First time coming to a classical music event? Welcome!

Will this be your first time going to a concert of classical music? Is the process shrouded in mystery—maybe even a little scary? Never fear! We are thrilled that you’ll be joining us for the concert and can’t wait to introduce you to this wonderful music. Below are some questions we get quite often—and answers we hope will be helpful!

Isn’t classical music just boring old music by a bunch of dead white guys?

This couldn’t be further from the truth. Okay, so a lot of the music which is played IS by deceased men of European origin. But the music goes far beyond that. Composers throughout history include women, Africans, Asians, South Americans, and, yes, living people. And the music isn’t boring! We’ll tell you why….

What is the music about? There aren’t any words. Isn’t it just boring and intellectual?

Boo! Why are people allowed to get the impression that it’s boring? Here’s a little secret: there is a lot of BAD classical music out there! This music has been written for over 500 years, and not everything that’s been written has been a masterpiece. But there’s also a lot of good music—and a lot of great music, too. Music isn’t always ‘about’ something, but it always has meaning. That meaning can be many things—composers have written about love, lust, youth, old age, religion, atheism, literature, history, sadness, happiness, anger, trust, disappointment, life, death, anxiousness, fear, confidence, romance, national pride, parenthood….the list goes on and on. Just because it doesn’t have the words to go along with it doesn’t mean that the meaning isn’t there.

OK, fair enough. But how do you hear the meaning? Don’t I need to be a connoisseur or to have a fancy degree in music to understand it?

No, you don’t. The wonderful thing about this music is how human it is. This music is universal—it has a message and meaning for everyone. Just look at Beethoven. He grew up with an abusive, alcoholic father, had to go to work at the age of 12, was hated by his teachers, was unable to date the women he wanted because he belonged to a lower class than they did, suffered from deafness, never married and had a strained (to put it mildly!) relationship with his family. I bet there’s at least one thing in there that any of us can relate to! And all of these things helped make his music what it is—the meaning is there. Sure, in certain ways knowledge of music history or music theory might help you enjoy a performance more, but the music—and your enjoyment of it—is just as powerful and meaningful without it.

Fine. But you keep talking about Beethoven and other dead foreigners. Be honest—isn’t it just more of a European art form? And out of date? It’s really just not American!

Not at all! The last 100 years has seen major contributions from American composers. Do you remember the ‘Beef, it’s what’s for dinner!’ commercials? How about the movie ‘Platoon’? They featured music by two of the greatest composers in American history—Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber. Copland was from Brooklyn; Barber grew up in Philadelphia. They both wrote American classical music—about American experiences. And there are many more! Bernstein, Ives, Gould, Mennin, Persichetti, Piston—to name a few. There is music about the New England countryside, music about the Upper West Side, music about the Appalachian Mountains, music about the wild west….music about the Grand Canyon, music about Abe Lincoln, music about the African American experience, music about Ellis Island…the list goes on!

And it’s not just America. Classical music is global. For example, one of the most famous conductors in the world is from Venezuela. Asia has some of the finest—and most robust—orchestras in the world. Music is an international language!

Alright, I can try coming to a concert some time. But wait….I don’t own a tuxedo! Should I rent one?

Only if you really want to! Once upon a time it was mandatory to wear evening attire to a performance—that meant an elegant gown for women and a tuxedo or tails for men. But those times are past. Wearing a suit is great. A sports-coat and khakis would be more than acceptable. Women can wear a nice dress or skirt—or jeans. Taking a shower at some point that day is strongly advised—but seriously, you don’t have to dress up very formally. Just keep in mind that this is not just a performance, but a social event. Have fun with it!

Great. I may even attend! I’ve heard that I shouldn’t let my cell phone ring during the concert. But what about clapping?

Ahh, the Art of Clapping. Recent tradition has been to clap only at the very end of a piece. Some pieces may have more than one movement, and clapping between these movements may disrupt the momentum. And sometimes a piece will seem like it is over—when you’re really just in the middle! So it can be a good idea to wait to see when others clap.

But if you do happen to make the ‘mistake’ of clapping when you are ‘not supposed to,’ don’t let it bother you! We’re grateful for your enthusiasm.

