Listen Up

This probably never happens to you, but sometime I find myself talking to the apparently unlistening. To be honest, sometimes they truly aren’t listening, but there are times when I’m happily surprised to find that my words were in fact heard. And to be really honest, there are certainly times when I’m not always the best listener either. I am reminded this week, as St. Francis of Assisi is celebrated in liturgical churches on October 4, of a charming legend in which Francis famously preached to the birds. Were they listening?

While I’m no St. Francis, I have often felt myself in conversation with nearby birds whenever I’m practicing  with the windows open at home.  I don’t have proof of this, but it really does seem that the birds are listening to the music, and responding in kind.

The 19th century composer Franz Liszt, who was dissuaded by his father from becoming a priest early in his life, and who took minor holy orders late in his life, wrote a piece about St. Francis preaching to the birds.  It obviously captures birdsong in pianistic figures, and seems to also capture the conversation between a gentle monk and his flock…of birds. I made a note in my score some years ago that observed how joyfully the birds sang whenever I practiced this piece.

A lesson in love for the natural world is certainly one of Francis’s best-known gifts to us. In the exuberant words of his Canticle of Brother Sun, with its almost child-like praise of creation, Francis inspires us to appreciate the wonders of our environment, emphasizing our kinship with the world around us.

For Brother Sun, whose brightness makes the light by which we see.
For Sister Moon, whose beams were formed to shine so clear and bright.
For Brother Wind, whose clouds and breezes blow across the land.
For Sister Water, so precious, humble, lowly, chaste and pure.
For Brother Fire, whose flames and light illuminate the night.
For Sister Earth, for grass and plants and flowers and all our food.

Francis went to Egypt in 1219 as part of a Crusade with intentions to convert the Sultan, and found himself instead in dialogue with the Islamic ruler, who himself was surrounded by Coptic Christians as advisors. Seems like more listening than “talking” occurred during that particular Crusade.

It strikes me that an important part of listening includes listening to ourselves – noticing what we say (or do) and its effect on others (or our planet). At the heart of listening there has to be a moment when we are willing to be changed by what we hear. Thanks, Brother Francis, for the reminder.





We’re not all born with a natural ability to interact easily with others, but, as with any skill, we can practice sociability and get better at it. So first up, two opportunities to be social and do good…

May 7 at 4:00: a performance by pianist Sophia Vastek to benefit Bethania Kids, a ministry which supports orphans in India. Learn more.

Also, save the date Thursday evening, June 22: Sophia and I have put together another program for two-pianos, raising money this time for Samaritan Ministries.  More information and a chance to rsvp later.

Bach’s 14th Goldberg Variation reminds me of a busy social bee, something defined by the Urban Dictionary as similar to a social butterfly, but much more entertaining. Crossing hands, back and forth interactions, quick repartee and dramatic flourishes…not really my preferred style of sociability, but I’ve always enjoyed watching social bees at work.

 Goldberg Variations, 14 (Sociability)

In my world, one of the most wonderful ways to be social is to sing in a choir. As we interact with others we learn more about ourselves, with any luck developing greater self-awareness, as well as a better understanding of the consequences our decisions have on others.  Maybe even learning to avoid making bad decisions, like missing choir rehearsal!

There’s a kind of crowd-sourced wisdom to be gained from those social situations where we put up our antennae and listen for (usually) unspoken feedback on how we’re managing ourselves during our interactions with others. Sociability is about so much more than simply being extroverted or a proficient schmoozer…a roomful of that kind of sociability would be awfully tiring, not to mention terribly competitive!  But a roomful of people really listening to each other, reading cues about the effect you’re having on others, making decisions that contribute to a common good…that sounds pretty delightful.  A great choir could even come out of it.


I’ve lived with Bach’s Goldberg Variations for a long time now. More than half my lifetime in fact. I would pull them out periodically, feeling that I was revisiting an old friend, but a friend who always has something new to share. I began thinking about Bach and mindfulness last year in a way that meant something to me. Each variation became linked in my mind with a word and that word became something like the “intention” that yoga students are sometimes asked to set for their practice. A word to mediate on and to help draw more from within. For the next 32 weeks I will post one of the variations and write about the word I associated with the music. Sometimes a connection will seem obvious, but more often it will be unexplainable. It became apparent as I worked on this project that I thought about things which I wanted to cultivate in myself, ways of being in the world that were positive. All of the recordings are to be made in my living room, playing the 9 foot Steinway that was given to me on January 5, 2016.