OPINION: I Hear What You’re Saying…

Image CC BY by Double-M

This morning I woke to a conversation on twitter that caught my eye, perplexed me, and concerned me all at once. It was about how someone was treated rudely on the phone. One person didn’t understand the other, and attributed it to an accent, but this wasn’t very tactful or helpful, and came across as downright rude.

Now the thing is, I wasn’t there. I didn’t hear the conversation, but I heard the aftershock. What happened left a mark and caused upset (* see note below). This post is not about the actual conversation, but about the nature of learning and listening. It made me think of the curiosity of communication and teaching.

If we only know by shadows, then what truth is there?

The conversation reminded me of the importance of perception, empathy, and a willingness to learn to understand.

In my classes I often talk about communication, as I work with people aiming to perform and teach music in various settings, including 1-to-1. It is a bit heavy going, but I start one class with this quote:

“Now it is obvious that the sort of knowledge that we could have of things such as shadows and reflections would be much vaguer than that which we could have of their originals. That, however, is not a point on which Plato lays much stress. He is more concerned to call attention to the extremely imperfect knowledge that we should have of the originals if only we knew them indirectly through their shadows or reflections and only had direct sensible perception of these latter. We are in substantially the same position if we only know the objects of sense-perception second-hand through someone else’s description of them. For the words in which they are described are, in a way, a kind of image or reflection of them. So one prescription, at any rate, for making our thinking about sensible objects as correct as it is being is to base it, as far as possible, on our own observation.”

Field, G.C., (1978). The philosophy of Plato, OUP. 37

In short, if you only know by shadows, it is second-hand knowledge. I use this when talking to students about how they describe music to a new learner. It is possible that they don’t know how to understand it, or even what they are being asked to understand. It may be something genuinely new.

If you have never heard a theorbo, how can you imagine it? You make something up. You guess. For me, it’s like reading a complex name – I admit to making it up most of the time, just so I can mentally digest it. If I know it is something I need to actually learn, someone I might meet, or something I need to talk about, then I will take the time to learn it and sound it out, but if it is a character or some name dropped in passing, I will make up something that I can easily make sense of.

I thought of the times I didn’t understand.

I am a cellist. I started studying seriously quite late, and when playing with the piano aged 17 in a lesson, my teacher was incredibly frustrated that I couldn’t play in tune with the piano. I couldn’t hear the difference.

I couldn’t hear it. Well, I could hear, but I couldn’t make sense of it.

That is a huge thing for a musician. I didn’t have a problem with my ears, but I hadn’t learned to discriminate the different timbres and to understand that an F# on the piano was an F# on the cello. I hear it like apples and oranges at first. I did learn. (thank heavens!)

It happened to me when I came to live in the UK from America as well. I remember travelling to Manchester by train for an audition and I came back to my fiancé and said – they spoke another language up there. I don’t know what it was, but I couldn’t understand a word. I was serious. I couldn’t even understand the BBC for weeks, and that was in 1996, before they had expanded to include regional accents. I remember the whole family watching A Question of Sport and Have I Got News for You and they would all laugh and I just sat there because I couldn’t understand a word (not least because the mysteries of cricket were supremely foreign, but that’s another post.) It was like I needed glasses for my ears, or a Babel Fish.

These experiences gave me perspective, and I make it a point to find a fun way to allow my students to experience the frustration of not understanding so that they can consider their communications. We play a game. It is a drawing game where you give people abstract directions and they have to accurately draw what you describe. …draw a line going left to right, and connect another line to the top of that one….


It is funny. It is tricky. The nice thing is that people laugh, and they do get better as they go. They begin to be aware of how and what they say and they become aware of how it is received. How often do I consider the listener when I say something. They may have such a different perspective, experience, frame of mind to me – there is no guarantee, and like knowledge gained via shadows, I may not know the reality of it. In teaching feedback and open communication is so important.

Here are some of my favourite drawings from this year’s drawing session. Hopefully they illustrate just how easy it is to misunderstand and miscommunicate. Look at the drawings, and then read what they were!
(Answers written backwards so they aren’t too easy to read before you look)


Top row: hsurbhtooT (yes both!)

Middle: eerT samtsirhC

Bottom row: iloccorB & eseehC

 *Note: sadly the initial conversation and upset was an in person event. I misunderstood and thought it was a telephone/listening problem. This post is by no means intended to belittle that event. …I guess that my lateral thinking and only understanding part of the story serves to illustrate another way we can misunderstand, and how easily it can happen. The importance of listening, understanding, and awareness still holds.

© Laura Ritchie 2016

This article was originally posted at www.lauraritchie.com by Dr. Laura Ritchie.

Dr. Laura Ritchie is a co-author of the #ConnectedClasses research project and is also a Reader in Pedagogy at University of Chichester, a National Teaching Fellow, a teacher, researcher, performer, and learner. She enables people to realise their goals through positive achievement. Laura’s teaching is heavily influenced by her research into students’ beliefs about their learning and performing capabilities. As a musician Laura spans genres, from classical repertoire to performing at Glastonbury and on Later with Jools Holland. She brings students into professional practice, and unites professionals across disciplines. 

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