As a closing note: yes, those of us on stage are talented. We have devoted our lives to music. We practice many hours a day, have spent many years in school (and other studies) to perfect our craft and make our career in a very demanding field. But we’re people! And for us there is no greater joy than sharing this music with others. Remember, without YOU, the audience, it would not be a performance. YOU are the reason that this music exists. So we thank YOU for coming—and for giving us the opportunity to share this wonderful world with you. We hope to see you soon!

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Snobbery in classical music.

Snobbery seems to run rampant in classical music. Classical music has long been seen as a product of those living in ivory towers and often out of touch with the so-called common man; snobbishness seems to be cultivated by those who make this music part of their lives. Yes, both concert-goers and musicians are often practitioners of this affected behavior, often aloof to the real dangers it poses to the art itself. Whether in major concert halls or intimate chamber spaces, the air of refinement in which this music lives and breathes is too often stifled by the attitudes of those who see it only as an elite and mysterious craft.

I will admit that I am not free from this sin (though I’ve made a conscious effort to abstain in recent years.) As a young musician, I was afforded some rare opportunities: I got to play in major concert halls in the USA and Europe; I’d had the chance to tour Europe as an 18 year old; I worked with (and received positive attention from) world-class symphony musicians. Before my 19th birthday I had composed three symphonies, studied all the symphonies of Beethoven and Mahler, could easily tell the difference between the styles of, say, Haydn and Mozart–things that seemed to impress people, to be sure, and fed my ego. Of course it seemed ‘cool’ to tilt up my nose a bit, to snicker privately at those mere mortals who simply couldn’t understand this incredible world.

But after a while, I started to realize that this snobbery was entirely unimpressive. And then something else hit me: it didn’t make the music better. Yes, it was wonderful, in some ways, to know and understand things that many other people didn’t. However, as I grew older (and grew up!), I began to understand that it was much more fulfilling–not to mention productive–to share this knowledge and passion with others rather to inflict it upon them. I noticed a change–I was able to talk to people about it and share this passion rather than merely show it off. It was a fundamental change, and quite an enjoyable one. 

One of the major complaints I hear is about how stuffy the concert hall is. It is often referred to as antiquated, out of touch, a museum. It is often called a 19th Century product (ironic, as it happens, given the atmosphere of joy, excitement and sometimes outright bad behavior of the 19th century concert hall!) But above all, it is seen as a hobby of the elite, with all the trappings of the upper crust–including the stereotypical snobbery. All that is missing, it seems, is a top hat, cane and monocle.

As I’ve evolved from a slightly precocious know-it-all to a (hopefully) more complete musician and man, I’ve begun to reflect on the nature of this attitude and what it means. My conclusion is something of a paradox–but interesting enough, I hope, to share.

On Snobbery

Ah, a night at the symphony! Here we have the moneyed, the educated–the elite, in all their evening finery, in all their social splendor and glory. This is their element. And why should it not be? Everyone knows that classical music is only for rich people. Yes, to enjoy it, one must be in the know; it can only appeal to those intellectually gifted and refined enough to understand. Symphonies are complex, after all! The riff raff simply couldn’t comprehend.

In a word…no. In a few more words…no, no, no, and NO! Why oh why has the music world come to this? It wasn’t always so. Opera, emerging in the 17th century, was a social affair for all classes. The poor sat on the floor, the rich above them (okay, so I won’t go into all the details–but hey, at least the lower classes showed up!) Opera was for everyone. In fact, it was a way for music to break free of the authority of the day: that ultimate Institution of Restraint, the Roman Catholic Church. Opera (and, throughout the baroque and rococo, the orchestral and dance suites) gave the masses a chance to hear popular (and bawdy) dance tunes dressed up a bit. Despite the orchestra’s birth as an institution of the royal court, the sonata form, songs and symphonies because forms for the people. By the time the orchestra (and the symphony as a form) entered maturity, finally moving across the pond as the great American orchestras were established, going to the symphony was, for lack of a better term, a thing. That is, a thing to do, rather than the thing to do. Not everyone attended, of course, but middle class families were extremely likely to attend–and it was seen as a measure of success. 

Some time around the 1960s or ’70’s, it was decided that classical music should be only for the sophisticated. I’m told that this has something to do with marketing. I can’t imagine Beethoven, for example, seeing his 9th Symphony held in the regard that, if you had to have it explained, it wasn’t for you. The 9th symphony is literally for everyone; its central message is a hope for universal brotherhood.

