Like A Drop of Ink in a Bucket of Milk

I am attending a gala that supports a woman-focused foundation. A number of grant recipients from around the world are sharing their inspiring stories. In between, a singer/songwriter is offering an original song that perfectly reflects what that woman has accomplished.

As each recipient speaks, the room is perfectly and respectfully silent. But each time the singer begins a song the room instantly bursts into chatter. I am certain that the songwriter put at least as much time, energy, and effort into creating her songs as each of the speakers did with their remarks. I am crestfallen that her work doesn’t receive the same level of attention and respect as the speakers. And it sparks many memories of my own experience of bringing just-the-right song to a group who treats my music as background.

I finally found my voice to speak about this phenomenon in Vancouver, British Columbia where I was co-leading a daylong community-building workshop with my friend and colleague, Margaret Wheatley. She was providing brilliant thinking, as she always does. I was weaving music throughout the day. In between, there was lively dialogue in small groups among the 150 people in the room.

We are coming back from a break. I call the room to attention before I begin the opening song. As I start singing, everyone complies with my request, except for a handful of people in the middle of the room. Their conversation continues apace.

And then I start talking….

“Now, I want to be completely clear that what I’m about to say is not intended to shame or embarrass anyone in this room. I do want to point out that this particular song can’t really be heard unless it’s offered into a container of listening silence. And one small distraction – one side conversation – is all it takes to dispel the field of listening for the whole room. It’s like a drop of ink in a bucket of milk. Most of you are old enough to remember when there were smoking sections in restaurants and on planes. The smoke didn’t respect the delineations of those sections, did it? Sound works much the same way. Is this making sense?”

Heads nod. Everyone is listening closely.

We are a culture that has forgotten how to attend to live music with full attention. Most of the time when we hear music in public, it is in a bar setting where everyone has to shout to have a conversation with friends or it’s canned Muzak that provides a bland and ignorable soundtrack to nearly every public space. We’ve become inured to live, public music. We’ve become accustomed to treating it as background music even when it isn’t intended to be.

For years I didn’t talk about this phenomenon because I thought people would judge me as arrogant or needy for asking then to pay attention to me. Now I’m over it. And feel obliged to speak on behalf of all of the musicians out there who deserve an audience’s undivided and respectful attention.

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About Barbara McAfee

Barbara is a voice coach, singer/songwriter, keynote speaker, and author who merges lessons from 12 years in organization development with the transformational power of sound. Her book, Full Voice: The Art & Practice of Vocal Presence (Berrett-Koehler Publishers) was a #1 Amazon bestseller in Business Communication. The book is based on her 25 years as a voice coach, supporting people from many professions in learning how to access the full power and expression of the voice in service to their work and relationships. Barbara’s musical keynotes blend practical content, sophisticated humor, and thought-provoking questions on topics including voice, leadership, and engagement. She was “the band” for Margaret Wheatley’s Women’s Leadership Revival Tour, which visited 15 North American cities. She also appears with authors Parker Palmer and Peter Block. Barbara has produced seven CD's of mostly original music and is founder of the Morning Star Singers, a volunteer hospice choir in the Twin Cities. She lives across the street from the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.
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2 Responses to Like A Drop of Ink in a Bucket of Milk

  1. Thanks Barbara! In your songs, blog, life you bring deep seated awareness to our inner worlds. Perfectly, and respectfully stated. Hugs and blessings sent your way.

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