Tuning In: Listening as a Survival Tool by Amy Martin (Full Transcript)

Amy Martin makes songs, stories and community with smart, sparky, creative people. Here is the full transcript of Amy’s TEDx Talk titled ‘Tuning In: Listening as a Survival Tool’ at TEDxUMontana conference.

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Amy Martin – Creative Director

I think I learned the key to the survival of our species in 4th grade band. It started on that special night when we got to come into the band room and pick out which instruments we wanted to play. I was leaning toward the flute, but Mr. Becker, the band teacher, told me he thought I should try the trumpet.

When I asked him why, he said, “Well, you know, trumpets are loud, they’re right out front, they often carry the melody, trumpets are good for people who like to be heard, and I think you like to be heard.”

And I thought, this guy gets me.

So, I took his advice, and it turned out, he was right. Not only about the trumpet, which I loved, but about me. I do like to be heard. I went on to become a songwriter and a performer, getting myself heard on stages and recordings. Then I started a community music organization because I wanted other people to feel the power of getting their voices heard.

And now I’m working as a radio producer and a podcaster, and clearly, I like the microphone, I’m giving a TEDx talk, right?

I like to be heard. I need to be heard. And I think we all need to be heard. But here is the thing, back in 4th grade, Mr. Becker taught me that if I wanted to become a good trumpet player, I had to have more than a lot of wind and power. What was most important, he said, was to become an excellent listener.

You see, with brass instruments, tiny little movements in your lips change the pitch you’re producing. So he taught me to be constantly listening to myself and to the group. Attuning to them, and blending the sounds I was making with the sounds I was hearing. This lesson has been repeated in every ensemble I’ve been a part of since: formal choirs, and backyard jams, recording sessions, and band practices. We think of these as groups of people who are getting together to generate sound, and they are. But what might be harder to see is that they’re also communities of listeners. Because every sound we put out as musicians is completely intertwined with what we’re simultaneously taking in. In fact, output and input, are one dynamic process.

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Or in other words, getting heard is about hearing. Language is about listening, and if I wanted to be part of the group, I had to tune into the group. That’s what I started to learn in 4th grade, and that’s the concept which I think might hold the key to our survival as a species.

Now, to get inside this idea, I want you to leap with me from 4th grade band to a slightly larger ensemble, the planet. And I want to ask you, how many sounds did you hear today which were made by something other than human beings? Did you hear the voices of any other creatures? Did you hear water or wind? The primary thing we listen to all day long is ourselves. And we think of this as normal these days, but it’s actually really strange.

Homo-sapiens have been walking around for about 200,000 years, but only in the last century or two, have we come to dominate the conversation so completely. If this planet were a jazz combo, we’d be the annoying saxophone player who won’t quit taking a solo. We’re ruining the gig, man.

And it’s not only annoying, it’s damaging. Scientists around the world have documented how everything, from whales, to bats, is suffering under our assault of noise. We know that we’re causing harm to other life forms, but we’re also endangering ourselves, because in this global orchestra, megalomaniacs are not tolerated. They get weeded out. It’s basic evolutionary biology.

When Darwin coined the term, survival of the fittest, he wasn’t saying that the biggest, meanest, loudest, species always wins. He was talking about fitting in. His insight was that the species which attuned themselves to their environments and pass on that attunement to their offspring, are the ones who survive, and those who go tone-deaf to their ecosystems, die.

So, we’re doomed, right? We’re the self-centered jerks of this ensemble, we might as well just resign ourselves to going down in a blaze of egomaniacal self-destruction. End of talk, thank you very much.

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Not so fast. For one thing, there’s like 10 minutes left on the clock and I’m going to use it. And for another, I think our situation is actually much more hopeful than that because we never would have made it this far if good listening weren’t encoded into our genes. We’re meant to listen, not only to each other, but to the whole ensemble, the languages of other creatures, and the musics of our places. Listening always has been and still is, an essential survival tool, and today I’d like us to consider what might happen if we picked up that tool again, and used it, and honed it.

Let’s imagine a world in which we define ourselves not just as a speaking species, but a listening species, and let’s start with the immediate future, the next generation.

Right now, I’m developing a podcast called Learning Their Place, which involves talking to young people all over the country about their relationships with nature. This is the generation that often gets written off as self-centered, and tech-obsessed, but listen to these 11 and 12 year olds, who just got back from their first big, overnight, outdoor adventure.

[Audio: Nature has a calming effect on people and I think being out in nature also helps people open up more. You could hear the river going by and it was really peaceful. I want to move to a place with not many cars in it, because I don’t like waking up and hearing the cars, or trying to go to sleep, hearing the cars, probably like in the woods, where it’s silent, and only hearing nature around.]

Those are kids from Oakland and Seattle, and their comments are being echoed by almost every young person I’ve talked to. Kids get it. Walking around, talking to ourselves all day, that’s a sign of mental illness. And they are relieved to step out of that anxious state, and to tune into something larger than themselves. The problem isn’t that our youth are self-absorbed. It’s that we, as a species, are self-absorbed, and we’re making a planet that is harder, that enhances the self-absorption because we’re making it harder, and harder, to hear the other members of our planetary chorus.