Introducing: The Open Ears Project
Described by The Guardian as “a ritual worth joining”, The Open Ears Project is a daily podcast in which people from different walks of life meditate on the classical music that gets them through life.
Created by Clemency Burton-Hill, radio & TV broadcaster and author of Year of Wonder: Classical Music for Every Day, each episode offers a brief and soulful glimpse into other human lives, helping us to listen to classical music—and each other—differently. Guests from the worlds of film, books, dance, comedy and fashion as well as firefighters, taxi drivers and teachers share cherished musical memories and remind us that extraordinary things can happen when we simply stop and listen.
We recently sat down with Clemency to discuss the importance of classical music in her life and how she imagines this short daily ritual that she has created might support you.
Tell us about your relationship with music and how it’s shifted and changed over your life.
My mother tells this story of me as as little kid, not even two years old, seeing a girl playing the violin on TV and becoming completely transfixed. I started violin lessons really young, with a magical teacher called Helen Brunner whose philosophy was that music is the universal language and a powerful tool to connect us to other human lives, even if we come from different backgrounds or cultures. That spirit always stayed with me, and even though I decided not to pursue violin performance as a career, music is part of my DNA and has underscored pretty much everything I do. I am a music addict; I listen to everything. As a teenager in London I used to DJ in clubs specializing in underground dance music; I’m a sucker for hip-hop beats; some of my favorite memories involve muddy festivals singing along to indie bands. And I always used to say that I couldn’t live without music, but a few years ago during a really dark period of my life, that casual assumption was put to the test. I was juggling new parenthood and multiple projects across way too many platforms; all my mental browser tabs were open and crashing; I suffered three miscarriages and lost a beloved parent in the space of fourteen months; my anxiety levels went off the charts. I tried meditation, deep breathing, yoga, but at that time they all made me feel more panicked because of the mental space I was in. One night I turned instinctively to something that had always, quietly, been there for me. I decided to create a sort of listening ritual: a daily dose of classical music, just a few minutes a day, to intentionally listen and let it work its soul-nourishing, mysterious magic. It felt like a small miracle, even though the scientific ways in which music can help re-wire our brain chemistry and reduce anxiety has been well documented. It saved me.
Why did you create the Open Ears Project?
Listening is something of a lost art. We ostensibly live in a world of constant “communication” and “connection”, yet many of us feel more disconnected from our fellow humans than ever. Classical music is a powerful agent of empathy: it can connect us profoundly to our own interior landscapes, and the stories of others, which is why it’s often used in movies at moments of high emotion as a story unfolds. But there is a lot of cultural baggage that surrounds the term “classical music” that can feel alienating and elitist, making people worry that they somehow don’t have the right background or education to “understand” it. I have lost count of the number of people who would say to me “I love classical music when I hear it and I would like to have more of it in my life, but I don’t know where to start and I don’t even know if I am listening right.” That breaks my heart, because there is no such thing as getting classical music “wrong”. Whoever you are, if you have an emotional response to this music, that is valid, that matters, it is your music too. And this project is about really showing up for that belief: I’ve spent much of my broadcasting career being the one behind the mic: with The Open Ears Project I wanted to turn the tables and invite other people, from many different walks of life, to share their stories about the way classical music has changed or enriched their lives. And I wanted to really, truly, listen. I’ve been moved and exhilarated by these intimate and soulful meditations on the power of music; I have also been transformed, hearing pieces I thought I knew as if for the very first time. Our guests have been so open and generous, sharing stories about love and loss, adversity and triumph, identity and resilience, all through the filter of this amazing music. It’s been inspiring.
How do you hope that people will engage with the podcast?
I’d love for people to subscribe to the podcast and create their own daily ritual around Open Ears in whatever way feels good to them. Maybe on their morning commute, instead of falling into a social media scroll hole; maybe towards the end of the day as a way to let go of whatever they’ve just been through - and hopefully connect to something outside of themselves that makes them feel more connected to themselves. The season starts today, and a new episode will drop every morning for 30 days (although you can of course embark upon the journey at any time!) The format is super simple: you’ll hear a brief introduction from me, then spend a few minutes with that day’s guest as they share their story over the music, before a chance to hear the track, in the clear, right then and there. The whole thing takes no more than 15 minutes, often much shorter, and it’s free to listen to wherever you get your podcasts. Then, if you find you want to delve a little deeper, we have an accompanying daily newsletter full of good things. The format was partly inspired by my book, Year of Wonder, and how readers would tell me they were engaging with it around the same time every day - maybe first thing in the morning or right before they fell asleep; maybe on their way home from work, maybe while doing the dishes or taking out the trash. And I loved that: classical music is so often considered something remote; I want people to let it into their everyday lives and feel in real time how a daily engagement with it can elevate everything and nourish their souls.
How do you make time in your day to stop and listen?
As the mother of two young boys living in New York City with what feels like a nonstop professional and personal life, it can be hard to “make time” to do anything, but that’s kind of the point: that’s precisely why it is so important to do so. I have to actively, intentionally say: OK this is my listening time now, I’m taking a few minutes out of this day to do this, and I know everyone is going to reap the benefits if I do. I’m fortunate enough to have a 20-minute commute to work along the Hudson River, so that tends to be my time - no email, no texting, no scrolling while I walk: headphones in, deep breath, open my ears and my heart and just let go…
About Clemency Burton-Hill
Before joining New York Public Radio as its first Creative Director of Music & Arts, Clemmie was a leading TV and radio broadcaster in her native UK, hosting many of the BBC’s arts and music programs including Breakfast on BBC Radio 3, the Proms and The Culture Show. She has authored documentaries on subjects as varied as the evolution of digital technology and human creativity (for BBC radio) to women’s rights in Bangladesh (for Channel 4’s award-winning TV documentary strand Unreported World).
Clemmie is the author of two novels and the bestselling Year of Wonder: Classical Music to Enjoy Day By Day (Harper). She has been a regular contributor to publications including FT Weekend, Economist, Guardian, Observer, BBC Music Magazine and WSJ, writing about everything from the arts to artificial intelligence. Prior to the Open Ears Project, she created the chart-topping music podcast Classical Fix and Moments That Made Me… in partnership with Vanity Fair and Founders Forum, in which she interviews luminaries from the world of technology, science, business and the creative industries.
Clemmie has played the violin since childhood and has performed in concert halls around the world under leading conductors including Daniel Barenboim. She is a co-founder of the award-winning chamber ensemble Aurora Orchestra, and a trustee of the arts education non-profit Dramatic Need. Born in London, she lives in New York City with her husband and two sons.
Find her on Instagram and Twitter @clemencybh.