Hand-Ear Coordination

Hand-Ear Coordination

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Painting by Paul Davis.

My friend Katie Cleaver is a jeweler in Vermont. She works in a studio that is also her shop, so she passes easily and often from her bench at the back of the store to the counter and display cases in the front. But this is not the only transition she makes. When she is with her customers, she operates not so much as a metalsmith, but as something, someone else - perhaps a therapist, a beautician, a bartender, a confidant. Which is to say, she listens. I've witnessed it myself when her customers come in to mark a milestone with a ring, a chain, a pair of earrings. Almost always, these objects are accessories to a story - a birth, a birthday, a wedding, an anniversary. And almost always, Katie's customers tell her the story - how the couple met, how the marriage came to be. "People tell me their secret," she says. And she listens.

We are accustomed to the idea of craft as an act of expression, but I wonder if we might also consider it something almost the opposite - as an act of listening - and whether the kind of spontaneous and improvisational intimacy that listening generates is a natural part of the craft process. Craftspeople often talk about the importance of listening, but it is usually in a metaphorical sense - you listen to yourself, to your hands, to your material, to the unexpected. I wonder if this metaphor resonates so deeply because the physical act of listening is so innate and important to the process of making things.

In 2002, Haystack Mountain School of Crafts hosted a symposium about technology and the hand, and Pauline Oliveros conducted an exercise in listening with the palms of your hands. As a musician, Oliveros knows that connection between the ear that hears and the hand that plucks the strings or plays the keys, and her curiosity about how that connection plays out with makers seemed natural.

Her exercise consisted of a series of whispers and hand squeezes, one triggering the other in a sequence of kinetic and audio signals passed among the 66 participants. As she later wrote, "With more energy in the sound, there is a fascinating pulsing, both very individual and collective - a weaving of voices, energy, and reaction time rippling around the circle." Engaged with the convergence of sound and touch, Oliveros explored on a direct, physical level how these two senses that both register vibration can be complicit, each intensifying the experience of the other.

The connection between hearing and making can be even broader than this. Ceramist Romig Streeter tells me that when she works, she often finds herself listening to a chorus of Bulgarian women. "It's like watching a couple of dragonflies darting about in the sky," she says of the music. "One hits the top note of a sound, then another approaches it but is just a tiny bit off, a quarter-note down, maybe. And they race around like this in the sky. There is something almost trancelike about listening to it."

For potter Polly Myhrum, the soundtrack to work is the flow of classical music on the radio. "I just can't listen to any words," she says. "Words distract me. The value of a classical music station is that I'm not choosing the sound so I can treat it more as background accompaniment. As soon as someone brings a CD in and says ‘You have to hear this,' I've lost the flow of sound and hand."

The flow of sound and hand: Whether it is a studio filled with a Vivaldi concerto, a Bulgarian women's chant, or a customer's personal story that leads to a moment of exchange and empathy, that flow seems a frequent accomplice to the making process; in such cases, listening is not a passive act, but active engagement. Possibly, the auditory and the tactile have some primal alliance. In The Hand, neurologist Frank Wilson notes that language and manual dexterity are collaborative learning experiences for infants; the association between hearing and making that seems ever-present in so many studios may be a demonstration of this broader thought/sound/hand nexus. If there is something in our primal programming that connects hearing and motor skills, then it may only be natural to listen and respond with the hand.

How what is heard travels to the hand is an elusive process. Maybe it has to do with Oliveros' interweaving vibrations. Or maybe listening and making are parallel enterprises: In a story or a piece of music, one thing leads to another, and a sense of passage is conveyed; likewise, when a bit of gold becomes a ring, or a lump of clay a formed bowl, those are also transitions. Or maybe, as Wilson argues, there is an intrinsic coalition between two of our most basic senses. While this partnership may be difficult to define, it's worth acknowledging how integral it is to the craft process.

Akiko Busch is the author of Nine Ways to Cross a River and The Uncommon Life of Common Objects.