Listening hard to get past the surface of things

A few weeks ago I wrote a musician-centered post about conveying emotion when performing music. Usually, I take the time to explain these things in non-musician terms, but that week I just couldn’t. It was too tough of a post to write (in hindsight, that was probably two or three posts worth of material). So, that’s what I’ll do this week!

The big idea with that post was that, at the highest level of expression, a musicians job is to convey a sense of emotion through their music. This is a hard thing to do, but there are ways to prepare for it:

  1. Learning to listen deeply
  2. Developing a sense of ‘play’ and ‘fun’ on your instrument (and using that to enable the delivery of emotion through your music)
  3. Learning how to play with other musicians at a high level

So, how does this relate to things outside of music—your family? Your job? Let’s take it step-by-step, starting with the first one listed above…

Learning to Listen Deeply

This is all about really paying close attention to what’s going on around you. This almost always involves listening to other people, whether it be the musicians in your band, your children, your spouse, your co-workers or your customers.

It means going beyond the words they are saying, and focusing deeper–beyond their words.

  • What was the intent behind those words?
  • What was their body language?
  • What was the emotional context of those words?

The key here is going deeper, getting past the surface image that most all humans present to the world.


An example in parenting might be when a child moves away to college for the first time. When talking to them to set up a visit for Family Weekend, the child might be saying that everything’s fine and they’re doing great, and whether or not you visit is no big deal to them. But, if you’re paying close attention (and maybe talking to the mom of a friend of theirs ;), you might figure out that if you don’t visit them on Family Weekend they would be hugely disappointed.


An example from the working world might be in dealing with your boss or a co-worker. Your boss may be yelling at you about something that went wrong. You could easily take this personally, but you know that sometimes your boss just needs to let off steam, and he is just as upset at himself as he is with anyone else. In this case, the situation is bad, but there’s no need to take it personally–just do everything you can to get it right the next time.


An example in music might be something like this: You’ve been asked to play on a new song that a old songwriter friend has brought in to a rehearsal. The songwriter plays it for you in demo form and tells you to, “play anything you want”.

In this case, context is everything. Doing some crazy, syncopated funk beat for this song (from the Alt-Country, Pop genre) isn’t going to work. In this case you’ve done your homework and you know some of this songwriters favorite drummers (Ringo, Micky Waller, etc.) and the thing to do is to play a part for the song that fits in with something that Ringo or Micky might do.

Again, this whole idea revolves around the idea that order to perform at a high level, you need to listen hard to get past what you’re hearing on the surface of things. It’s much the same whether it’s for music, parenting or at work.

Next post, we’ll talk about how developing a sense of ‘play’ or ‘fun’ can help you perform at a high level. Cheers!

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