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And the Beat Goes On…Party Down!

The Art of Active Listening, by Melissa Tevere

I have a long commute to Appel Farm from my home in the suburbs of Philadelphia – about 3 hours roundtrip. I always listen to National Public Radio during this arduous drive. Sometimes when I arrive at my destination, I can’t recall what I listened to and am thankful to finally be out of the car. But other times, I don’t want my car ride to end.

The difference is in how I am listening that day – whether I am being an active or a passive listener.

When active listening, one is completely engaged with what the speaker is saying: connections are formed, ideas are born. You are not simply hearing what the speaker is saying, you are understanding it. Unlike conversation, where there is a give and take, active listening requires you to wait for the story to unfold, to wait for the speaker to finish speaking. Once they finish, let your mind wander, make those connections. It is now your turn to let the speaker know that you have connected the dots –  that you truly heard them, that you were actively, not passively, listening.

When listening to radio in the car, it is easy to be a passive listener. Reporters are speaking to an anonymous radio world. They don’t expect a response, there is no one actually for the listener to respond to. But, I encourage you to try active listening and see what happens.

On my drive to work last week, I listened to a profile of the Funk Brothers – Clyde Stubblefield and Jab’O Starks – two drummers in James Brown’s band. Starks and Stubblefield are the fathers of modern funk drumming. Their drumming has influenced generations of percussionists and Stubblefield’s breakbeat in Brown’s hit “Funky Drummer” is one of the top ten most sampled breakbeats of all time. (Public Enemy famously sampled it in their songs “Bring the Noise” and “Fight the Power”). Stubblefield and Starks have distinctly different styles. Brown would call on them individually to play parts of songs that fit their brand of playing. Take a listen to “Funky Drummer” and then to “Get On Up”. Really listen. Stubblefield was influenced by the sounds of industrial Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he grew up. Listen closely to “Get On Up” and you can hear the motor rhythm and energy of the gospel music that Starks heard every Sunday as a kid in Mobile, Alabama. Can you hear it?

On my ride home, I listened to another story about how medical students learn to differentiate between the sound of a normal and abnormal heartbeat. A subtle skill, it requires the ability to quiet the other sounds of life that can overwhelm the pulse of the heart – people talking, breathing – radiator’s groaning, blades of a fan circulating air, etc. To train their ears, medical students listen to recordings of heartbeat variations millions of times before actually wielding a stethoscope on a living, breathing person. They are also instructed to listen closely to music – to pick out the rhythm of the drums, the line of the bass.

I bet doctors would easily be able to differentiate between the drumming of Stubblefield vs. Starks.

The art of listening.Training your ear to hear the subtle difference between the lub-dub of a regular heartbeat and the lub-dub-ta of an extra beat; being able to hear the difference between the drumming styles of two artists in a band. Or actively listening to find the connection between one radio program and another. Active listening inspires creative connections and interesting ideas.

Active listening sparks your neurons and turns a three hour commute into a three hour party for your brain.