Listening Versus Hearing

“The difference between the sense of hearing and the skill of listening is attention.”

Seth S Horowitz, New York Times, 2012

We hear all the time, even while we sleep, but how much of what there is to hear do we register, and how much do we really listen? One metaphor for the quality of our attention emphasises that it costs us something – “Pay attention!” the frustrated teacher snaps at the distracted child. We pay with the loss of other input – as André Gide said “Choisir c’est renoncer” – if you ‘choose’ something then you must ‘surrender’ something else; focus your attention in one direction and you must unavoidably withdraw it from another. This double meaning of attention is highlighted every time someone wearing headphones walks into a parking meter. What is often not well understood is just how much of the input that our senses can register is then edited out of our awareness, but if we were unable to limit the constant stimulus from the outside world we might all be suffering the kind of sensory overload experienced by some people on the autistic spectrum. As a practitioner I regularly work with people with many of the traits described by Elaine Aron in The Highly Sensitive Person – as Feldenkrais practice lowers muscular tonus throughout the body it is a great way to calm an over-stimulated nervous system, and many of us in the profession came to it for that very reason.

This sensory editing process is constant and we filter out more when we need to focus our attention inward. We have all experienced repeatedly attempting to gain the attention of someone who is absorbed in a task – and been so absorbed in our turn that the sudden awareness of a sound or movement closer than we are expecting has triggered the abrupt muscular activation of the startle reflex. This reflex – embedded into our nervous system as part of our fight-or-flight mechanism – is so powerful that it can make us jump into the air. I am always very careful about how I attempt to attract the attention of someone who is vacuum cleaning for that reason, the constant sound of the machine disguises approaching footsteps and the shock as the startle reflex kicks in is quite unpleasant. The degree to which we can ignore sensory information when we focus our attention is surprising. You have probably come across the “Gorilla In Our Midst” experiment, where a group of observers are so distracted by the task of counting basketball passes that a large number of them fail to notice a man dressed as a gorilla, even when he stops directly in front of the camera and beats his chest! If you would like to test your own observational abilities, click here. Sadly these tests only tend to work the first time – once you know there is a gorilla you cannot miss him – but I doubt there are many people who can focus their eyes on the gorilla and count the ball passes.

Another interesting experiment – this time actually about the importance of hearing – showed that you could ruin a skilled squash player’s game by obscuring the sound of the ball bouncing off her bat and the walls of the squash court, simply by filling her ears with music. You could say that this is an experiment that is going on all over our modern world as the number of people permanently cocooned in headphones is increasing at an unprecedented rate.

Hearing is the passive act of sensing, constantly providing vital information about what is going on around us, highly evolved to help us stay alive in a dangerous world. Listening is the act of focusing our awareness, “tuning in” to some specific aspect of this multi-layered aural landscape. Hearing may deteriorate with age or suffer injury, but listening is a skill that can be developed and honed, that can be wielded with intent.

“I do think we would be wise to give our children some instruction in the process of listening – not so that listening can be made easy but rather that they will understand how difficult it is to listen well. Listening well is an exercise of attention and by necessity hard work. It is because they do not realize this or because they are not willing to do the work that most people do not listen well.”

M Scott Peck, The Road Less Travelled

Moshe Feldenkrais set out to reawaken in adults the creative, playful exploratory process that comes naturally to babies as they build their own brains from scratch using only their sensory-motor nervous system and their environment. To avoid the compulsion to be correct that can be triggered by watching an “expert” demonstrate what you are “supposed” to do, he organised his Awareness Through Movement technique around verbal instruction – the teacher’s skill is in clarifying the movement instructions so that the student feels able to figure out what to do for her or himself, and for this to be successful the ability of the student to listen with attention is vital. When giving verbal instructions to a group of students, their differing levels of ability to listen with focus and attention are all too obvious. That listening well is not a common skill is the reason M Scott Peck emphasises that paying proper attention requires work and active effort. In fact this is the only kind of effort we Feldenkrais teachers encourages our students to undertake!  While it is undeniably good for us as a profession that our YouTube presence is growing daily, the effect of lots of nice people doing nice movements on screen is to reintroduce the act of demonstrating to the Awareness Through Movement (ATM) teaching process. This also has the advantage of making the work more accessible to the deaf, who might otherwise struggle in a class and for whom recorded lessons are no use at all. One way the “demonstration effect” can be ameliorated is to film a group of people exploring the same movements so that the observer can get a sense of the individual differences in interpretation – my colleague Lavinia Plonka uses film in a way that shows how enjoyable and appealing an ATM class can be.

When I decided to name my course The Conscious Voice I was strongly influenced by Alfred A Tomatis and his fascinating book The Conscious Ear. It details the development of his work with hearing and the voice, and on my most recent rereading it inspired me all over again to be reminded of how important voice work was to his original experiments. His legacy has become more focussed on working with education and healthy child development, but he started out teaching singers to improve their singing and their vocal quality by improving the way they were using their hearing. His experiments with his own invention the “electronic ear” led him to the belief that which ear we prefer and which frequencies we “attend” to are both vital elements of the musicality and richness of the voice, so much so that he stated with confidence that “One sings with one’s ear” – although he recognised that Dr. M Moulonguet – the first colleague to reproduce his early results – put the same idea more diplomatically for the French scientific community of the time when he wrote “The larynx only emits those harmonics which the ear can perceive”. Tomatis is very clear on the importance of hearing through bone conduction, not simply through the structure of the ear itself. I am confident that Awareness Through Movement and Functional Integration are both reliable ways of improving the resonance response of the skull.

