Walter Bitner

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How to Listen to Music

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If you need assistance in the art of listening to music, here are some suggestions.


All recipes have been thoroughly examined and are approved by the Off The Podium Real World Music Listening Test Kitchen.



IF you are ten years old, and you are mowing the yard in the middle of a hot midwest summer, put on the FM radio receiver headphones your father gave you to keep yourself entertained and minimize the loud and abrasive sound of the mower. When this song comes on the radio and you hear it for the first time, turn off the mower and just stand there in the middle of the yard listening, marveling, entranced. Discover from the DJ that the band’s name is Queen and the song is called Bohemian Rhapsody, finish mowing the lawn, talk your mother into taking you to K-Mart that afternoon and spend the money you earned cutting the grass on A Night at the Opera, the first record you ever bought and the best $4.99 you ever spent.*



IF you need to reflect on why your life is full of people who are so different from each other, but somehow all there for such deep abiding reasons: in fact treasures, necessities, and heartaches all at the same time, who make your life so difficult yet without whom you cannot live, listen to the greatest musical tribute to (and criticism of) friendship ever written, Edward Elgar’s immortal Enigma Variations.*


If you want to skip Leonard Slatkin and the Philharmonia Orchestra”s illuminating introduction, skip ahead to 16:47, when the music begins.


IF you need to be surprised by beauty, if you need to be reminded how miraculous it is to be alive, after you have taught school all day, all week, all year, gone to the grocery store, loaded all the bags and both children into the car and are about to go home and make dinner, turn on the radio and find that your local public radio station is playing Ensemble 415’s superlative recording of Georg Muffat’s tremendous Armonica Tributo (completely unknown to you) and somehow you turned on the radio at the very moment that the glorious Passacaglia began. Sit there in the parking lot and be thankful that the baby has fallen asleep and your son is patient enough to sit there with you and listen to the entire ten-minute movement so you can find out who the composer is and get hold of this life-changing recording.*



IF you need to soar for a few minutes on jazz piano solos that ratchet up the altitude with each subsequent chorus, when each time it seems like now’s the time for Gary to take a bass solo but they get to the turnaround and Keith is like “wait, just one more chorus” and he doesn’t do that just once or twice, and each time you are sure he’s wrapping it up, then put on Bye Bye Blackbird from Live at the Deer Head Inn and dance around the room, wishing you were sitting at the front table in the club but at the same time glad you’re not because you can’t contain yourself.*



IF you haven’t had enough of this jag then put on Standards Live and jump directly to the fourth track Too Young To Go Steady and marvel at how can Jack play toms so lyrically without taking his stick off the goddamn ride the whole time all the while commenting on Keith’s paean of a solo? How can a 16-bar bridge in the mediant key evoke the poignance of fleeting unrealized love so truly as the improvisation passes by? How can music swing so hard and yet make you feel sad at the same time?*



IF your children give you a 64-gigabyte iPod for Christmas, spend your holiday break uploading your entire collection of Sebastian’s complete Cantatas and then spend the next several months trying to accomplish your bucket list goal of listening to every single one and discovering all the priceless treasures just waiting for you.*



IF you are angry at the mean, inconsiderate, selfish, manipulative, or downright evil people that life has inflicted on you – I mean really angry, the kind of angry that makes you want to break things: don’t. Instead, go home and convince everyone to leave the house for two or three hours. Put on Pink Floyd’s Animals at high volume, drink beer, sing along – yell even – and go the the kitchen and prepare an elaborate meal for everyone to eat with you when they return.*



When the meal is ready, change out Animals for Erroll Garner’s Concert by the Sea.*




IF you are curious about the lute and the music of John Dowland because a guitarist friend of yours asks you to sing some of his songs, beware. You find Ronn McFarlane’s album The music of John Dowland at Tower Records, take it home and become enchanted. Before you realize what has happened you find you have devoted years of your life to learning to to play the instrument and to the minutia of early music and historical performance lore.*



IF  you need to remember how important music can be to people, how deeply it can touch us, listen to Vladimir Horowitz play Schumann’s Träumerei as an encore at his first recital in his homeland in 61 years on April 20, 1986, in Moscow.*



IF you need to hear something that sounds unbelievably incongruous, so “truth is stranger than fiction” that it has to be heard to be believed, listen to the Japanese 167-voice theremins-in-matryoshka-dolls choir ‘Da” perform Symphony No. 9, Boogie.*



IF your son graduates from high school, leaves for college, and it feels like eighteen years of your life have evaporated and your heart is a desert, under no circumstances listen to Cat Stevens’ Father and Son. I repeat, do not listen.



Or, lock yourself alone in a dark room and play it on repeat until your eyes are dry. This could take a while, but might be necessary.*


*true story


*       *       *



How to Listen to Music


Rain Music


  1. cmbitner says:

    Thank you SO much for this particular blog posting… I am enjoying every minute of it… even though I couldn’t get a couple of the videos. It’s wonderful!

  2. […] How to Listen to Music […]

  3. […] How to Listen to Music […]

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