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Mindful : August 2013
When Evelyn Glennie plays the snare drum, her lithe body sways like an antenna. Her intense concentration is striking even in the ultra-focused world of solo musicians. But one thing you should know about this Grammy-winning percussionist: she is pro- foundly deaf. That doesn’t mean she can’t hear at all. She can. But she does it differently than you and I do, a nd her intense focus helps her ma ke sense of the sounds she experiences. Learning about the way Glennie hears can help any of us become better listeners. While garden-variety courses in listening generally focus on hea ring what other people a re saying, Glennie asks us to go deeper a nd broader—to explore how we hear and what we hear. She en- courages us to make life more splendid by tun- ing in to soundscapes we’ve become accustomed to tuning out. Glennie bega n to lose her hearing at the age of 8, and was wearing a hearing aid at 12. Soon she discovered that by taking the gadget off, she would hear less but feel more. Ever since, she has practiced the art of “touching sound” with her whole body, a discipline she says has enriched her world. “My mission is to teach the world to listen,” Glennie says. That raises the inevitable question, though: Don’t most of us already know how? There’s listening—most of us do that without even thinking—but then there’s “active listen- ing,” according to the auditory neuroscientist Seth Horowitz, author of The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind. He explains the latter as “throwing extra brainpower at sound.” We do this with attention circuits from another part of the brain that translate background noise into consciously integrated information. That’s how at tention ma kes the difference between the sense of hearing and the skill of listening. In Glennie’s case, she expands that skill like few of us do, describing her performance style as “opening up my body as a resonating chamber.” She often plays barefoot, to better feel the stage floor vibrate. Tilting back her head, she lets the sound hit her sensitive neck. As a young girl, she learned to appreciate the mechanics of sound by pressing her palms against the wall of the room where her music teacher was playing timpani. She says she feels the lowest sounds in her legs and feet a nd the highest ones on her face, neck, and chest. “ You can a lmost reach out to that sound a nd feel it,” she explains. “Some- times it almost hits your face.” Glennie was born and raised in Aberdeen- shire, Scotla nd, a nd speaks with a faint brogue. In recent years, she has become a n internationa l star, famed as one of the first people in musical history to successfully pursue a full-time career as a solo percussionist. Her celebrity has g rown from a 2003 TED talk she gave in Monterey, California, to her 2007 receipt of the title Dame Commander of the British Empire to her live performa nce at the opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics in London. Glennie’s fame helps her eva ngelize for qual- ity listening. In the stirring 2005 documentar y Touch the Sound, the camera follows her as she plays the drums in a huge empty factory and later in New York’s Grand Centra l Station, where she attracts a spellbound crowd. As the movie shows street scenes, seemingly through Glennie’s eyes, it conveys a kind of wonder at the sounds of ca rs honking in traffic jams, a pigeon flapping its wings, and the crowds of people walking along with earphones on, removed from the auditory magic all around them. → 10x Hearing is 10 times faster than visual recognition and the only sense still active when we’re asleep. Glennie asks us to explore how and how much we hear, encouraging us to make life more splendid by tuning in to what we’ve become accustomed to tuning out. ILLUSTRATIONBYMARIKOJESSE/PHOTOGRAPH©ISTOCKPHOTO.COM/ANDREAROAD 54 mindful August 2013 life