March 28, 2015

The Look of Listening

Buddha at the Met
Buddhas and bodhisvattas. They're all ears depending on the country of origin. Why is this? The traditional view is that he or she is listening to the cries and suffering of the world with compassion—and you need big ears to do that. 

A somewhat more nuanced view is that the Buddha is listening to his Self, or that which is beyond the Self—an idea that finds expression in the work of Carl Jung, a student of Sigmund Freud.

Tomatis referenced the Buddha's ears and face in a more practical sense, this being his description of "listening posture" which appears in The Ear and the Voice, and which I've written about repeatedly if only because it's the big elephant in the room. 

I first learned of the Buddha's "look of listening" from Paul Madaule, when I attended a workshop he gave at Westminster Choir College in the summer of 1999. We talked for a few minutes during a lunch break, and when I asked him what he meant by Tomatis' "listening posture"—where the singer opens the envelope of the ear to higher frequencies, he showed me with his hands and face what Tomatis had taught him: The face of the Buddha.

I knew right away what he meant since I'd had an interest in Eastern Philosphy, and subsequently realized that this "look" could be found in great singers, including my own teacher Margaret Harshaw, who's teaching came back in a flash. She told me that "The face feels ironed!" and "It's like a facelift," which Tomatis also refers to in his text

Now, there are many vocal pedagogues and audiologists who will assert that the singer doesn't need to focus on higher frequencies since they are above the level of sounds made in speech, but these folks unwittingly assume the audition of the singer to be a passive matter as well as synonymous with what can be seen on a voiceprint, since a good tone that isn't "noisy" cuts off around 4000 Hz.

According to Tomatis however, in order for singing to happen, the singer must move from passive hearing to active listening with an auditory system open from high to low. Having experienced his program of listening training and utilized his methods in the studio, I can only agree. Tomatis' observation becomes evident in the student who goes from singing from memory to reading a score. Even those who know the score and have excellent reading ability often experience a lessening of vocal quality and ease. Why? They're busy looking and have stopped listening, the "look of listening" having been lost.


Photo Credit: Buddha at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, snapped with Daniel's Dinky iPhone. Note: Paul Madaule has written an excellent article on "The Look of Listening" which you can find here.

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