Bone conduction is the reason that your voice sounds different on a recording compared to the sound you hear as you listen to yourself speaking (or singing); your inner soundscape combines what you hear through your ears with what you hear through the bones of your skull – the lower frequencies that reach your brain via bone conduction are edited out, and the higher frequencies that remain give your voice a brighter, edgier quality* – does this contribute to the popularity of deeper “warmer” voices over higher-pitched, sharper voices I wonder? You can reproduce this effect easily; put your fingers in your ears – this will increase the percentage of sound that your perceive through your skull. Now listen to your voice for a few moments, then remove your fingers as you continue vocalising and notice the difference.

*This is similar to the difference in your vocal quality when you add Twang, or inhale helium!

World class percussionist Evelyn Glennie is a wonderful example of how sophisticated our perception of sound through bone conduction can be. It is truly astonishing that a deaf person can play percussion with such a high degree of skill, but it is just as astonishing to watch her chat with her interviewer. This film is a sensible length (should you be nervous of clicking the link!) and in it she discusses her experience of hearing sound throughout her physical self, indicating that she hears a particular high pitched tone in her forehead, but that her legs and tummy are her “best ears” and that the marimba is the easiest instrument for her particular hearing ability to perform with. Her example has enormously increased my confidence in the possibility of making a real difference to hearing as well as listening by freeing up the physical self to be more responsive and therefore more resonant.

Glennie began to lose her hearing at the age of eight – I doubt the clarity of her speech would be so good if, like Helen Keller, she had been born deaf and blind. We are already developing our language abilities in the womb, tuning into our “mother tongue” through the resonance within her body. Helen Keller is an inspiring example of someone who learned to speak without ever having heard a voice, using her ability to sense vibration through touch, with the help of Anne Sullivan, a teacher of unusual creativity and dedication.

The joy of listening well is easily understood by musicians, however, to be musical is more to do with the way a person listens than their ability to play an instrument – many people reveal their musicality in their love of listening and the broadness of their musical taste. Singing has always been available to everyone – and it does not require training to do it well, only practice and attention (again). To sing well all we need to do is to learn to listen properly to the sounds we make, honing our awareness of the sounds we make until we can confidently reproduce what we hear in our mind’s ear.

Lost in the music...

Testimonial from VocalDynamix 5 day course:

Thanks very much for your wonderful voice course. I am still working through the material and have a much larger range at each end of the scale.

It was really interesting to have speech contextualised into its effect on laryngeal movement and brought me a new awareness into that area and a sense of how voice production affects the diaphragm and its attachments to the spine, rather than just the other way round. The untrammelled, quite deep (for me) voice that your workshop gave me at the end was gratifying but it changed into something different later.

Your workshop also changed my listening. Yes it is true that I still sing out of tune (I can hear it now) but I had an experience towards the end of your workshop – I stepped out of the passageway from the studio into the street, and all the cars and trucks and drills and birdsong were a symphony!

It was so weird – I never usually listen much, let alone savour such sounds and I certainly never realised they were all at different pitches. I must stress that I am not musical and this was not my usual perception of the world. I would recommend VocalDynamix to anyone.

Rosalind Brown

Workshop Details:

Hearing, Listening, Sounding, Moving – The Four Dimensional Voice

In my mission to discover the full potential of sound-making, singing, and the human voice, it has become more and more clear over the years that the ability to maximise our hearing by improving the way we listen is a vital element of both the tonal qualities available to the voice we produce, and the ease with which we make those sounds. The effectiveness of our hearing is hard to quantify, and the slow deterioration that happens as we age is not easy to recognise as it is happening – it is very much the case that we may not know what we have until it is sadly gone. Certainly many of us have more that one person in our lives who simply does not listen to us, it is possibly one of the most frustrating elements of any relationship!

Consequently I have been interested in finding ways to enhance our hearing – in the same way that we can enhance our seeing – for many years. I am still exploring what is possible in this sensory realm, but I am confident that we can all improve and develop our listening abilities – both in the actual perception of the sounds around us, and in the metaphorical sense of improving the way we focus our attention on ourselves, and the glorious sound landscape in which we live. This will be an exploration of possible ways to increase our ability to both widen and narrow our attention, using all our senses, but focusing on hearing in particular. We will use our own sounds – vocal, internal and percussive – to increase our whole-self awareness, and from there focus inward in order to explore the different resonating spaces inside ourselves. I will be using body-tuning forks, and we will get a chance to experience and explore the effects of sounding our harmonic overtones on our sensory awareness. We will also be discovering how to stay connected with this new awareness as we explore moving with vitality and ease in Awareness Through Movement. This will be a great workshop for anyone interested in voice, chanting meditation, enhanced self-awareness, and all types of performance, plus of course any interest in improving listening skills – I hope it will even enhance natural empathy, as I believe this is one of the effects of the way we as human animals vibrate in sympathy with one another, reading the emotions of the people around us. The performer’s job is to trigger that sympathetic vibration in the audience so that performer and listener become one for a few moments. Come and pick up some ‘Good Vibrations’!

You can check when I am next teaching this workshop here, or contact me for more information if no workshop is currently scheduled.


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