The Quality of Attention

Last week, a performer in his introduction made the following observation. Very loosely quoted: A good listener makes space for the one listened to. And some people take shameless advantage of that.

His words caught my ear. They were so perfectly true, you could tell by the audience reaction that he’d hit on something in all of us. They mingled with ones I’d heard before, so many times, of singers angered by the lack of audience attention. As if they were owed something. It always made me smile at Faire, and I admit it, laugh a bit. As the singer in the street, I have always felt that I earn the attention I receive. It is a gift given on both sides.

I play for the joy of it. When I lost my joy, I stopped singing. I’m more grateful than I can say that it found its way back to me. When I’m in the zone, I’m inside the song. I get to be all those people, and get to live their story. I get to hear myself doing what I am beginning to really believe I was born to do. What could be finer?

Attention is the most precious thing we can grant anyone. It is literally the moments of one’s life, which are finite and the only things that truly belong to each one of us. Attention and the present moment is the only place in which we can accomplish anything, whether it be learning a skill, making a point, cooking a meal–or listening to a performer. It can’t be forced, though of course it can be faked, and often is. Our minds are our own, and we carve out space for ourselves however we have to. Our eyes may be on the stage, but our minds may be a million miles away, planning our next vacation, reliving our latest triumph or disappointment, or just zoning out.

There’s an electricity to the sharing of a moment. It can’t be forced. Standing in that street, it is sometimes tempting to demand attention, but even when we appear to get our way, the energy of the exchange is altered irrevocably. I remember when we used to laugh backstage at Faire when we were sternly instructed to be quiet in this or that area so as not to upstage This show or That person. We complied, of course, but we knew when it was a reasonable request and when it was the sacrifice of that electric exchange for ego. The really popular shows somehow never made requests like these. Their haybales were always packed. The performer and the listener are joined. The giver and the gift become one when that moment happens. If you’ve read this far, you are giving that gift to me, and I hope I am returning fair value.

When I’m busking, attention is my teacher. At Faire I could attract a whole circle of people who told me exactly how far a comfortable listening distance was, what songs had the most impact, and which ones attracted the largest crowd. No, those last two pieces of information are not necessarily related. I have had very small audiences at times, and while it might have seemed that no one was listening, once or twice there has been one person who came up after with tears in their eyes and dropped a twenty in my bowl. A few weeks ago, a guy with a handful of Street Sheets searched every pocket he had till he found a dollar for me. And then there are the people who just watch me with that look of attention in their eyes, and smile, and walk off after I’m done. That’s as much a tip as money is.

Then there are those whose eyes I never see. Because you never know who is listening and what they are hearing.

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