As creatives we are taught to practice our instruments the way it has been instructed for decades. Practice, practice and more practice. It is even said that we need to have been practicing at least 10,000 hours to be proficient in playing our instruments. It does not matter whether or not it is the piano, violin, cello, harp, guitar or even our own voice. It is true, we truly need to know our instruments from the inside out. What if we intimately understood our connection with each movement from our physical body to each sound which comes alive with our instruments. I am not talking about the notes on the page, I am talking about the act of listening, the flow of energy, from the moment we wake up to every rehearsal, reading of the score, movement of a finger, a foot or uttering consonants or vowels. Each of these small actions lead to music.

As artists we need to be open to the possibilities of that which we do not understand yet. Maybe we should go back to basics, the basic act of listening, to truly understand the value of creating a piece of music. Pauline Oliveros did it best when she developed “Deep Listening” practice and my research adds onto this practice from scientific, social, creative, and communication perspectives. How deep do we go with our listening when we rehearse, read a score, or perform? Listening is 4-dimensional, and it drives communication. The research I conducted between 2016 and 2020 showed me a different side to listening practice. Energy is one of these 4 dimensions which connects with our brain, mind, and physical movement and in turn feeds directly into how we communicate. Listening being the core component of such communication. I love calling this listening practice, the fundamentals of listening. These fundamentals are rooted in every human cell of our physical bodies, our brainstem and five senses. The hypothalamus helps our body to process what we see, touch, smell, taste and ultimately hear (sound) which directly connects with listening. Sound is automatically assigned to what we hear, what we absorb and how we respond or reply. Our response in turn is then connected to our unique perception of each sound, conversation, the music we hear, rehearse, or perform.

Moving deeper into a scientific approach to listening has taken me to two core fields of study and thinking. The psychology of sound and physics. It is the space-time continuum which made me fall in love with physics. My newest new love affair with a possible multiverse, galaxies, and an expanding universe which rarely contracts whereas sound can be stretched and contracted, and yet, does sound collapse in on itself the way a star collapses and become a black hole? How do we listen, learn, and discover?I spent a lot of time in stillness (remember what John Cage said, “there is no such thing as silence”) over the last four years and I listened. I listened to conversations between students, I listened to colleagues and friends.  I found myself listening with my eyes, ears, mind and even my physical body. I could feel how my body would draw itself into a conversation or move away from trivial moments. My ability to pick up on the physical movement of others increased and all these experiences were attached to the act of listening, deep listening. It was deeper than deep, it felt transcendental and overwhelming. The experience of almost feeling the sound of voices, conversations, music, birdsong, and other sounds seeping into every pore of my body. It was and still is electrifying.

It isn’t about quickly listening to a piece of music before we explain it to a colleague. It isn’t about how fast we can learn a piece of music. The technicality of a piece starts to fall away when we start to consider where the sound starts, how it starts, how it moves and where it is going. How does the sound open? How does the sound fall into stillness? What is its quality, translucent, thick, opaque, or almost fleeting? The moral of all these questions is: how we listen, and how we want to connect with each sound inside a piece of music. Look at the music score itself as a piece of art, a canvas of textures and shapes on the page even before we start to play the notes. The score is a supplementary tool which offers guidance to the musician. The magic happens during rehearsal where we connect our energy, with the energy of the composer through our first glance at the score. It is this energy which produces the listening processes and every physical movement. It is the act of listening which drives every other choice that is made up until the work is performed or recorded.

Listening is part of becoming, transitioning the graphics or score into a unique work of art. It brings collaborative energy into a culmination of sound and stillness. Each musician needs to be willing to delve deeper into their inner self and being open to an immersion of sound into their physical body. This can only be achieved through practice and more practice. Become comfortable in stillness and listen. Turning off the radio when driving and listen. The answers we seek are in the stillness and beauty is in each sound.

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Author: Sean Botha (PhD)

Creator of IAVA – Interactive Audio-Visual Analysis & 4-Dimensional Communication

Founder of H.S. Botha Productions