“Two Ears, One Mouth”

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The time to write rolls around once more and I find myself on a soap box. I don’t claim any personal ownership of this particular soap box; I certainly didn’t invent it. There have been many who have stood on it and shouted to the point of exhaustion in hopes that someone would actually hear them before passing it along. It appears that I find myself on it for now as I sit down with a cup of coffee to write this month’s Welcome Column. The basis of the soap box ties into last month’s column about Bluegrass and philosophy. Sure, I will provide a little bit about the source, but suspect folks got more than they wanted about philosophers last month. However, I do have to provide the starting point which begins with a quote from a philosopher.

I would bet that there was someone, maybe many folks in fact, who had said this before, but a Greek / Roman philosopher who lived from about 55-135 AD named Epictetus is attributed with the quote, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak”. There have been some who have extended the idea to the eyes as well saying, “We have two eyes, two ears, and one mouth so that we can watch and listen twice as much as we talk”. Good advice regardless of activity. The more time we spend watching and listening, the more we learn. Speaking for myself, I know that I have a lot more to learn about things that I don’t know and I can’t learn them if I am too busy talking. If we push things one step further and think about playing music and jams as a conversation, these ideas get even more interesting.

I have heard Victor Wooten and others refer to playing music as a conversation. If we treat a jam session like a conversation the details of jam etiquette become self-evident. Typically, during most conversations, folks generally know when to speak and when to stop speaking (although we probably all know at least one person that we have to inform that it is somebody else’s turn to speak). Most of the time people get along every day holding conversations politely, saying what they have to say and then listening to others as they speak. Nobody really has to tell you that it is your turn to talk. If we follow Epictetus’ advice and combine the visual cues our two eyes have to offer, a jam can be the same way. Everyone is listening and watching the song leader who is provided clues as to what will happen next. By watching and listening carefully we can all see whose turn it is to speak next. When it is your turn, have something to say, say it, and then go back to listening and watching. Just as in a conversation, everybody has something to say; some are more eloquent than others, but everyone has the opportunity to express themselves and be heard. When we decide that we are going to participate in a jam, it is the same as deciding to join into a group conversation in the break room. Sometimes we just sit back and listen as others talk, but we speak up at an appropriate time when we have something to say. Music, especially at a jam session, is no different.

I wish my current soap box stopped there, but unfortunately, it extends a bit farther than the eyes and ears. Most of us are fortunate enough to also have two arms, legs, hands, and feet to out maneuver the one mouth. Yet, frequently the mouth goes on and on about all the things that will be done while the means of doing so remain idle. The country song, “A Little Less Talk and A Lot More Action” springs to mind. The mouth has the singular capacity to make promises and commitments that the body is either unwilling or unable to keep. The distinction between unwilling and unable is probably the key that causes frustration. The full intent of following through with what is said only to find out the capacity to do is absent, unable, is easily understandable. This circumstance is usually accompanied by genuine remorse on the speaker’s part for being unable to follow through. The unwilling tends to be more bothersome; frequently things are said and when the time comes, the capacity exists, but the willingness precludes following through. Again, this is not a new or personal soap box. The observation has given rise to many popular phrases such as, “Put your money where your mouth is”; “Your mouth is writing checks that your body can’t cash”; “Put up or shut up”; or the prolific “Talk is cheap”. It is easy to say that we will do something; it is usually much more difficult to actually do what we say. That is, unless we actually heard what Epictetus had to tell us by speaking less; by choosing our words wisely and watching, listening, and doing more than what we say. 

Now I could provide some way to demonstrate how this last bit, the extension to the rest of the body portion is useful in a jam, but I will leave that to each individual to find their personal application if desired. Each of us will find our own unique way of applying as the situation dictates, that is, if we choose to. However, if life is nothing more than a medley of songs or the other way around, the medley of songs is life, either way life is music. Sometimes there are happy tunes; sometimes they are sad; all the emotions of life are captured in music and vice versa. If that is true, the music is going to play no matter what we decide. Whether you just talk about it or join in and do something about how the tune is going, the music goes on playing. It is perfectly OK to sit back and enjoy listening to the music all around us. It is also perfectly OK to do something about the music that we hear in our daily lives; take action to enhance the tunes we like or even change the tune if desired. There is a time and place for both. But simply talking about how bad the music is or telling everyone how well we could play the music or talking endlessly about the music we are going to play while ignoring the song that is playing right now and taking no action only leads to disappointment by all concerned. None of this is to say that I have somehow mastered this and do not suffer from the same ailment that pushed me onto the soap box to begin with. In fact, it may be that during the course of shouting from my soap box I became even more aware of my personal short-comings. Ultimately, it is a choice and each of us will have to decide for ourselves; a non-decision is still a decision. As for me, I think I will just play my own music and have fun while I try to listen and watch more, speak less, and do the things I say within capability.  

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