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Discerning Music, Part 3

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Working the muscle of attention

CC-Music-imageWe’ve discussed listening instead of merely hearing.

We’ve discussed the context of God’s love affecting how we choose to listen.

Now, let’s exercise listening’s capacity to pay attention to God in our lives.

Developing musical muscles

Growing up in a sports family, I often heard how athletes train and develop their muscles and skills for their specialty. My athlete father – who ran in the 1948 London Olympics, and loved to play several other sports – explained that the legs of a long distance runner look very different from, say, those of a track cyclist. A boxer’s arms are developed differently than a rower’s. An athlete possesses unique attributes developed through training and attention to his or her chosen sport.

This is analogous to listening to music. Just as my father can identify the muscle development of athletes because of his athletic prowess, so we can pinpoint – through attentive listening – the values in arrangement, nuance, articulation, tone, pitch, and other identifiers of Western musical culture, regardless of genre.

As good as that is, it only speaks to the notes and the performance of a piece of music. How does one recognize the netherworld that lies, in Igor Stravinsky’s words, “between the notes,” the world where the music reaches out and engages us?

Music (and the arts) come in two halves. One is the “thingly” character of the work. Music is conveyed through instruments, paintings are hung, poetry is printed, films are captured digitally or on celluloid, and books are stacked on shelves as tangible, objective entities.

The second half is the artistic nature of the piece. This is the space between the notes where music presents something other than itself. It’s the realm of being moved, seduced, and enlightened by music. The combination of the work and the nature of the work creates something alive with power to touch us.

Training the muscles of attention

Discerning the goodness in music requires training the muscles of attention. Just like an athlete focuses on certain muscle development to achieve his or her ends, so we focus our attention to finding the fullness that music has to offer.

Many years ago, producing an album in Houston, Tx., I hired respected jazz and session bassist John Patitucci. In the studio, I had him play a two-bar fretless solo – which, on the first pass, I thought he’d nailed. He frowned: “I can do better.” The next one floored me as well. “Nope!” came the voice over the talkback.

For the next half hour, take after take, he changed, modified, and focused his solo into something quite distinct from the version I was ready to settle for. I got a master class in high quality musicianship

and creativity that day. As Patitucci was working his muscles of attention, I realized mine needed some serious exercise. “Humility is attentive patience” came to mind.

Listening to our lives

What hinders us when we desire to pay attention acutely not only to music but, as author Frederick Buechner says, when we listen with our lives? We get distracted by not only external noise (from our jobs, family, Facebook, Twitter, entertainment, and minutiae) but also internal noise (questions regarding our value, love, doubt, and future). Silence in prayer is helpful to shed these distractions and get down to the place where the “whispers of God” can be heard.

I love when the dots connect between the arts and God’s active presence in my life. When I pay attention and listen carefully within the context of God’s love, I open up and welcome his presence in not only music, but all times and places. “Music and the Spirit dance together,” says a friend of mine. Yes, they dance together – not only in songs, but the music we make of our lives.

Our desire to love God and taste and see that he is good is present in the motivation to learn to pay attention well. We expand that capacity inside of us, just like an athlete trains his or her muscles. Like all exercise, this takes attentive patience, and is a journey of joy as we listen more keenly to music and the space between the notes (Hebrews 6:12).

Who knows? Maybe we’ll join the dance.

—Roy Salmond is a music producer, itinerant speaker, and worship leader who enjoys the cross-section of faith and the arts. Roy is a member of Cedar Park (MB) Church in Ladner, B.C.


See also

Part 1: The one who has ears

Part 2: Transforming taste through love

Part 4: The ends for which we live

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