My good friend Caroline is moving to Nashville this week. Her departure is definitely leaving a hole in my life. She and I started a monthly music group in her Oakland home that’s been very special. I have lots of other people I can play music with, but very few who would listen to me play with such appreciation. She never failed to have something kind to say to me afterwards: “I liked the twangy way you sang that high note,” or “You hit that figure-picking section just right.” There were several times that something I sang or a song I wrote moved her emotionally, sometimes to tears. And it wasn’t coming from a place of “female nice-ness.” She genuinely heard beauty in my voice and guitar playing. To help you understand this better, I am not musically gifted. I can sing on key most of the time but I don’t have a pretty voice, and my guitar playing is advanced beginner level, at best. And this is why Caroline’s appreciation of my playing and singing are so extraordinary. She could hear something in how I sang or played a piece of music that I couldn’t hear, least of all anyone else.
Last December I attended a church service on Christmas Day. Although there was a professional music director who coordinated the music for the service, one of the musical performances involved the minister (a woman) and her mother who played their harpsichords to the tune of Silent Night. Both of these two women were at the beginner level. They were obviously nervous about performing and hit several wrong notes, yet there was something exquisitely beautiful and special about their performance. They were being real, genuine, and vulnerable in front of a large crowd who were undoubtedly expecting skilled musicians. Their performance, though awkward, was tender and heartfelt. (Perhaps it was tender and heartfelt because it was awkward?)
I’ve taught creative writing workshops for years. We share pieces of writing in the class and I always tell the participants, “Listen for what you like. What stayed with you? What was strong in the piece?” No matter how unskilled or inexperienced the writer is, there’s still the raw, beautiful voice underneath the technique of writing that is trying to express itself. And that raw expression is always beautiful. Just like every tree or flower or blade of grass is beautiful, our voices are beautiful, no matter how unskilled. It is life expressing itself.
Perhaps the years of writing classes have been my training ground, because when I hear a voice (other than my own!) express itself, either in music, or writing, or art, I listen like Caroline listens—I see the beauty. I appreciate the raw tenderness of the voice struggling to make itself heard, in whatever medium. Listening to someone’s skill or technique can be inspiring and valuable if someone is gifted, but what of all the artists and musicians who don’t make the grade? It’s a different level of listening. You can listen and evaluate someone at the level of his or her technique, or you can listen to someone at the soul or heart level. And when you listen to someone’s soul, you always hear beauty.
From my own experience in groups and public events, this level of listening is rare. It makes me wonder how a simple shift in how we listen to people’s voices could initiate a significant change in our world. Sometimes I think we expect that social change will happen through huge movements of people marching in the street or something. But perhaps our new world only asks that we learn to listen for the beauty.