Shut Up and Listen, Together

Keith Whitaker

I attended a performance of the Boston Symphony Orchestra last night. It was many years since I had been to the Symphony, apart from occasional “Pops” events. When I was an undergraduate in Boston, I regularly went to performances, even going so far as to get myself a subscription on my limited student budget. I was attempting to move from barbarism to culture. But graduate school, work, a child and other distractions soon got in the way of my continuing this acculturation so wholeheartedly.

Returning to Symphony Hall reminded me how much the world has changed in the intervening 20 or so years. Amid an audience of several hundred, I thought, “If we were watching this online, my fellow audience members would be typing up comments or reviews. We could text or tweet each other our impressions. We’d note our various likes and dislikes. There’d be a running commentary alongside the performance.” But instead we all sat there silently, our thoughts and feelings our own.

The experience strikes me as relevant to concerns about the supposedly evolving college classroom. In a world of distance learning, or performances on YouTube, what is the value of the in-person experience? Sure, a classroom discussion is much easier to have … in a classroom. But a symphony performance doesn’t invite discussion. Quite the contrary. How difficult, I imagined, it would be for teens and twenty-somethings, reared in an environment that treats their every expression as meaningful and noteworthy, to be expected to sit down, shut up, and listen for three hours.

For the symphony demands attention, in ways the teacher may find worth reflecting on. Sitting through a performance is an exercise in attention, not only to the music in all its variations, but also to the persons and skill of the performers, and finally to oneself and the effects, emotional and intellectual, of what one sees and hears. Devoid (generally) of words and certainly of dramatic demonstrations (unlike movies, plays, or opera), the symphony both concentrates attention and allows it a certain freedom, a freedom to follow where the music leads. Might a well-prepared lecture achieve something similar?

Still, one could achieve such concentration listening alone at home (provided one put aside the computer, the blackberry, the dishes, the dog, the child, etc.). What then is gained by listening, silently, together? In part, such presence instills a different level of respect for the music itself, as the product not just of some box whose inner workings we do not understand—and which can be stopped or started at our whim—but of people like us, independent and self-moved, yet so unlike us, so gifted. It also instills wonder at how this crowd—tripping over each other getting on-stage, scraping their chairs into place, evoking a cacophony as they tune their instruments—can transform into a whole that works as one, producing amazingly complex sounds. They start with a text and transform it into a unified experience. They do almost the opposite of what most classrooms or the blogosphere does, taking a unified text and dispelling it into a cacophony of commentary.

Listening together also leaves you with the sense that your experience is not simply your own but also shared. Movie theaters have become so plush and accommodating that you feel like you’re in your living room: the experience is all interior. Symphony Hall is a beautiful place, but the seats are straight-backed, no reclining, with just a nod to cushioning. The lights are never totally dark. You are (quite) conscious of yourself sitting there, and conscious of many others sitting around you. No doubt those of us there last night had different reactions to Debussy, Delius, Mozart, and Strauss. Some of my fellow concert-goers’ reactions were of the snoring variety. Still, I bet that many of those reactions or the emotions the music evoked were similar or the same. If only for a few moments, we left the building “singing the same tune” (decorously, in our heads). Symphony translates to sympathy. If liberal education remains about the formation of character, then this would be a point worth considering, and a defense of the well-crafted lecture sans discussion. 

Upon reflection, I see that this point—of the fellow-feeling that is evoked by listening together—came home to me during one of my last visits to the symphony, before my long hiatus. It was January 17, 1991. I remember the date because in the middle of the performance, Ozawa stopped and the chairman of the BSO took to the stage to announce that coalition forces had begun to bomb Iraq in response to its invasion of Kuwait. There was a further moment of silence and then loud applause (mainly from the upper balcony) followed by boos and hisses (mainly from the orchestra seats). True, as with all important political topics, the audience’s response to this event was not unified. But it felt right to receive such news in public, among fellow-citizens, rather than (retrospectively speaking) blogging away in a social network made up of solitary individuals. And once the applause and booing died down, the music began again. 

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