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Listening In

Sound is a powerful thing. Whether we’re talking the gentle patter of a spring rain, the roar of a fighter jet or the celebratory popping of fireworks, any given sound can evoke numerous emotions. Research even suggests various sounds can do everything from reduce stress to promote healing.

With this in mind, we've been polling SNC profs and others about their favorite sounds. Their answers range from amusing to insightful to instructive. Enjoy!

Elaine Moss (Music)
Although music instructor Moss clearly loves tunes, she uses silence to center herself on her way to and from St. Norbert. And Moss’ favorite music? The sounds of nature.

First live concert: My mom took a neighbor girl and me to a piano duet recital at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music in Milwaukee. I knew then and there that piano was my calling, especially working with others in an ensemble situation.

Can’t live without: The many sounds of nature. City noise annoys me.

Birds singing or wind in the trees? Tough call. Birdsong is beautiful, but the wind tells many more stories.

You’d never guess: How much I love my surroundings. I live on 10 acres in a county forest. Every day is a new listening adventure.

On my wish list: Going to Alaska, or somewhere far north, to see and hear the northern lights. Did you know that if you listen closely, the sound of the lights – because of the electricity and ions in the atmosphere – is like clapping? Can you imagine?

Also love: Hearing the ice go out (breaking up) on a large body of water, such as a big lake or Lake Superior.

Bob Kramer (History)
Kramer, a guitarist, says music is what keeps him sane and reasonably happy.

Sing in the shower or car? I sing in the shower and car, and in elevators and hallways, and in my office and while taking walks in my neighborhood. Singing is like breathing, only better, because it celebrates being alive.

Favorite instrument: Guitar, of course. I have four and play three of them constantly. Each is kept in a different tuning: standard, Open-D and Open-G. Guitars are the only instrument I know of where you can radically change the sound by changing the tuning of the six strings. Open G tunings give you major chords, and this is especially good for playing blues, and particularly if you play with a slide, as I often do.

First live concert: That’s tough. It was the 1970s, and much of that decade is a blur. It could have been Stevie Wonder, James Taylor or the Grateful Dead.

Can't live without: A guitar. Years ago, while traveling in Israel, I went into a music store in Tel Aviv and spent an hour playing a very beautiful and expensive Martin guitar – it was probably the best guitar they had there. I then noticed, with horror, that I had gotten sunblock all over it. I tried to rub it off with a handkerchief, but I was only half successful. I’ll never walk down that street again, in case they recognize me.

Birds singing or wind in the trees? Both are wonderful, but I think the birds have an edge. Sitting on the patio at dusk and listening to the robins, cardinals and mourning doves is a favorite thing. That said, I’ve never been in South Carolina and listened to the sound of the rice as the wind blows across the water, which I understand is pretty special.

Foghorn or church bells? Foghorns are so atmospheric, one just has to love them. But we live close to the St. Norbert Abbey, and I love hearing their bells ring late in the day. They seem a perfect antidote to the craziness of modern life, as if they are saying, “Stop and listen and be in the moment.” I’m no theologian, but isn’t that what prayer is supposed to be about?

Fave guided meditation: Meditation to me is playing guitar in a modal tuning. It’s a droning sound and it’s absolutely mesmerizing. I can do that for hours.

Kindle or Audible? I have no idea what that means.

Worst earworm: Pop songs from my youth in the 1960s and ’70s. When I get a tune stuck in my head, I have to replace it with a piece of classical music, which is like an auditory cleansing agent. To each his own, but I would never get Rachmaninoff stuck in my head.

You'd never guess: That I had a lovely singing voice as a boy. Then came The Change, which might have saved me from the Vienna Boys Choir and life as a castrato.

Whistling or humming? Whistling! My mother tells me that I began whistling when I was only a few months old.  My grandfather noticed it and named me “the little whistler.” I cannot not whistle. Once a colleague complained about it to me, but I’m sorry. I am the man who whistles. If you must, complain to The Creator.

