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The Coming Crisis of Attention No One Will Notice

October 18, 2013

By Michael J. Blackwell

“Show me what you pay attention to, and I’ll show you who you are.” – Orlando Ortega y Gassett

One of my best friends is an extraordinary teacher and an everyday hero in our little community. Lisa is a cellist and runs a music studio that births powerful, steady young musicians with a natural, subtly startling regularity. She’s a magician, able to weave her spells – artistic, scientific, relational, incantational – to effect the most extra-ordinary learning in her charges.

One technique she uses is to ask each player to develop characters for the instrumental pieces they are playing. This allows the performer to develop a narrative line and emotional tones which become imbued in the performance. Once, a very young player, maybe 4 or 5 (let’s call her Melanie) was struggling with the idea of it, and indeed struggling with the instrument and music itself. Lisa secretly conscripted another young fellow in the studio (let’s call him Jeremiah), a natural actor, to dress up as the Troll Melanie had imaginatively pictured as the character of the piece. I had vaguely heard rumors of this ruse in the week prior to the performance as word was put out about the availability of a troll costume, wooden staff, pointy shoes, etc, but was not thinking of it as I sat in the side row of the local Unitarian Church, secure in my membership of the tapping and screen staring members of the elite Parental Laptop and Smart Phone Battalion.

But there in the late afternoon sunlight, in what is really a glorious space, a huge wall of glass offering an expansive view of Brush Mountain ridge to the north and a green tree carpet melding with the azure autumn sky, maybe I looked up to see the crows I heard calling outside, I felt something change in the room… a slight stir, a tiny emergent charge of energy; hard to name it really. As Melanie launched into her piece, out of the corner of my eye, a stooped, wizened figure, dressed in forest rags, head covered by a large floppy hat and leaning on a gnarled staff, began a shamble down the center aisle towards the young cellist. The little wave grew as the children in the rows waiting for their turn noticed the others noticing, swiveled, looked, whispered. As the figure approached the cellist, she finally looked up and in wide-eyed wondering saw the character from her musing imagination standing there in front of her…as he turned, shuffled off down the side row and out the door and was gone, the piece ended.

The whole scene lasted perhaps a minute. The room was rippled with energy…the waves slowly receding into the rose afternoon light…the tiny musician amazed at an image in mind come to life in the room, the older children wondering at what a strange, magical place their classroom was, the kind of place one must pay attention in, lest something vital is missed….Lisa with a mage’s Mona Lisa smile of knowing, and the parents of all these children… still tapping faithfully away at their keyboards.

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From → Attention, Community

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