Mornings Monday through Thursday I do music with children ages 3 months to 5 years. The school where I work is inspired by the Reggio Emilia approach. Reggio Emilia acts on the assumption that even very young children have ideas about what they want and need to learn, and listening to them and following their ideas is the best way to help them grow.
I have struggled somewhat applying this approach to music. In my experience, letting children have too much control over a music class can create chaotic and even dangerous situations. Many children all doing their own thing with sticks sometimes get too loud or too physical for safety and comfort.
So Friday I took the advice of my wife and drove out to visit an exhibition which showed a number of displays of the work of the Italian teachers in the town of Reggio Emilia as they work with their students. Some of the exhibits were videos showing them working with children on music, dance and creativity. I found the exhibit very hard to stomach.
My reaction surprised me. I was very threatened by what I saw. Even depressed.
I went from exhibit to exhibit, moved to tears by videos of children creating and leading their own pieces of music, written in their own notation. I saw them play it for a string quartet made up of young teenagers, and then I saw the teenagers attempt to play it back to the children. The whole thing was a remarkable and beautiful exchange.
So why was I depressed, angry, threatened? I didn’t know. It took me nearly the entire exhibit to figure that out.
I saw another video display about the children responding to a room full of tall columns. They created a dance based on their movement reactions to the columns. Then they formalized and preserved that dance, and presented it.
What’s happened to me, I wondered? I was that kid once. I ran through the columns with joy and created something.
Then I realized that I’m still that kid. I still see things in the world and I say “Oh my God!” and I write songs and stories and articles. But there’s a difference between the kids and me.
Adults are listening to the children in these videos. As an adult, however, I don’t often feel that anyone is listening to what I create. I didn’t feel listened to as a child, and I frequently don’t feel listened to now.
That got me wondering. If I do not feel like I am listened to, can I listen? Will I be able to give myself fully to my students, listen to them, without the internal resources one acquires from being heard on a regular basis?
I began to wonder what I was actually teaching my students. It occurred to me that maybe I’m teaching them what I’ve learned over 50 years. How to survive in a world that isn’t listening to them.
That seems like a terrible thing to have to teach a child.
Upon reflection I started to consider that, in fact, many people listen to me. Many people respond to me. Many people care about what I’ve done. And there are situations where I do feel listened to
I recently acquired the post of conductor of the Atlanta Guitar Orchestra. I’ve been rehearsing with the group of 14 guitarists for the last two months. As I’ve continued to grow as a conductor, I discovered something profound as we got up to speed for our concert.
I discovered that my conducting is most effective if I listen to the players and then show them in my gestures what I am hearing. They react very strongly to this. They can see evidence of their playing in me. They feel heard, perhaps recognize that what they’re playing matters, that they are powerful and have an impact on the music. All because I am listening to them first.
Then something remarkable happens: I feel heard and seen, because I can see the effect my listening has on them! We are responding to each other.
We are creating music, not in a heirarchical way, where I am the power, the brains, and they are the arms and hands, but in a symbiosis, like two dancers who are listening to one another and moving as a single entity. There may be a leader and a follower in a dance-pair, but in order for two people to dance they must be in sync, responding to one another, asking and answering questions with their bodies and their eyes.
So what am I learning in my creative life that might fill the void, plug the hole, make the difference? That if somehow I can write songs and books in which I am listening to the reader, the listener, if I can somehow, with a fixed, creative object, let them know that I hear them, they will feel empowered, as if they matter, and they will respond to me. Then we will be united, and we will both feel heard.
I know this can be done. It’s how I feel every time I listen to Born to Run. It’s how I feel when I’m reading a great book.
But it’s hard. I think sometimes you have to make a noise and see who is listening. Then you can say, “Aha, I hear you listening.”
These are all slightly different puzzles, teaching children, conducting, writing books and songs. But the solution is always the same. Listen first, then reflect what you hear.
Perhaps the best creative products tap into something that everyone is hearing and feeling. When someone takes in Born to Run, they feel like the songs are somehow about them. They feel listened to. Or perhaps there’s a groove in 21 Savage’s rap “A Lot” that doesn’t mean anything in particular, but it matches the mood a lot of people are feeling, it syncs with their internal rhythm, like a baby locking into her mama’s bouncy-song. Add words that tell your story and you have a hit.
Going to that exhibit was somewhat traumatic for me. But in coming to understand the idea that listening to someone allows you to feel heard yourself, I began to put a lot of pieces together. Now I’m grateful that I listened to my wife, happy that I listened to the videos, and hopeful that I have said something that you will listen to.
***News from a Jazz Musician Who Writes Books
My band, The Front Porch Session Players, recorded demos of a number of new songs last week. Go to http://www.acole.net/songs/a/songs_for_front_porch_session_players and check out the 3rd through 8th songs on the list!
Also, two new articles and a video feature of my song and me talking about controlling emotions.
As always, I’d love your comments. And please, share out to your friends!
Adam Cole is a Jazz Musician Who Writes Books. Fantasy author, music educator and performer, Adam chats weekly on the subject of listening, creativity and living your best life. To get a free book on marketing tips for passing out fliers, getting on your own radio show, and writing a blog people will read, please go to www.mymusicfriend.net and subscribe.