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  • Joshua Ballance

A New Year’s Resolution

I’ve never been an avid maker of resolutions. Whether this suggests a lack of critical self-reflection, or ambitious optimism, I couldn’t say, but it’s not something my parents did (publicly, at least), and so it never really caught on with me either. I knew trips to the gym were going to remain as unappealing in February as they did on January 1st. For whatever reason, though—and I’m sure we can all think of plenty—this year I’ve resolved to embrace at least one for, of self-improvement: to listen to more music.


It might seem a strange one. As a musician I’m surrounded by music all the time: reading and writing about it for my doctorate, or in better times composing it or preparing to conduct it. And yet, I’ve come to notice that I actually listen to surprisingly little. If I’m doing chores or popping to the shops I’ll certainly have my headphones on, but more likely than not it’ll be a podcast that accompanies me. In my ‘free’ time I’m more likely to read—if my brain is still awake—or watch television—if it’s not. The upshot is that I listen to very little, and that which I do usually has some sort of function: I’m studying it to aid a composition, or preparing to conduct that piece. I don’t listen for pleasure anymore.


It wasn’t always this way: from about the age of 13 I developed a voracious appetite for music. In an obsessive way I felt I had to know everything, or at least know of everything. I devoured CDs and scores, and went to as many concerts as I could fit in (the Proms were particularly good). In many ways, I was figuring out what I liked listening to: there was so much music I didn’t know, and I was hungry to have opinions. This lasted until about 18, when I went off to University. I’m sure that the schooltime struggle to fit music into a packed timetable contributed to the appeal: it was my thing, and embracing it allowed me some hint of individuality and personal determination. The lack of time also ensured I could never be sated.


Once I left behind chemistry, French, PE, and the other impediments of school, however, I was suddenly greeted with a void of time: everything could be music. I grabbed it with both hands. I remember spending the summer before university listening through all the Mozart symphonies and various other ‘core’ works. When I got to University, I threw myself into the degree, spending far too much time in the library thinking and reading about music.


When you admit you want to study music, lots of people warn you that it’s a bad idea for all sorts of reasons. One that often recurs is that you’ll end up hating it, or at least falling out of love with it, once playing those Mozart symphonies becomes the source of your rent, or that reading about music all day will suck the life out of it and it’ll become just another subject that you wade through. It’s worth saying that this absolutely did not happen to me. I continued to love music in all (well, most of) the forms in which I encountered it, and I continue to do so to this day.


Despite this enduring love, I slowly stopped listening to music. There are, I suspect, a plethora of reasons for this. I’m very particular about what I want to listen to. Correctly identifying the mood I’m in and the music that requires can easily take a quarter of an hour, which is completely useless for a 10-minute trip to buy milk. Though the right choice is usually fantastic, a wrong decision is not only irritating but upsetting and fundamentally counterproductive. Whacking on a podcast, by contrast, is easy. Through the careful curation of a nicely homogeneous feed of moderately stimulating political and cultural commentary, I’m guaranteed a mildly thought-provoking audible companion, easy to dip in and out of, with little downside risk of a bad choice.


Further, over the last year, listening to music has increasingly come to evoke loss and desperation. Quite apart from taking refuge in it, or finding comfort in the music I love, it’s been upsetting even when the choice is right. In a superficially perverse way it was easier to escape into the news than be confronted with what I was losing.


And so, my resolution to listen to more music. As an aid, I’m going to try and keep a log of what I listen to (meaningfully, at least; I won’t be doing ‘guess the piece’ on the supermarket speakers). This decision was prompted by a New Yorker article which suggested that those who keep diaries can find satisfaction in the revelation of the depth of their life, beyond the limits of their own memory. Whether I’ll keep to that I can’t say, but let’s hope it helps improve the new year.

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