A Jazz Musician’s Wisdom on Listening: Lessons for Us in Healthcare

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Respectful listening is hard, but it can be learned, and it can be practiced. 

Musicians know they must learn how to listen. For example, during a jazz solo, the accompanist must practice respectful listening, following the logic of the soloist’s melodic line , and providing chords and rhythms that support that melodic line. Jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton teaches his students respectful listening. He asks the student to talk about what the soloist played, and an inexperienced accompanist might respond, “Oh, I don’t know! I was busy thinking about chord I was playing and what I was going to play next.” Burton then explains that the accompanist must keep redirecting his attention to the soloist. Similarly, when we’re in a conversation, we tend to think about what we just said, or what we are going to say next, rather than listening respectfully to what the other person is saying.  We need to consciously redirect our attention to what the other person is saying.

Jazz guitarist Jim Hal, in an interview for the Library of Congress, when asked about the two other players in his trio, said: “They listen well and react well, that’s what music is all about, that’s what life is all about.” Listening well and responding well — that’s what respectful listening is all about. The first step in developing respectful listening is to realize that listening is hard. That seems counter-intuitive. We think we are listening when we are in a conversation, but often we are not listening, but either thinking about something else, or thinking about what we are going to say next.

Good musicians realize that listening is hard work. In The Infinite Variety of Music, Leonard Bernstein made the point that listening is hard:
… we hear too much music…. I didn’t say we listen too much; I said we hear too much. There’s a big difference between listening — which is an active experience, participating in the music, riding with it up and down and in and out of its involvements and evolvements — and just hearing, which is completely passive. That’s what we’ve got too much of — the eternal radio and TV set, this cursed Musak, plaguing us from coast to coast, in jets and trains and depots and restaurants and elevators and barbershops. We get music from all sides, music we can’t listen to, only hear. It becomes a national addiction; and music therefore becomes undifferentiated. We reach a saturation point; our concentration is diminished, our ears are too tired for real listening. … Music is hard.

Now I’m going to “translate” Bernstein’s comments so the apply to listening in a conversation:

… we hear too much speech…. I didn’t say we listen too much; I said we hear too much. There’s a big difference between listening — which is an active experience, participating in the conversation, riding with it up and down and in and out of its involvements and evolvements — and just hearing, which is completely passive. That’s what we’ve got too much of — the eternal radio and TV set. We get talk from all sides, talk we can’t listen to, only hear. It becomes a national addiction; and talk therefore becomes undifferentiated. We reach a saturation point; our concentration is diminished, our ears are too tired for real listening. …Listening is hard.

In health care, respectful listening is, of course, vital. But the health care environment is full of distractions and interruptions, conversations that are brief and hurried, power struggles, personality conflicts, and so forth.  How is one to practice respectful listening amidst all this? In a word: practice.  Musicians know that they must practice listening every day, at every opportunity. Respectful listening must also be practiced every day, at every opportunity. The more important the conversation — for example, with our boss or our subordinate — the more important it is to listen respectfully, but the more difficult it is because of the pressure of the situation. In healthcare, it seems that every patient-related conversation must be critical!  So we need to remind ourselves to practice our listening skills in everyday situations; we need to keep redirecting our attention.

Respectful listening is hard, and practicing it requires concentration and discipline, but the practice of it can enrich our lives.  The American classical guitarist Bart Jordan, who studied with guitar maestro Andres Segovia, tells a story that illustrates this point. Bart was walking along a river in Spain with maestro Segovia. A gypsy was sitting by the river, improvising the intricate and passionate music of the gypsies. Bart and Segovia stopped to listen, enraptured. When the gypsy had finished Segovia approached and thanked him for the beautiful music. Segovia knew that Bart had total recall for music, so he asked the gypsy if Bart could play his guitar. The gypsy, out of respect for Segovia, agreed. Bart played exactly what the gypsy had played, capturing the style and passion of the gypsy music. The gypsy was flabbergasted, saying, “But how could you do that? You heard the music only once, and you played it exactly. Not only that, but you are not one of us — not a gypsy — yet you played it with the soul of a gypsy. How did you do that? ” Bart answered with one word in Spanish: “Respeto.” That word needs no translation.

Steve Carter

Jazz Guitarist

During his twenty-five years of teaching guitar at Berklee College of Music, Steve developed his pick-and-finger style playing, borrowing from jazz, rock, blues, and classical music. Listen to Steve and you’ll hear the melody singing out over chords and bass lines, with a little percussion thrown in for good measure. Whether he’s playing a jazz tune by Duke Ellington, a popular standard by George Gershwin, a Latin tune by Antonio Carlos Jobim, or one of his original compositions, Steve approaches each song with musical sensitivity and imagination.

Steve has been performing throughout New England for nearly half a century. He has played with artists ranging from Chicago blues singer Little Walter to song stylists Al Martino and Anna-Maria Alberghetti. Steve has played guitar and bass with many groups over the years, including the Blues Children, Xbalba, Eastwood Swing Orchestra, and the Travelin’ Light Jazz Duo.

In recent years Steve has focused on blending his many musical influences into a unique solo guitar style and composed, arranged, and performed all the songs on the two CDs that accompany No Fret Cooking and developing, (with his wife and author, Marilynn Carter),  MAAT publishing company to help authors navigate the publishing world.

Learn more about Steve at www.frogstoryrecords.com Steve has recorded 10 CDs on the Frogstory Record label.

“My goal is to make the guitar sing. I always sing the lyrics in my head while I play. That helps me to convey the mood and story of the song through my instrument.”

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11 Responses to A Jazz Musician’s Wisdom on Listening: Lessons for Us in Healthcare

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  7. I love this post! Thank you for bridging the worlds of music and healthcare. I can totally relate to this article. I am always in awe of musicians. I go to see my favorite band (moe.) live a lot. They’re a jam band and many of the songs can go on for 20+ minutes.

    Throughout each song there is always (at least) one solo. I am amazed by how they can improvise and stay on track with the song- all at the same time. Sort of like Improv in Healthcare, right Beth!?!

    Wonderful piece and thank you for having this guest blogger share with us the beauty of listening in music. It truly is a wonderful blend of art and science- just like nursing. -Elizabeth

    • Elizabeth — Thank you for your kind words. It’s great that you go out to hear your favorite jam band. I think people can learn to develop their listening skills by listening to improvised music. As a listener, it’s as if you become actively involved in the music. All too often, when I’m out in restaurants playing jazz, it seems that almost no one is listening. But I always remind myself: you never know who’s listening. — Steve

  8. A wonderful article that shares in the art of respect and listening. I have one of Bart’s musical pieces posted at my site with his permission, see link for “Portrait in D” under references. http://www.flybynews.com/bartjordan/references.html

  9. Peter Cook says:

    A most enjoyable article – thank you for posting. Somewhat strangely I worked in pharmaceuticals, bringing new life saving drugs to market safely and I am myself a musician. I have a feeling you will enjoy my books “The Music of Business” and “Sex, Leadership and Rock’n’Roll”, acclaimed by Harvey Goldsmith and Tom Peters.

    See http://www.academy-of-rock.co.uk/readnow

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