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Lee Capristo
Director of Publications
Anne Arundel 100

Silberschlag's Parables: The Many Levels of Listening

Written by Joseph R. Urgo, President, St. Mary's College of Maryland

President Urgo and wife Lesley at this summer's River Concert Series.


Music has a prerequisite, listening, and listening we do on many levels. Often, however, we don’t listen very well. Sometimes that’s a good thing, such as discerning an emergency siren over the beat of music playing in the car. On the other hand, listening to music performed live, where we can’t hit pause or replay, we might concentrate with the highest attentiveness, to an ensemble, to a performer on a particular instrument, or to a vocalist. And we may listen in this situation with more than our ears, but with our bodies and our emotions, tapping our feet or dancing, carried off by sheer virtuosity of human performance. Alternatively, less enthralled to sound, we may listen hardly at all to mood music at a reception or party while paying more attention to our conversation. In this case, we may not even hear what’s being played until it stops.

There is an art and a science to listening, as evidenced in Eliza Garth’s article on the cover and in Deborah Lawrence’s piece on page 8. Our students learn when and how to listen. In a seminar, a chance remark by the professor may contain just the kernel of inspiration needed to spark that elusive intellectual connection out of which creativity is released. Also, collaborating students learn that by listening attentively to their peers, their own ideas are sharpened and made more articulate. And ask any faculty member and you’ll learn how professing involves a good deal of listening to what students have to say. Listening is not simply receiving information; when practiced as creative engagement, it refi nes who we are. Few become wise in seclusion; it takes a village to create a sage.

At the weekly summer River Concert Series, maestro Jeffrey Silberschlag effectively cordons off the ears of his audience into a triad; not alone an ingenious practical solution but a philosophical statement worthy of contemplation as well. Up front are the serious listeners. These folks don’t speak when they listen; as the cliché has it, they don’t miss a beat. In the middle are the casual listeners. They listen, they speak, they remain in dialogue; they are like a river flowing between two opposing banks. In the back, on the left bank, as it were, are serious socializers, who may or may not be listening, but rather enjoy for the moment liberation from the demands of listening. This is what we might call Silberschlag’s parable. Life consists of a river’s journey, between banks of listening and not listening, talking and not talking, stepping off on either bank. There is “a time to be silent and a time to speak” − wisdom as old as Ecclesiastes and as fresh as a performance by the Chesapeake Orchestra under the moonlit sky over the St. Mary’s River.