On Learning & Listening

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On Learning & Listening

Amelia Chan


I’ve come to find that learning and listening are one and the same. How one receives information determines how much one learns (or listens). Often people stop information from coming in. They hear another person say something, and they immediately convert that to what their own pre-conceived notion of what that thing is, and then proceed to accept or reject the other person’s idea based on their own interpretation. If the former, they’re “learning”, or agreeing to something that’s not even true, as they’d have already distorted it by the limit of their own experience. It’d be a misunderstanding at best. Or they reject an idea that they don’t even have any understanding about in the first place, as they can only see it through the lens of what they THINK it is. No real communication would have taken place.

When it comes to learning, what stands in the way to be open enough to receive information is often the ego. If a person already feels like they’re an expert in what they do, they tend to feel like they have established the conclusions, the answers, to all the concepts in what they do. In this way, key concepts and ideas become meaningless catch phrases and buzz words; those words always triggering the same fixed and robotic kind of thinking. Instead of a dynamic process, learning becomes this automation where in order to achieve x you must do y, and y only. Regardless of circumstances. Regardless of whether the reasoning is truly logical.

This can happen very subtly. We ALL do it. What we gain in knowledge  automatically becomes clutter and obstacles to further understanding. There’s no avoiding it. It’s the dual nature of everything – you gain and you lose at the same time. To me this is why a constant vigilance to look out for these kinds of blindspots is crucial to the learning process. One needs to gather, but equally important, to break down and question and distill after gathering. It’s almost like too much gathering only weighs you down. (Think people who throw theory talk at you all day with no regard about how theory is only a tool to tell a story in music.) But at the end of the day, we need the lightness and freedom in order to DO what we learn for.

It takes practice to be open. It is not just what you do or don’t do. Same with listening. It’s not just about how much you say or even what you say back. It’s impossible to pin down exactly what makes openness, you FEEL it when it’s not there.

There are more concrete ways to help get past the abstraction, too. Start by recognizing the universality of things. Try to not get pinned down by what you think is relevant or irrelevant to what you do. Start by trying to find ANY universal concept connecting any two things. Seek out analogies. I love analogies: difficulty to find parallels can either point to faulty logic on my part, or teach me an elemental concept (the what it is or what it isn’t) of what I’m learning that would’ve stayed hidden if not viewed from the inside out or via a different lens. When you come across a different take on a concept that you think you know very well, pause and really listen. Consider actively holding back on expressing your opinion sometimes. Equally important is to constantly re-examine what your own take really is, that it hadn’t become an automated rigid definition. Do you REALLY know what you mean when you say that word? Throw out all your pre-conceived notions. When it comes to conversation, a lot of people would hear an idea and then immediately jump in to agree/disagree, or offer their own take. But why assume the other person’s definition is the same as yours? This applies to both learning and social listening. The mindset of “expertise” or “I know what you mean” is the death of learning or listening (though sometimes you do know what they mean!). Try to stay away from common catchphrases if you can (so hard). Take your words seriously. Learning is communication, whether you’re learning to do something or learning about someone. So often people just talk at each other and then pat each other on the back when nobody’s even heard what anybody’s been saying.

We all want to be seen and heard, and this kind of non-communicating communication creates the biggest void of loneliness. Nobody truly feels seen, and nobody wants to expand to learn and see another. Then of course there’s the question of who’s interesting to see. Why do we find some people more interesting than others? People who are fixed to triggered automated responses to every single little idea can only be so interesting if you ask me!

And instinct matters. All the great teachers I’ve had, I would understand nothing about what they speak of in the beginning, yet I’d feel the urgency to know what they know; and the greed to have what they have, to take what they’re willing to give me. Instinct is the only thing one has at this point to distinguish whether what they can offer might be a bunch of bs that makes no sense, or whether it’s valuable distilled wisdom that you have yet to understand. The more you invest in the time (and often money) to learn and study things that ultimately either ring true to you, or doesn’t, the more you hone your instincts to find what’s right and true. This is why there really is no wasted detour. You learn things from mistakes that are impossible to learn from the “correct” choices.

It is important to me to constantly define and understand some of the more subtle workings of learning (subtle, not less important). I have an adult student, who was always eager to learn all the repertoire but who could never tune his violin properly. Obviously if someone can’t hear when their instrument is out of tune, they also cannot play in tune. I tried to figure out where the hole was in his listening skill but that got us nowhere. And then it hit me a couple weeks later that the problem was that he couldn’t even settle down to listen properly in the first place because he’s too anxious/impatient. It was impossible to work on how to listen for intonation when he couldn’t even get to the space to listen in the first place. So we worked on that. Which means that it was important for me as a teacher to know what it actually meant to settle down and be patient to begin with, and to get clear on what that meant to me in order to convey it to him, and then from there to intuit what he needed in order to help him to get there. We got immediately unstuck after that. His intonation, and so much else, had a sudden surge of improvement. To be able to access that space where listening is possible: that’s not a “musical” topic. But in this case, without confronting this, we would have gotten nowhere with any of the musical issues.

All these are elements of the very nuanced and fluid parts of the broader subject of learning. One can only be a good teacher if one can be a good student. It’s not just a corny cliche -it takes the same kind of openness to be either.

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