Teaching with Big Ears

Crossposted to the Scholars’ Lab blog

When I studied music in school, we were all given a listening placement test. First, the graduate student in charge would play a series of melodies and harmonies for us, and we were asked to notate them. The second test exercised the inverse skills: given a sheet of music we were asked to sing what we saw in front of us. In each case, we were graded on how accurately we were able to convert sound to written notation and back again. All incoming music majors were slotted into one of six sections based on the results of our ear training test, and I placed into the bottom one. Even the most basic skill–pitch matching, or the ability to hear a note and sing that same note back–was a challenge for me. Twice a week for the rest of the semester, the students in my section filed into a basement classroom and made noise around a piano in what must have been an excruciating experience for the trained music doctoral student who taught us.

Over the course of the year, that teacher worked with us to develop “big ears.” This term refers to a number of overlapping concepts from the music industry that, together, represent an exceptionally strong attention to the nuances of musicmaking and the collaborations required for performance. Ashley Capps, organizer of the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, described it in this way: “The term ‘big ears’ is also slang in the music industry that describes being an especially acute and perceptive listener […] So, a great sound engineer, a DJ who has an affinity for picking hit songs or simply someone who listens broadly and deeply—they’re all said to have big ears.” I’ve heard the term a few times over the years. Most recently, on The Musician’s Guide to Being Healthy, Wealthy & Wise, a podcast about the music industry, it was used to describe a performer who was especially strong at perceiving what others were playing. In that context, it was specifically used to refer to someone with strong aural skills, a term that refers to the ability to hear pitch, harmony, intervals, melodies, and similar characteristics of music and identify them based solely or primarily on hearing.

Listening in this way—with big ears—is challenging, but it is a skill that can be learned. Each semester as a music student, I had to take a version of that same ear training placement test. Each time I got a lot wrong, but the care and attention of the instructors helped me, over time, to get a little more right. By my sixth semester I made it into the fifth section—not quite the top group of students but close! My last undergraduate semester involved singing a lot of Bach chorales twice a week each morning. I am still far from the best, but I continue to improve to this day. I don’t have a musicianship class anymore, but I do have an app for my phone that helps me to keep practicing. You can always get better at listening.

This is one of my favorite stories about learning because it takes something that appears magical and wholly out of reach and shows that, with time and practice, it is a skill that can be developed by anyone. It’s also a story, I think, about teaching. How easy would it have been for my instructor to belittle me as I struggled to get started with singing? Instead, my teacher listened—however hard that might have been for them. The story feels especially relevant for the present moment, because it’s fundamentally about how those in power do or do not listen to those in their care.

It feels impossible to work right now, let alone teach, when so many people are barely holding families, institutions, and themselves together. How can we work with students under these conditions, when it feels, so often, as though the important voices of those doing the work go unheard? The students and staff that inhabit our educational spaces, that maintain them, and that labor in them are struggling through catastrophe. We are bodies, dealing with the physical and emotional strain of a public health emergency. Now, more than ever, the work of the classroom requires careful attention and, I think, a pedagogy of radical empathy. A renewed focus on intentional and purposeful listening, even—and especially—as it is devalued around us.

When we moved online this spring, I, like many instructors, struggled to transition my work to an entirely virtual format. But I also knew it was entirely necessary. My students in the Praxis Program were in the thick of shaping what their developing project would look like and how to implement it. When the students and I were able to touch base in our first online Zoom meeting, I made one thing clear: their well-being came first. Even if the students produced no final project as originally planned, that was perfectly acceptable. They were already successes to us. Then, I asked them to take some time to think together about what they wanted to do as a team. These were not empty promises: I was prepared to fully back up whatever choice the students made.

In a number ways, our ability to focus heavily on students’ well-being was enabled by privilege. Because the Scholars’ Lab operates a fellowship program from the library, I don’t have to give grades and the outcomes can be quite flexible. There are, however, a range of thinkers in critical digital pedagogy, including Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris, who have written eloquently on how such choices are good, ethical pedagogy that can and should be explored by all teachers such as they are able. Other critics, too, have talked about the importance of empathetic attention to students’ needs during the present moment. Pedagogy and American Literary Studies has suggested that you might not need that absence policy right now. Michelle Pacansky-Brock has offered a model survey for checking on your students’ needs during this difficult time. Matthew Cheney and Catherine Denial have each argued for modifying our syllabi and our pedagogies to be founded on kindness rather than abuse. There are many more ideas in circulation, and the ones that most resonate with me are those that accommodate the urgent and pressing needs of others, of those students and collaborators who are caring for children, lack access to broadband internet, or are worried for loved ones.

When we resumed meetings, it was clear that the students wanted to forge ahead and complete their project, but we also recognized that the nature of the community had changed. I think by offering the possibility of an extreme (though, in my view, ethical) response to the pandemic, they, an already cohesive and close group, became even more caring for one another. For the rest of the semester, we had regular check-ins, individually and collectively on personal well-being. We cared for each other as people even as the work carried forward. The project resulted in Land and Legacy, an incisive look at the University of Virginia’s and the University of Virginia Foundation’s land expansion in Charlottesville and Albemarle County since the 1980s.

For me, these ideas are part of a broad pedagogy of deep listening—that is, of hearing students’ needs as both thinkers and people and structuring a learning environment to accommodate them. Listening in this way is not passive. Instead, it borrows from musicians, for whom listening is always a process of attention and response. In their collection entitled, appropriately enough, Big Ears: Listening for Gender in Jazz Studies Nichole T. Rustin and Sherrie Tucker quote Ingrid Monson on listening: “[jazz musicians] mean it in a very active sense: they must listen closely because they are continually called upon to respond to and participate in an ongoing flow of musical action that can change or surprise them at any moment” (1). Listening—real listening—is about careful attention to the whole, your part in the collective, and how you can grow together. Sometimes that means staying silent. Sometimes that means making noise. It always means paying attention to what the group needs.

Listening, in these terms, is the action by which the collective forms itself. Whether teaching in-person, hybrid, or online this fall, whether talking about the classroom, the administrative planning meeting, or the ballot box in November: voices are likely to be silenced. Committing to listening does not mean inaction in the face of these oppressive systems. Sean Michael Morris gets at a similar point in “Not Enough Voices,” when he discusses his own anxiety over speaking too much: “The answer doesn’t lie in turn-taking, but in changing what it means to speak. Make speaking a collaborative event. Join your voice with the voice of students. Join your voice with the voice of other teachers.” In these terms, a pedagogy of listening is one that attends to voices, one that helps make space for equitable terms of engagement. This sense of listening, one that is born of and that leads to collective action, is something we need now more than ever. Right now, we need teachers and administrators who are ready to listen, to make space, and to speak up. To hear, echo, and amplify the voices of their students.

There is much more to say about pedagogies of listening. For now I will end with one last quote, this one from Igor Stravinsky: “To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also.” Don’t be a duck. People aren’t born good at listening. Teaching with big ears is a skill you can practice, and there’s no better time than the present.