Earlier this month I took a two-week break from the heated atmosphere of the Sound and Music office to attend a Clore Leadership Programme Short Course. This fortnight of reflection relocated me to the Linden Hall Golf and Country Club in Northumberland. Staying at Linden Hall’s like being transported into a game of Cluedo where the elderly inmates are far more likely to die of excessive aromatherapy in the Spa, or dehydration on the golf course, than a malicious whack to the head with a candlestick. As I neither play golf, nor enjoy being interfered with in spas, I was focussed on the course. Amongst various edifying and challenging activities the two weeks saw me climbing, pyjama clad, through a ground floor window in a bizarre role-play of my future septuagenarian self; dwelling on the long term implications of a childhood dog attack on my continued professional development and hazarding a dangerous swan dive in the golf club bar. It was a highly enjoyable couple of weeks and it allowed my to figure out some important things about why I continue to get up and go to work in the morning.
My fellow 24 participants were drawn from many disparate areas of the cultural sector; galleries, museums, film, live art, dance, theatre, libraries, etc. To my surprise I found myself at a total loss to describe the music that SaM presents and supports and this led me to conclude that many of the terms commonly in use to categorize this collection of aural ‘stuff’ are little more than abject insider jargon. Further to that, any description I could muster of what the actual work sounded like seemed to be contradicted instantly by its opposite being equally true. So, there’s me embedded for two weeks with as wide a selection of the culturally curious as one could hope for and the best thing I could offer was “I’ll make you a Spotify playlist.”
This got me thinking about what the diverse strands of our work might have in common and led me to turn the question around to focus on reception rather than content. Much of the focus of the course was on developing higher level conversational understanding and listening skills. I’ve just dug this out from my notes:
Active Listening: The Five Levels
Level 1: Me Now
This can be summarized as waiting for the other person to finish talking, then just moving on.
A: “Shall we go to the cinema?”
B: “I’m really worried about my car passing its MOT.”
Level 2: Just Like Me!
As above, though slightly less rude. Shifting the flow of conversation onto oneself.
A: “I’m really worried about my car passing its MOT.”
B: Yes, I worry about that too. Now that George has brought me a new little runabout I’m planning to head down to Brighton far more often.”
Level 3: Do It Like Me
Basically just giving advice. I do this all the time at home. It’s not really engaging with the speaker and their deeper concerns. Must do better.
Her: “I’m really worried about this bloody Ofsted inspection.”
Him: “Look, why don’t you just do that road safety lesson you’ve done a million times.”
Level 4: Encouraging
Listen and invite more. Good news here is that you don’t need to know a damn thing about what the speaker is talking about. Take this example:
Him: “I’m really worried about my Yellow Belt grading in July. Heian Nidan’s a nightmare Kata to learn and I keep messing up the Shuto Ukes before the first Kiai.”
Her: “Let’s talk about it some more. Would you like to tell me more about the bits that are worrying you?”
Level 5: Active Listening
Engaging with the silence; listening behind the words; listening to the silences; using your intuition.Here’s an example tailored to the arts administrator audience:
CEO: “I’m really stressing about getting my Arts Council annual report in on time. There never seems to be enough time to get down to it with my inbox shouting at me all day.”
Chair of Board: “So finding the time is hard. Is anything else getting in the way?”
CEO: “Some of the things I am doing are actually less important. I could put them off. But I don’t.”
Chair of Board: “What’s happening for you there then?”
CEO: “I’m worried about the report not being up to scratch – maybe I’m prevaricating.”
You may think by now we have wandered a fair distance from my problems describing the work that makes up the Sound and Music programme. Let’s go back to the definition of Level 5, substitute some words and imagine this as a strategy for musical listening:
Active Listening – engaging with the sounds; listening behind the sounds, listening to the silences; using your intuition.
Could this not be offered as advice to those first encountering the work of Dawn Scarfe, Brahim Kerkour or Stephen Cornford, just to pull three current Sound and Music Embedded programme names out of the hat? Or, let’s take some other examples from SaM’s work with more established international figures in recent years. What about applying this strategy to the work of Rudolf Eb.er, Jana Winderen and Antoine Beuger?
I’m going to add a few more words to the end of the Level 5 definition. I’ve nicked these from the text score to Karlheinz Stockhausen’s ‘Kommunion’: Try again and again, Don’t give up
About the author: Richard Whitelaw is in the Billiard Room with the lead piping.