My choir director frequently says stuff that doesn’t make sense.

The line between physical, mental, and emotional states can be vague. When you’re practicing an art form, tapping into all three, the line may cease to be, and the quickest way to get a point across when directing a choir may be saying something comes off as total nonsense. We respond well to the right kind of nonsense, metaphors that exist just outside understanding, so that in trying to reach them we orient things in helpful ways. A director can spend half an hour describing mouth shapes and throat shapes and the diaphragm and how to project your voice, or he can tell the choir to imagine “putting” their voices into the space about a foot from their lips, “where you can see it”, and in half a minute they’ll get the clearer, brighter sound they wanted.

My favorite is, “Sing with your ears.”

A choir is more than a group of singers. Sound is tricky, and tuning is tricky, and our perception depends on more than simple frequency. There’s overtones, resonance, consonants, and timbre, and it’s easy to get lost in the details of what you should or should not do. Fifty singers singing differently will turn the sound to muck. Tricky rhythms will crash and burn if they’re not synced just so. It’s maybe possible to teach each note so perfectly that every singer will get it right on his or her own, but the better way is to sing with your ears.

Bypass the idea playing in your head, restrict the restless analysis to the notes on the page, and let the sound around you hit you right in the back of the brain, shaping your voice to blend. When the whole choir does it, they define “symphony”, a sound made in concert that’s greater than the sum of its parts, a richness no voice can achieve on its own.

I could have the greatest voice on earth and sound sour straight through if I didn’t listen first. By listening, I know where I am. By listening, I learn what’s going on. By listening, I suddenly understand why my part’s got that weird leap in that one spot, because the harmony changes in just such a way as to make your heart burst. By listening, I know exactly when I’m off.

Recently I’ve run into a bunch of lists of “What not to say when [insert dilemma here]”, well-meaning articles on the damage we do when we answer the our friends’ stories with bad cliches. Sometimes, reading them, I can hear the writer’s own heartbreak, the sore spots left by empty words and hollow friendships. Some lists are bitter, some are self-righteous, many are defensive, and some make good points. A few get filed away in the back of my mind. But I kinda think we could skip a lot of that if we spoke with our ears.

That doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Some of us don’t have the best hearing. Many weren’t born with the talent. But I don’t know that there are any who can’t learn. Those who are deaf still feel the beat.

Some people refuse to listen. They probably shouldn’t be in choir.

I kinda feel like listening comes too naturally to me. With all my empathy, it doesn’t take much for me to absorb the other person’s problem like it was my own. I may plug my ears just to keep the problem from becoming mine, from feeling all that pain and suffering that don’t belong to me. Which, it isn’t my problem. But that’s not an excuse to say callous things. I’d be wiser to sit out the song. As much as I love choir, sometimes I have to do that.

And the other person may be wrong. They may have got facts wrong, or missed something important. They may be wallowing in self-pity or deep in denial, or bitter to the point of rottenness. Some may even bear most of the fault. Our brains must still stay on, analyzing and measuring and reading the music. We’ve got to listen to more than one voice, to every part that’s singing, and to any other instrument in play. Only the director is always right. My entire section can miss an entrance, and it’s no excuse if I miss it too. My singing it right may be all that someone else needed when the director cuts us off and tells us to try it again. And there will be times when I’m the one who read the music wrong.

Even the director is directing with his ears. He’s in front and sure, he’s always right, but if he isn’t listening to us, how can he lead us? How are we ever gonna come in together, or cut off as one? It’s hard to correct us if he doesn’t hear what went wrong. It’s hard to take us somewhere if he doesn’t know where we started. If he’s not following, he’s never gonna lead.

Every voice is different, or there’d be no point to choir. Soprano, alto, tenor, and bass are only the beginning: voice types come in dozens and still fail to span the breadth of the human race. Some of us are stronger, some are less so. Some have decades of experience, some have formal training, some can’t read music but can pick harmonies out of the air. There are “dark” voices and “bright” voices, “thin” and “rich” and “clear” and “full” and a thousand other things. None of these is better than the choir, and none makes a choir on its own. We need them all to make it work, and every last one of them needs to listen.

We never know everything. We never know all the details about what someone’s going through, all the dynamics and history and messy stuff infusing their thoughts and chewing on their lives. On the other hand, we always know something. There’s always something we can relate to. There’s always a point of contact, however small. When we suffer, we can’t always put it all into words, so we can’t always expect other people to do so either. But we can listen. We can always listen. We can listen and not argue when we’re told we’re wrong. We can listen to reasons our advice may fall flat. We can listen to the pain and the heartbreak and the longing and the grief, and in listening alone do more than advice ever could. And if eventually we do speak, we’ll be speaking with ears open, with understanding. Maybe we’ll even know the right thing to say.

Sound one note, and a choir can sing a six-part chord in perfect harmony. But only if they’re listening.