Jon Ciliberto's Reviews > Listening Book

Listening Book by W.A. Mathieu
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Apr 18, 12

Read from November 01 to December 26, 2011


Book Review by Jonathan Ciliberto, 26 December 2011

The Listening Book
Discovering Your Own Music
By W. A. Mathieu
published by Shambhala
List Price: $17.95

Aspects of oneself innate or ever-present are often overlooked when considering self-improvement. For instance, while people regularly train themselves to speak better French or acquire a better golf game, it is less obvious that one would seek to improve one’s mind or being.

And what about listening? Like seeing or smelling, one imagines listening to be fixed, not needing (or capable of) improvement, at least without physical or mechanical means.

Buddhist meditation, of course, similarly begins with the premise that something seemingly fixed can take improvement.

The Listening Book is a collection of anecdotes and exercises intended to improve listening, and thereby to find one’s own music.

Originally published in 1991, it was re-issued this year, its text completely re-set, with new cover art.

Although not explicitly about Buddhism, it partakes of many Buddhist approaches, including mindfulness, compassion, and ego-reduction.

On the one hand, the author’s premise is simple: everyone has ears, and so everyone can hear music. On the other, it is subtle, investigating psychological aspects of listening, the metaphysics of music-making, and the primacy of attention to full experience as a listener and musician.

The book consists of many short, practical instructions, some presented anecdotally, others more directly pedagogical. None, however, are superior or overly technical. The author is speaking to those who have faced frustration as listeners or musicians, who, it turns out, is everyone. Many of the exercises germinate out of Mathieu’s experiences as a musician, composer, and teacher, beginning with his own recognition of difficulty and the desire for improvement. This modest approach is extremely effective at eliminating a reader’s negative reaction to sometimes very basic, somewhat vaguely phrased direction.

Many of the exercises are extremely practical and simple.

I read this book not as someone who is tone-deaf, or has been repeatedly frustrated at failing to “get” music (and some of the chapters are devoted to just such individuals), but as a musician of nearly four decades, with a consistently deep and ever-expanding love of listening. Even so, I never felt as if I have nothing to learn from the author, and when I recognized common episodes (“I’ve had that experience…”), it wasn’t to then skip over or think less of the book (as being obvious), but rather to see the commonality in listening that makes a self-help book on the subject possible and successful. Any musician who claims never to have encountered obstacles, felt stopped, or cannot see far greater vistas of music beyond his reach: this is a delusional musician. A large part of this book’s project is showing that everyone, even very talented musicians, has trouble. This is a helpful point to people who have never gotten past the first stumbling block, and have remained stuck at “music isn’t for me.”

Mathieu’s gentle, open-hearted, and joyous heart is written on every page, and one feels urged to cultivate this kind of experience of music, of sound, and of one’s self.

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