When I was in graduate school, one of my organ professors was part of a panel of judges adjudicating an organ competition. One player after the next would perform the same repertoire. With but a few exceptions, I thought all of the players sounded alike. In my lesson the following week, I made this comment to my professor. He smiled and said, “Yes, it could all sound alike.” He then explained to me that what he listened for was how musical each organist was with the accompaniment. For example, rather than listening to the “tune” or melody being played, he was listening to the other notes being played underneath – were they being played in a musical manner and with a sense of purpose?

I’ve worked to train my ears over the years to listen more carefully. In pieces with a clearly defined melody, I try to pay attention to the voices that don’t have the melody. Are those voices being expressive and conveying a sense of purpose?

Whenever I find myself listening to a symphony or choir, I try to listen in this way– not letting my ears focus on what is most obvious, but trying to listen to the other sounds. To use a football analogy, when I watch football I mostly watch the person who has the ball. But, I know that those who know football really well are more likely watching other positions (who is doing a great job blocking/defending/etc.). A good orchestral conductor can hear all of the instruments at once, much like a gifted football coach can focus on the person with the ball as well as what the other players on the field are doing at the same time.

I think there’s a larger lesson to be learned from this – I need to focus less on my own narrow view of the world and our problems, and instead seek to appreciate the larger picture which contains beauty and interest all around us. The news may be noisy and disturbing, but I shouldn’t overlook all of the marvelous things people are accomplishing these days. It does take a bit of extra effort and focus to see some of these things, but I know the reward can be great. On my way home one evening last week, I was stuck in traffic due to road construction for what seemed like an eternity. Horns were honking, concrete and dirt were scattered everywhere, and cars were lined up in all directions. And then I noticed a small flower bed actually inside the construction zone. It had been meticulously cared for and showed evidence of recent plantings appropriate for the Fall. “Wow,” I thought, “even in the midst of this mess, someone took the time and energy to try to make something beautiful here.” I wonder how many other times I’ve completely overlooked something intended to make the world more beautiful? I need to listen (and look) more carefully.

(Completely unrelated to the above blog, I thought I might also share with you all that I did an informal poll last week with the Cherub Choir members on this year’s presidential election. The young choristers (ages 4-6) were asked who they would vote for if they were eligible to this November. Seven would vote for Hillary Clinton, one would vote for Donald Trump, and three apparently would buck the system and choose to go the write-in direction with “my mom.”)