Another QuarterNote Heard From

Bill Sutton

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I've Got a Little Listen

There are some things in life that really frighten me. Having the same ideas as someone else can be a rewarding experience, or it can scare the toonies out of you.

See, I figure out what column I'm going to do next just before I finish the one I'm on. Seems efficient, right? Last week, I said I'd write this week's column about listening.

I uploaded it and all was well. Then I saw what Debbie had been working on while I was writing my column. This! Now, I have to figure what I can add in 1200 words to what she says so well in four paragraphs.

Some editors. Just gotta make it hard.

Never give up. Never surrender. I will try my best to add my own poor perspective to the subject.

I'll start with the suggestion that every filker, at least once a year, leave all their musical and performing paraphernalia in their rooms. Come to one of the open filks - doesn't have to be the main one, doesn't have to be a style you don't like - and sit yer ... self ... down. Just listen.

I hope I don't have to make a big deal about why. Suffice it to say that we all can benefit from listening rather than waiting to perform.

"Um ... run that by me again?"

Sure. Think about it. How much time do you spend in a filk circle really paying attention to other people, and how much time do you spend waiting for the chance to sing your latest cool tune? You folks who don't regularly perform don't wriggle out of this easily, either - how much time do you spend waiting for some particular singer or song to come around (or, perhaps, in a bardic circle, waiting for your turn to ask someone to sing your favorite song?)

We all spend a lot of time focussing on our own personal wants in filk. Don't get me wrong - I don't think there's any problem with that. After all, we're here to have fun, and if we aren't getting what we want, we're not having fun.


We all want to grow and learn new stuff. We have to start by truly seeing and hearing what's out there to learn. In order to do this well, we need to take away distractions that involve the self. In other words, sometimes we have to pay more attention to what is being done around us than we do to what we are personally doing.

Got that?

So, now we're listening. What should we be doing when we're listening?

For one thing, listening does not necessarily imply a passive acceptance of everything that's going on around us. Listening should include an active participation in the situation - singing along when appropriate (on choruses or when invited, for instance), making requests, watching the guitar player's fingers or noticing the singer's breathing technique. This is not television. To a certain extent, you are responsible for part of what you will take away from the experience.

In some ways, the experience of being a listener is an awakening. You have little or no control over what is being sung or performed, save maybe an occasional pick in a pick-pass-or-play bardic circle. It means you may not like what you're hearing. It may be too ose for you, or too cheerful. It may be too few sing-along songs, or too many. You basically have three choices. You can move along and find another room with the music you like (more possible at some conventions than others.) You can relax and try to find something you can enjoy about what is going on in front of you now. Or, you can cross that line and become something of a performer yourself by leading (or finding someone to lead) a song or poem or joke more to your liking.

In other words, you either withdraw your listening (by leaving or performing) or conform your listening to what is available. It's entirely up to you. As long as you make your choice politely, in a spirit of understanding that your preferences may not be those of others in the room, no one at all will fault you for whichever choice you make.

There are some basic courtesies attendant upon being a listener. These apply to everyone who is not the current performer, not just those who are in some vaguely defined "audience."

Keep your conversations in the appropriate area. In most filk circumstances the music is the reason for the gathering. When a song is being started, it's time to be quiet. That being said, some filks are more social in atmosphere and may consist of joke telling, conversation, and visiting. Even in these situations it is polite to "clear the way" for a new filker or for someone who has been shy about singing or performing in the past. When in doubt, hush.

It is very difficult to be considerate while entering or leaving the interior of the circle while someone is performing. It is best to avoid any activity that consists of making noise if someone is already singing. If you must leave, or were getting up and were caught unawares by the next person starting, do so as unobtrusively as you are able. It is best to get outside the circle quickly, then make your way to the door or whatever outside the view and hearing of the rest of the room. Don't cut across the circle in front of everyone else.

Common sense needs to prevail here. If I have announced that I am leaving (between songs, mind you!) and am starting to pack up when someone begins the next song, I am only expected to be as quiet as possible - I'm not expected to stop dead and wait for them to finish, then pack a little bit and then stop dead while the next person sings and so on. I am expected to save the noisy parts of packing any instruments or recording equipment or books or whatever for doing when no one is performing. I am also expected to wait for the end of a song before banging a door open or closed. The only exception here (other than an emergency, of course) is during a particularly rowdy or singalong song when such activity can reasonably be expected to go unnoticed.

The same thing applies when coming into a room. It is often difficult to tell before you open the door whether someone is in the middle of a song. If you do and they are, either come in or stay outside - and close the door! Wait for the song to finish (if you are outside, try to listen for applause) and then - and only then - move to a seat.

If you have very noisy things that you need to do when settling in to listen to the filk, please try to do them before coming into the room. Know what you will be doing and try to separate the noisy from the quiet. For goodness sake, unwrap your cassette tapes or mini discs outside. If you must eat in the filk, leave the crinkly cellophane in your room. If you must make noise, try to save it for after the song is over.

Finally, a pet peeve of mine. Some may not agree with it, but it's my column and I'll whine if I want to.

You are the listener. Your recording gear is not. I think it extremely rude to come into the filk room, set up your microphones and recorder, then leave the room for an hour at a time. You are expecting others to watch your gear for you; you are implying that you don't have time to waste listening to everything and will skim through it later; you are treating the experience of the filksing as your own personal bootleg recording session.

This does not mean I am against personal recording. On the contrary, I believe that recording a filk for your own use can be useful for certain limited reasons - like learning new material done by people you simply don't see very often, for instance. The key here is that it should be done while you are participating in the filk, not as a way to replace your personal attendance.

So, what's the summary? Without someone to listen, filk becomes merely self-gratification. With a room full of listeners, filk is a community participating in an experience.

Don't take listening for granted.

Next week: Paying Attention to the Audience

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Bill Sutton has been active in performing his own and others' music in public for fun and profit ... well, fun anyway ... for over 25 years. His column appears regularly as part of The Dandelion Report.

Copyright ©2001 Bill Sutton. All rights reserved.