back; it does not reduce what we have to say, since we have already worked it out in our minds. “Conversation will not corrupt us,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “if we come to the assembly in our own garb and speech, and with the energy of health to select what is ours and reject what is not.” To have “our own garb and speech,” we must know what it is; to have the “energy of health” for selection, we must be able to restore and strengthen ourselves alone.

When teachers have insufficient time for thinking alone, they are more susceptible to group errors and group jargon. Suppose teachers were trying to come up with a definition of “analysis.” If they did this as a group, without thinking alone first, they would end up with a collection of scattered thoughts, which they would then try to cobble together. They might arrive at something like, “Analysis is a higher-order critical investigation in which a thesis is substantiated with evidence and clear connections are made between the evidence and the thesis.” That is difficult to detangle, as many group statements are. But if they took the question into their minds, played with it, figured something out, and then brought their thoughts to the table, they could arrive at a good working definition. (Note: dictionaries offer multiple definitions of “analysis”—so even after looking it up, one must think it over.)

One teacher might say, for instance, that analysis is the act of breaking something into its elements. Another might say that it is the act of inferring generalities from specific details. Still another might say that it is both: that it involves relating details to the whole and vice versa. Still another might define it as the examination of a phenomenon’s structure. As they considered the ideas that had been presented, they might see truth in all of them. Analysis, they might conclude, is the systematic explication of a relationship—for instance, between a part and a whole of a literary text or between a historical event and its possible causes. Having arrived at a plausible general definition, the teachers might supplement it with specific definitions to suit the situation at hand. This is not likely to happen without solitary thought.

By bringing solitary thought into their collaboration, teachers not only enhance their own work but set an example for students. Students, too, will learn more from each other if they know how to think and work alone. Let us suppose that, in a music class, students are considering how the sonata form plays out in the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 8 (“Pathétique”). To do this well, they are best off listening to it alone, without distractions, several times. The form (introduction, exposition, development, recapitulation, coda) is not difficult to discern. When alone, they will hear its particularities: the key changes, the textures, the transitions from one theme into another, and the subtle, less tangible changes of color and mood. Then, in class, they can point out what they found; one student may have noticed something that others did not. The teacher will be able to alert them to still more subtleties and patterns, which they will be able to appreciate. It is not only time with the material that they need; they need private, nonsocial time with it, time without peers nearby to condition what they think and say.

We must halt the collaboration screech-wagon and pursue greater thougthfulness instead. The visible signs of collaboration are not the only ones; taken too far, they impede good work. There is something vast in a bit of quiet: a chance to absorb, practice, and tinker. At its best, it takes us past our narrower selves, allowing us to see our mistakes and misconceptions. There is no need to shove it aside, no need to disparage the thing that allows us to bring something to others.