On my wish list: Scott Ainslie, a fantastic blues guitarist (and visiting artist at St. Norbert College in 2018) once told me, “The perfect number of guitars is X plus one,” and I have to agree. Perhaps a vintage National Steel guitar is in my future?

Aural event that changed your life: In 1972, I went to a music store and bought two record albums on a whim: “Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. 1” and Mississippi Fred McDowell’s self-titled album. It was an absolutely transformative moment for me, introducing me to some of the most powerful, honest and beautiful music ever made: the blues, which is the taproot of American music. Closely related to that is the old African-American gospel music of the 1930s and ’40s – people like Mahalia Jackson, the Dixie Hummingbirds and, later, the Staples Singers. It is a powerful medicine, that music, and there is no posing. It’s straight from the heart. It is what I (almost) always listen to.

Bonnie McVey (Computer Science)
listeningin_mcvey220.jpgMcVey’s favorite instrument is a well-played guitar or piano. She says that when the computer science lab is too quiet, she threatens to start singing to break the silence.

Sing in the shower or car? I sing in the shower, the car and on my Harley. I am never quite sure if anyone can hear me singing while I am riding my Harley – I hope not. While riding on Sunday mornings, the songs are usually hymns I remember my parents singing. Other times, anything goes!

First live concert: The Doobie Brothers, followed by Chicago. Both were in 1978 at the Brown County Arena. The best live concert I attended featured Garth Brooks – great energy. Currently I attend performances by Bent Grass, a local bluegrass band in which my brother, John, sings. I also soon hope to hear and dance to Groove Knight at our wedding reception – the leader of this band from Austin, Texas, is Dave Pankratz Jr. [McVey and Dave Pankratz (Computer Science) wed soon after our inteview. Dave Pankratz Jr. is Dave's son.]

Can’t live without: Sirius XM radio, turntable, CD player. When home, most of my music is on LPs, 45s and CDs. Thank goodness turntables made a comeback.

Birds singing or wind in the trees? Every sound Mother Nature makes for us is awesome.

Foghorn or church bells? Church bells ringing joyfully.

You’d never guess: How many things you really hear when you go to a quiet place.

Whistling or humming? Neither.

On my wish list: To hear the natural voices of my students, without being digitally transmitted. To always enjoy and appreciate the sounds of nature around us. To always hear what is in the hearts and minds of those I love.

The Rev. Mike Brennan ’99
Brennan is chaplain of the college parish, and one of his favorite sounds are the bells that ring 10 minutes before Mass on Sundays and weekdays. “It brings me great joy to be out on the sidewalk welcoming our students, visitors and parishioners inside for the celebration of Mass,” he says, adding it’s one of the moments he’s missed the most during quarantine.

Favorite instrument: Either piano, drums or pipe organ. I took piano lessons when I was in grade school; I liked playing, but hated practicing. The final song I learned for a school recital was Beethoven’s “Für Elise.” I definitely regret stopping piano lessons and have often thought about taking it up again. I like the drums, but have never taken lessons. As for the organ, as a member of St. Norbert Abbey, I have come to appreciate the organ. We chant morning and evening prayer accompanied by the organ. It is such a rich instrument that accentuates the beauty and depth of the chanted psalms.

Podcast vs. TED talk: I have never really gotten into the podcast thing. The only one I listened to faithfully for a while was Father Jordan and Frater Johnathan’s “Canons on the Run.” [We featured A Running Saga of Religious Life in our Spring 2018 issue.] There was a time when I would go down the TED talk wormhole and listen to several in one sitting, but I haven’t seen one in quite some while. I’ve been meaning to listen to Carol Bruess’ TED talk, so hopefully admitting that I haven’t listened to hers yet will be inspiration enough to do so before this is published. [Carol Bruess ’90, professor emerita from St. Thomas University, studies communication and family relationships.]

First live concert: Live in Milwaukee first day of classes freshman year with my roommate, Pat Mannion ’99, and buddies of his. I have probably only been to one or two other concerts since.

Can’t live without: Silent prayer time before the Blessed Sacrament in the Abbey Church, and “Tantum Ergo,” “O Salutaris Hostia” and “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” as part of Eucharistic Adoration.

