Like A Drop of Ink in a Bucket of Milk

Barbara McAfee Posted by Barbara McAfee.

Barbara McAfee is a musician, coach and consultant with over twelve years of experience in organizational change.


I am attending a gala that supports a woman-focused foundation.

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.