There’s More To Music Than Meets The Ears

There’s more to music than meets the ears. Check out this fantastic lecture and fantastic performance by Evelyn Glennie.

Pretty amazing, huh? How *can* she do that without using her ears? What senses does she use, if not hearing? It’s a great question. There are two parts to the answer. The first is that sound is movement, and while the ears are really good at detecting movement, we have a lot of other ways we can feel it. There is a lot there – we can see movement, touch it, feel it with our muscles, and more. She’s using her whole body to listen. This is something all great musicians do.

The good news is that its something we all can do. Its easy and enjoyable when we figure out how to do it. It’s the biggest lock on the door to playing great music. Check out what she says at 3:15, talking about how she listens with her whole body. “What I have to do as a musician is do everything that is not on the music. Everything there isn’t time to learn from a teacher, or even talk about with a teacher.”

Notice she did not say you can’t learn it. That is because you can. Unfortunately, most music teachers spend so much time talking about the notes, techniques, pitches, tempos, and dynamics that they don’t talk about what music really is. And students end up walking away, giving up frustrated because they don’t get the results they want.

I think you can learn it from a teacher, and not only that, most great musicians do. Check out how she talks about the difference between her high school teacher and her music school teachers.

There are good reasons why music teachers don’t cover this territory. Most importantly, it’s hard to put into words. Elvis Costello once famously said “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” It’s easy to communicate what notes to play, but very difficult to say how to play them. We simply don’t have words in English that represent the necessary ideas. This is exactly why I’m so big on defining terms. Without the a common vocabulary, this kind of communication is very difficult.

Even with an excellent glossary, I can’t read minds. I cannot directly tell what is in a student’s mind. I can only guess if a student is ‘doing it right’ by the results. Luckily, I’ve made so many mistakes, and so many types of mistakes that I can often spot the reason why a mistake is being made. But, like my students, I’m limited to what I’ve directly experienced, so I’m ultimately guessing. Because this is so individual, this is simply not anything you can write down, and assign as homework. There is no method book possible. This is the other reason it is not often taught. You can’t exactly put this in a syllabus.

When you find this direct connection to experience that she talks about in this lecture, you find the highway to music. Like Evelyn Glennie, I believe this is the single most important thing that I can teach.

Unfortunately, the highway to music is like the Yellow Brick Road from the Wizard of Oz.We all have the ruby slippers on, but it takes a long journey before we realize it. We all have direct access to music and music making, we just don’t recognize it. And, just like in the Wizard of Oz, it is teachable. Check out her bit about creating the sound of thunder at 20:35 – 24:00. Make note of how her teacher started her off on the right road.

Also check out how many times she uses the word ‘experience’ throughout the lecture. Music is about experience. If you are able to have experience, you are able to make music. Creating music is about sharing your experience, and nobody is more talented at sharing your experience than you are.

The biggest problem is that there is so much going on in our experience that it gets to be very confusing. It’s a big world and we need to explore it in order to understand it. Since we do what we think will work, when we better understand ourselves and our experience, we make better decisions that bring better results. We get more of what we want.

This is teachable. One of the first places to start is by understanding what experience is available. There are two kinds of experience. New experience and old experience.

The only way we get new experience is through our senses. I’m a geek when it comes to sensory physiology – what sensors our bodies have, how they work, and how the brain interprets them. the reason is because it is all we have left to do. It is how we interact with the present and how we will interact with the future. Throughout her lecture, Evelyn Glennie talks about how she experiences (feels, interacts with, listens to) music. For example, at 5:30, she talks about how she holds the stick affects how she experiences music.

Old experience – what we’ve already done – is always with us and will always be a part of us, whether we like it or not. Our decisions are based on the combination of what we’ve done and where we are now. We can choose to do whatever we like, but we will only choose to do what makes sense to us. What makes sense to us is based on our prior experience, which itself is grounded in the way the brain works.

And this is the secret to learning. You only know what you have experienced. Learning is the same thing as experience. If you want to learn better, faster, more completely, you have to experience things more completely. Rewind the video to 3:15 again. She says ‘It’s the things that you notice… that in fact become so interesting, that you want to experience through this tiny tiny surface of a drum.” If you are interested in something, you will explore it. When you explore it, you learn about it.

Therein lies the trick. If you get yourself interested in something, you learn about it. And, as she points out, interest level is something that is within each of us, not something inherent in the object. What you are interested in depends entirely on you. Check out what she says about which songs she likes at 20:00. As the German clockmaker says, ‘There are ways of making you Tok.’ Interest, like musical talent, is learnable.