Birds singing or wind in the trees? Wind in the trees is much more peaceful, although I do love the birds singing in the afternoon. But birds singing also make me think of the turkeys gobbling outside my window at 4 a.m. – let’s just say peaceful isn’t the word that comes to mind.

Foghorn or church bells? Church bells, especially those at St. Norbert Abbey and those at Old St. Joe’s.

You’d never guess: I really like to sing, even though I am often told that I do so poorly and off-key.

Joy Pahl (IBLAS)
listeningin_pahl220.jpgPahl’s favorite instrument to play is the piano, while her favorite instrument to listen to is the guitar. A member of Audible since 2005, she says it seemed like a technological miracle to be able to access nearly any book in a professionally produced audio format.

Sing in the shower or car? Both. And usually loudly! Growing up, my dad, one of my brothers and I always had a song for everything. It was normal to burst into song when something happened that seemed to connect to a song we knew. This continued with my own children. I do realize, however, that it is quite possible that not everyone appreciates living in a musical, so I try to control myself.

Podcast vs. TED talk: My favorite podcasts are “More Perfect” (about the U.S. Supreme Court), “StartUp” (about business startups and entrepreneurship), “Revisionist History” and “Radiolab.”

First live concert: Hall & Oates, age 19. Of course there is a story here, but I will refrain!

Can’t live without: Something to listen to in the car – audiobook, podcast, music or talk radio. Also, I cannot resist blasting any song by Journey while in the car.

Birds singing or wind in the trees? Birds singing, especially mockingbirds. When I was in graduate school in South Carolina, the mockingbirds were extraordinary – truly the grandmaster of song birds.

Foghorn or church bells? Church bells. Although I would rather hear them from a distance than while standing directly beneath them! 

Kindle or Audible? Audible! I have been listening to recorded books since the early ’90s when I rented cassette recordings of books and listened to them on my Sony Walkman. I just finished listening to “Nothing to See Here” by Kevin Wilson and narrated by Marin Ireland.

Worst earworm: “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” My husband plants this earworm from time to time by whistling it.

You’d never guess: During junior high and high school, I played the snare drum in a bagpipe band with my two older brothers (one played the bagpipes and one played the tenor drum). The band was actually pretty good!

Whistling or humming? I like to whistle, because I think I am quite a good whistler. However, I have zero tolerance for other people whistling. I’m not sure why, although maybe it’s because when I’m around other people whistling, it’s usually my husband whistling “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Unfortunately, I mentioned my zero tolerance for whistling to my friend and colleague, Matt Stollak (Business Administration), and now he whistles whenever he walks past my office.

Leah Hutchison Toth (English)
Toth’s scholarly focus in Modernism is sound studies. A former music writer and concert promoter, Toth also creates music under the name amelia courthouse. The feminist record label Spinster released Toth’s first album last November.

Sing in the shower or car? Both, and almost always nonsense songs about my dog, Virgil.

Favorite instrument: For playing music, these days I really like the shruti box, a drone instrument with origins in India – similar to a harmonium. It’s fun to play and figure in to all sorts of musical contexts. Every shruti box is a little different, so it has a unique resonance in recordings.

Podcast vs. TED talk: I don’t like listening to recordings of any kind of talking or lecture, but I do like listening to classic country music on the radio during short drives. A lot of the songwriting is cheesy, but there’s a formula to it that’s remarkably hard to get right. When it’s done well – say, in Toby Keith’s song “I Ain’t as Good as I Once Was” – it’s delightful wordplay.

Can’t live without: Modal jazz or the Grateful Dead. Both constitute joyful music, and both make me very happy when I’m listening, usually while cooking dinner.

Worst earworm: Various sitcom themes: “The Patty Duke Show,” “Sanford and Sons,” “Taxi,” “The Andy Griffith Show.” These aren’t worst in the sense of being bad; they’re worst in that they’re catchy and get stuck in my head.

You’d never guess: I was a church organist when I was in high school and, later, in college. I used the money from the first wedding I played to buy tickets for a Metallica concert.


Jan. 15, 2021