November 10, 2014

I'm Not Listening: How Music School Destroyed My Love and A Subscription Streaming Service Resurrected It Again

I have a deep secret to admit. With only a very small handful of exceptions I haven't been consuming new music for the last five years. It seems like poor form, I know. A musician should probably engage in music, absorb new sounds, and look for inspiration in as many places as possible. The truth is that after four years of music school and another two years of graduate school, my ears were tired. Exhausted even.

A typical day in my college and university life broke down in the following way:

4-6 hours of practicing piano
3-4 hours of classes talking about music
3-4 hours of homework that involved listening to music, reading about music, and studying music

If you add those up, then add in eating and sleeping I was spending nearly every moment involved in music in some way. At some point fatigue set in and I didn't want to fill my silences with music anymore. As an undergraduate I helped manage a radio station which required me to listen to and be knowledgeable about current bands and trends, but after graduation I completely shut myself off to music that wasn't involved in my immediate education. I immersed myself completely in the classical world.

After graduate school I returned home, excited at the prospect of reacquainting myself with music again. I craved background tunes in the apartment, listening to a local public radio station in the car, and generally being able to be a fan again. What I found was a void. Keeping up with trends was too far gone, the Current (our local commercial-free music station) was playing vapid power-pop, and my ears just couldn't return to normal. The beautiful world I knew in high-school had vanished in my absence.

Then I discovered podcasts. Years after everyone else had caught on, I became addicted to hour-long talk-radio escapes. It started on my long car trips to and from Illinois and once I moved back home it exploded. I was wading through 2 hours or more of podcasts a day, and on days when I couldn't keep up I'd get backlogs hours and hours long. I'd spend a day playing video games and listening to podcasts just to make a dent. My fear of missing some juicy tidbit kept me from just deleting them and being done with it.

During those several years I was also writing, recording, and mixing a lot of music which meant hours in front of the computer. Because I write music that is really just a summation of all the music that personally enjoy, I found myself listening to my own music much more than anyone else's. Even classical music, which had been such a huge part of my life took a backseat. For about three years, I listened to little besides my own music, the music of my friends, and the occasional car-trip binge of top-40 and satellite radio.

It all reached a peak (or nadir, depending on the view) a few weeks ago when I realized I was spending every free moment either listening to a podcast or wishing I was listening to a podcast. I would get in the car, turn on the Current, and turn it off immediately. I recognized for a long time that I had cut music largely out of my non-professional life, and now it was time to do something about it.

I'm preparing a piano recital right now and have been writing some extensive program notes to accompany it. During the research and writing process for these notes I turned on Spotify, the music streaming service, and searched the classical album collection. I had downloaded the program about a year ago and used it off-and-on but never really gotten into it. When I wanted to listen to music, I would usually turn to my own iTunes library or my CD collection. This time something was different. I found myself listening to pieces I had never heard of by some of my favorite composers. It was suddenly so easy to compare the performances of different pianists, and it was all right there.

As I write this, I'm listening to new punk rock. I haven't listened to a new punk band since my first years in college. I'm discovering new bands that I like. This all may sound mundane or obvious, but it is a massive relief to me. I was afraid at many points over the past half-decade that I no longer liked listening to music. The thought occurred to me, just recently, that maybe I would only ever like music that I had personally written, turning into my own echo-chamber.

I purchased a subscription to Spotify, something that I never usually do, not because I think it's necessarily the best service for what it does (I haven't really tried other things extensively), but because it provided hope to me that my ears haven't been ruined, and a gateway back into a world I thought that I had lost.

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