Wednesday, January 18, 2012

What the Mahler 9 taught me about active listening

Photo by The Inhabitant

Can you hear me? Rub the outer edge of your ears. 

Will your cell phone ring while you're reading this? If so, can you turn it off?

In Kindermusik Educator training, we learn that focused listening is an active experience. It's a learned skill, and it's one of most critical lessons in early childhood. Recent events in the news remind me that listening is also an ongoing lesson - it doesn't stop in childhood. And we may be living in an era when the simple act of listening is one of the most distracting parts of our day.

If you haven't heard the recent story, the twitter version goes like this:  "Concertus interruptus: unsilenced cell phone brings a New York Philharmonic performance to a halt." During Gustav Mahler's Ninth Symphony" -- a haunting piece some say the composer wrote as he faced his own death -- a cell phone started ringing in the audience," according the story in

"New York Philharmonic conductor Alan Gilbert reacted to the intrusion by stopping the music. He didn't melodramatically fling his arms down; rather, he merely dropped his hands, which alerted the musicians to stop playing, according to Jo. 
Then, the only sound in the great room was the "Marimba" ringtone of the cell phone, Jo said. 
Gilbert turned his attention to the owner of the phone, who was seated on the front row, and asked, "Are you finished?" 
When there was no reply, Gilbert said, "Fine, we'll wait," and placed his baton on his music stand, according to Jo."

I loved Gilbert's calm reaction and focused listening as he waited for someone to turn off the cell phone. As Kindermusik Educators and musicians we have a unique opportunity to help families practice the art of listening - even in the midst of unnerving interruption. We learn in Kindermusik training to model active listening behaviors - to rub your ears, bend closer to the listener, and model the "your turn, my turn" response. We help families learn how music literally helps little ones "tune in" to the sounds we want to hear, and don't want to hear. 

We also have a chance to help parents learn the simple act of turning off their phones for some focused listening in class. It could become the one hour a day when a child isn't interrupted by a parent's ringing cell phone.  

Here are a few ways we could introduce the concept in the classroom. 

1. Make it a part of your class routine. In class we learn to take off our shoes before Kindermusik, include the reminder to turn off your cell phones, too, as a part of the class ritual.
2. Remind families that listening is a learned skill. Children learn "focused listening" by watching adults model appropriate listening behaviors. When they see adults take action to listen - by showing them how we're turning off our phones to completely focus and listen to the child - we're showing them how we value what they have to say, and that we want to hear them without interruption.
3. Slip in the reminder during the "rub your ears" reminder during class. Remember to ask questions: "Is your cell phone off? Are you ready to listen?"

The idea is to learn how to live with technology - not complain about the problems. In your classrooms you have a unique opportunity to help parents learn how to better model active listening among modern day distractions. A reminder that might activate just before they go into a movie theater or to a concert symphony hall.

Can you hear me now?

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