Why “Listening Down”?

Lately, I’ve been reminiscing on my experiences in musical ensembles.  Some of these experiences were amazing, and others were… well, not.

In high school, our band was an award-winning group—music was done well, as a team, and with rich results. It was a group of which I am proud to have been a part. Another group in which I participated, though, was awkward and painful. Unlike my high school band, this group was marked by lack of (if any) cohesive tempo or intonation. More often than not, the music we created felt unsettling. The main melody was overshadowed by a trainwreck of discord and how ‘off’ everything seemed to feel.

As I reflected on this, I was struck by how different groups and musicians handle this experience of being ‘off’ from each other (because every group, no matter how amazing, deals with the experience of falling out of tune with each other at some point). Some musicians seem to play their part louder, perhaps hoping to “lead” others into the correct tempo or tune by their example. Others tend to use their voice and ‘rightness’ to completely overpower the ‘wrongness’ they hear from others. Other musicians carry on playing their part, but with a mindfullness of how their voice fits with the rest of the group: if they find themselves to be out of tune with their neighbors, they adjust accordingly.

My band director in high school tended more toward the latter approach, and trained us to “listen down”. Rather than tune to a pitch pipe, to what felt right on our individual instruments, or to our neighbors playing directly around us, we tuned to the Tuba. The Tuba, the deepest tone in the band, was our constant. We were trained us to ‘listen down’ for the low, steady voice of the Tuba, and to adjust ourselves to match its pitch. This way of tuning was nuanced and subtle. It required a constant awareness of our own intonation, and how it did (or didn’t) fit with the intonation of the Tuba. Perhaps even more difficult (especially for those with an ear for intonation), this method required us to trust the other musicians in our group to do the same. When we were able to do this well—submit our own intonation to that of the Tuba and trust our fellow musicians to do the same— a rich, beautiful sound resulted. We played as one.

This practice of ‘listening down’ to keep in tune seems an apt metaphor for spiritual life lived in community. Without constant awareness of our center, that which we “tune our lives to”, we become a complete discordant mess. Without listening together to Jesus and working to focus our lives to be in line with his leading, we work as individuals and not as members that are part of a greater song. Without striving to keep our song in tune with the Spirit, we become a distracting, painful cacauphony of sound, instead of the powerful and intricate melody we are designed to be.

May we each ‘listen down’ to our steady constant, Jesus, and have the grace to create space for others to do the same.

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