One of my longstanding frustrations as a musician is that I don’t have access to silence. I should say, I don’t have easy, convenient access to silence – if I want it, I have to find it, I have to travel to it. I have privacy in my house, but not silence. I live in a city, next to an airport, on a harbor, so whenever I sit down to practice, there are planes rumbling overhead. There are neighbors talking on the street. There are cars driving by. There are car alarms going off. There are fog horns. There are seagulls. There are motorboats. There are doves. There are things that beep outside. There are things that beep inside. Appliances, a dishwasher, a refrigerator. I might hear the front door to my building being opened and closed by a neighbor, the sound of feet rushing this way and that. There are radios outside. Dogs barking. Soccer balls being kicked. Construction vehicles groaning. I’m living in a sea of noise. Not the calming noise of a forest, but the jarring, grating noise of an industrial city.

When I sit down to practice guitar, I’m annoyed by all this noise. I wish it weren’t there. I think of someday when I’m going to have a practice space that’s truly quiet. Someday. As for now, I’d rather block out the sound. Tune it out. Get lost in my instrument. Get lost in the music I’m making. Forget about the outside world, and focus only on the world of sound I’m creating.

And guess what? I can do that. I’ve been doing that for years. After playing for a few minutes, I stop hearing the background noise. It doesn’t bother me anymore. It only becomes a problem when I set up a microphone and try to record; otherwise it fades from my awareness. (It usually fades, unless there’s a really loud radio playing somewhere, and then I just have to give up.) 

So I’ve got an effective way of coping with unwanted noise, effective enough that it lets me survive and carry on. I’ve been coping like this for a really long time. That’s why an experiment I tried today has been such a revelation.

The idea is to sit down with my instrument and not play immediately. Sit down and not play. Instead, listen. For minutes. That means listening to background noise. It means exploring my own awareness of the soundscape, to see how many different sounds I can notice. How many details can I hear? If there’s an airplane buzzing in the sky, is it a high-pitched whir, a low rumble, something in between? What direction is it moving? Is it masking the sound of a second airplane that’s flying in a different direction?

The next step is to begin to play, but do it quietly, in a way where I can hear the sound of my instrument blending with the sounds in the background. In a way where I’m listening to both of them at once. The goal is to play quietly enough that my instrument becomes a minor, inconspicuous element that’s being mixed into the random, busy ambient noise that surrounds me.

Gradually, I can begin playing louder and more actively, all while trying to keep the background noise at the forefront of my awareness, rather than tuning it out. When I get to a level of involvement in my own playing that I’m no longer able to hear the background noise, that’s a time to pause, ease up, reduce the intensity, listen closer, and reconnect with the ambient soundscape.

Why is this experiment such a revelation? Some reasons:

  1. All of a sudden, I’m not starting my practice with a sense of annoyance and a desire to be somewhere else, somewhere quieter. I’m starting with presence. I’m starting with curiosity. I’m starting with openness.

  2. When I listen in a more omnidirectional way, giving my attention equally to all the sounds I can hear, it turns out I can hear my own instrument better. I can notice things in my playing that I’ve never noticed before. The “tuning out” of background noise has a side-effect that some details of my playing also get “tuned out,” but when I stop tuning anything out, there’s more detail I can hear all around.

  3. When I listen very closely to background noise and then I hear my instrument in that context, even one note from the instrument can sound amazingly beautiful and satisfying. The background noises are random, chaotic, uncontrolled, intentionless. To hear those noises and then to hear the sound of just one guitar string, or a few strings making a chord, is an experience of order and cohesion. Had I been tuning out the background noise, fighting against “unwanted” sounds, then my posture of struggle would cause me to expect more from my own instrument – I wouldn’t find so much beauty in a single note of my own making. That note wouldn’t be sufficient to impress me. But if I’m in a posture of openness, if I’m listening closely to the noises that I’d usually tune out, then I’ll be able to perceive the radiance, the intention, the intoxicating beauty of one single note from my instrument, without needing more to “be impressed.”

  4. I’m encouraged to play in a lighter way, with more space, less force, so I can continue to hear the ambient soundscape. It’s when I’m fighting against that unwanted soundscape that I feel the urge to loudly project in a way that drowns it out. If I’m working with the soundscape, then my focus is on blending rather than projection. Smaller gestures, quieter sounds seem to matter more.

  5. As I continue to play, I find that the background noises are not a responsive or reliable improvisational partner. I might get used to the sound of a jackhammer in the distance, for example, and I might even respond to that sound somehow in my own improvisation, but then the jackhammer will stop, all of a sudden. I might reach a critical moment in my own improvisation, a climax, a special harmony, but the background noises won’t acknowledge this event – they won’t care. They’re not “listening” to me. They might get louder and drown out my special moment, or might randomly fade away as if they had suddenly “left the party” just as I was becoming engaged, or they might keep going just as they had been all along – there’s no way to predict what they’ll do.  So the background noises give me a chance to notice my own expectations, and to practice letting those expectations go. Can I continue listening to the background noises even if they’re not listening to me and not responding in the way I’d hope? Can I live and let live? Can I still make some beautiful sounds in a context that doesn’t acknowledge them? Can I use that chaotic context to help me find meaning in the organized sounds that come from my own instrument?

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