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Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

I know you can hear me, but are you listening?

Carlos in Taxco, Mexico 2006

To Mexico I fly, with Mozart somewhere in the background

The brain decides what we hear and to what we listen, not our ears. This startling thought connected to music was forming in my mind as I entered Terminal 5 at London's Heathrow Airport to take a plane to Mexico.

My check-in proceeded smoothly. I heard and listened to everything said to me by the charming official. Subsequently, I heard and missed not a beat of singer Billie Holliday while I simultaneously sipped my coffee and read a newspaper. I listened gladly to the re-mastered tapes of her voice, as if recorded yesterday. Almost immediately, an earnest couple nearby caught my attention as they talked too loudly without once glancing at each other. Each in turn delivered a brief monologue, to which the other responded with another. Clearly they did not wish to listen, although their hearing seemed fine. Frankly I would have preferred not to hear them at all, but as I became engrossed in my reading, their conversation receded into the background. I could hear it but I was no longer listening.

Now we are in the air, I have one of Mozart's beautiful Prussian String Quartets playing through my headphones. As I consider how to phrase the next sentence my mind half shuts out the music, but no sooner have I reached a full-stop and I relax momentarily than it switches back to listening to the Mozart. While my hearing of it is constant, my listening fades, returns, and fades again.

My airport experience was not unusual. But consider it again for a moment: drinking coffee, reading a newspaper, Billie Holliday singing, overhearing a loud conversation and listening to departure announcements all at the same time! This should produce a chaotic overload of information, but such is the nature of our brains that it steps in and, as if by magic, creates order out of chaos with a hierarchy of importance - foreground, middle ground and background. And so, too easily, uninvited, the brain does the same to our own playing, it creates different levels of concentration and listening attention. This is not surprising if you consider the task in hand: getting the right notes, phrasing, mood, playing in time, good tone, and rhythmic accuracy to name a few. Managing these quite often leads to selective hearing of only what is our uppermost concern at that moment.

To avoid a chaotic overload of information, our brains try to stop us listening simultaneously to all aspects of our playing

In our practise the natural tendency is to concentrate on one quality more than others, and this is good. But it does have a disadvantage, which is the tendency to become used to, even immune, to negative aspects still bubbling away, relegated by our brain to the background. We no longer listen to them, all thanks to our brain trying to be helpful by creating foregrounds and backgrounds. The ultimate goal is to listen to our own playing as an integrated whole. This means encouraging every part to the foreground on demand, becoming aware even of what we don't want to hear, for example poor tone.

So my advice is to give your brain a good talking to, and insist that it forces the ears to listen completely to everything you play, and put an end to a selective process which is its wont. By doing so you may be most pleasantly surprised: your playing may sound a lot better than you previously thought, or of course, it might mean back to the drawing board!

Now I have nearly finished writing I am hearing again the aeroplane engine noise, nearby passengers giggling (maybe at my manically concentrated look as I type this), and the Mozart quartet, which has been playing on a loop. I think it has gone round eight times, but I am not sure. You see, my brain was looking after me while I concentrated on writing this article, forcing everything else into the background. I am pleased to say the time has arrived to enjoy the Mozart and its ever-so-strange modulations.

And yes, this time, ninth time round, I will really listen to it, and not just hear it.

Read more:
Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step by Edward De Bono,1973

Estado Mexico, Mexico, 28 April 2012

Printed from: http://www.carlosbonell.com/blog/?p=1185 .
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