Tea Breaks is an ongoing experiment of sorts, in an attempt to fit in a bit of the going-ons in my life. So every Monday, I talk a little bit about what happened last week, and occasionally a little bit about my own plans!
When I was in secondary school, we had a mandatory music lesson every week. Of the forty minutes, the first half was dedicated to practicing hymns that we’d sing for daily assembly. The other half, however, would be for our music teacher teaching us music. Or at least, what music she could fit into the remaining twenty minutes – if there was that much time left.
Once, our teacher asked for a volunteer to play a piece called 4″33. Everyone balked. Eventually, one girl put her hand up, and the teacher took her outside to tell her how to play it. She was given a minute to read and prepare. After that minute, she came in, left the door open, and seated herself at the piano. And just sat there.
The entire class sat in silent befuddlement for nearly five minutes, staring at each other. Occasionally, the student would flip the page, or open and close the piano cover to mark the start and end of movements.
Afterward, the teacher asked us what we heard. No one knew how to respond, until someone bravely ventured, “Silence…?” Encouraged, the teacher asked, “What else?” Slowly, the answers started coming: the noise of traffic, the students having PE class downstairs, the occasional shout or curse from the streets, teachers’ footsteps… In those four minutes, we heard and observed more than we ever did before.
I’d forgotten the lesson, until now.
When I go out, I always bring headphones. It lets me block out conversations and ignore passers-by. Memorably, I had a alleged scout chase me for two street blocks, trying to persuade me to join a modelling agency. Never mind the fact I wasn’t even at the correct height.
I also have the habit of changing bags when I go out, and inevitably, when I’m in a rush, I end up leaving things in my previous bag. And I’ve been consistently forgetting my earphones
Being completely melodramatic, I went through the five stages of loss upon discovering my lack of earphones. Denial, where I’d fish through the bag frantically digging for it. Anger, where I was completely, utterly irritated at myself. Bargaining, when I would debate if I wanted to go home with them. Depression, when I realised in the past five minutes I’d spent debating with myself, my bus had already pulled far away from home.
When I finally accepted that yes, I left my headphones, and no, I wouldn’t be getting them back at short notice, the antsiness stopped. I still clutched my phone out of habit, but my head was clearer, less busy.
Around me, the city and the passers-by came to life. Yes, I could no longer ignore the fliers thrust at me, or just walk away from salespeople trying to sell me their newest skin-whitening treatments. I could hear how ugly city people could get: I walked past a prim-looking office lady swearing and threatening to sue whoever towed her car; a man loudly discussing his newest conquest on the phone, oblivious to the looks he was getting.
But I also heard a mother fussing over their child who’d tripped and scrape their knee. I saw an owner trying to persuade her wayward puppy to get out of the travelling pram to walk, its front legs stubbornly staying in the basket. I passed excited chattering from students who’d just finished their assessment, and tried not to grin when I realised they were from my old secondary school (those poor saps!).
It’s glaringly obvious: without earphones, you grow more aware of your surroundings, and appreciate what you have. Put earphones into ears, and you forget that everyone else around you exists, because you’re too busy listening to the latest Billboard hit, or that podcast you just have to finish. But I never really realised how different it’d be until I experienced it myself.
Does that mean I’ll start going out without bringing my headphones? Over the years, this habit (compulsion?) – for good or for bad – has developed. If I don’t have my earphones, I still have the phantom urge to reach for it, to dig through my bag for something that’s not there. Maybe now would be an excellent time to break this habit, though I can’t say if it’d be an improvement if I was more in tune with the city.