How does snobbery make it better? This music is exciting! It is living, breathing, timeless, tradition filled but always new! From time to time, I hear a remark from a long time subscriber-type that ‘Well, I don’t like the way the orchestra sounds, so I’d rather stay home and listen to my recordings.’ This is the type of thing that really misses the mark: recordings are great, of course. They are literal records of a certain orchestra, soloist or conductor. Some recordings are truly transcendent. But there are a few things missing. For one thing, you lose out on the sound of the concert hall. No matter how good your recording and playback equipment, you’ll never get the feel and sound of actually being there. For another, you miss out on the social aspect: the thrill of being this close to the musicians, of feeling the energy of the audience, of hearing the music reborn. And recordings are somewhat artificial, especially studio recordings. They’ve been engineered to sound perfect, to be as consistent from start to finish as possible. Knowing a recording is not the same as knowing and loving a work itself; it is only loving the idea of a performance of that work. 

And, sadly, some musicians are not exempt from this attitude. I’ve heard musicians say ‘Ah, Beethoven 9…yes, no big deal, I’ve played that a hundred times. I don’t even need to come to rehearsal.’ Beethoven 9 is always a big deal. Being nonchalant about such matters is horrid! It is wonderful to have a frame of reference for a work and experience with it–but none of us can afford to be anything less than completely excited and committed to this music. Ever. Adding snobbery to that is…well…a good way to kill classical music. 

So…snobbery: Not good. On the other hand….

 

The Paradox

Why is snobbery in classical music held to a double standard? In our society, snobbery is worn as some sort of perverse badge of honor. People love being snobs! And they’ll be snobs about some pretty silly things: their phone, the number of friends their dog has at his birthday party, what email provider they use…silly things. But allow me to give two examples that seem outright ridiculous: clothing and food.

Now perhaps it is a sign of evolutionary success that we are able to be snobs about these two basic staples of human existence…but I’m not so sure. For the purpose of this exercise, I’m willing to expound a bit.

Clothing. I’m sorry: fashion. Yes, sartorial splendor. It’s a big deal. Full disclosure: anyone who knows me is aware of this irony, as I’ve been accused of being extremely well dressed. Yes, I enjoy dressing well. And I appreciate fashion as an art form. But as Twain wrote, naked people have little to no influence on society. I’ll ignore the recent spate of celebrity whatever it is and just agree with good old Sam. Clothes are essential to wear. Without them, we’d be arrested…and very cold. And, to be fair, there’d probably be a fair amount of pointing and laughing from time to time. So, clothing is good. But in many ways, we’ve gone too far. Clothes are clothes. They should be well made. They should make us feel good when we are in them. They should reflect a certain respect for decorum for our particular social customs. But, again, we often go too far. Certain people take clothes…more seriously than others. And they’ll pay! Oh, will they pay. They’ll also take great delight in being absolutely insufferable snobs about it. Rather than simply saying ‘I like this style and will enjoy wearing it,’ they seem to make it their mission to consider inferior any who do not join them in their particular sartorial sensibilities. And often, they’re rewarded for this. Oh, are they rewarded. 

Snobbery. Which brings us to…

Food.

Ah, the foodies. Where to begin? For the uninitiated, food is organic matter which is consumed orally by carbon based life forms–including homo sapiens–in order to provide energy for physical and mental activity and continued biological survival. In other words, if you do not eat it, you will die.

Again, it is probably a good thing that we’ve evolved from trying to hunt while not getting run over by a wolly mammoth to being able to choose between Beef bourguignon and beef stroganoff. But anyone who has been to a Whole Foods lately (or to Brooklyn) is aware that perhaps we’ve become a bit more picky than nature intended. 

We all love a good meal. Who doesn’t? Besides allowing us to, you know, keep living, food comforts us, makes us feel safe, secure and generally happy. But the foodies…ah, the foodies…the foodies have decided that, no, eating well is not enough. For a foodie, you must eat correctly. They’ve managed to take something which is a basic part of human survival and make it exclusive. 

And you know something? Again, they’ve been rewarded! Yes, this incredible snobbery has been awarded social recognition in the form of media exposure, financial gain and varying degrees of social ascent. 

So, we can see that snobbery is not all bad–at least not in certain eyes.

Why, then, is the snobbery of classical music considered a mortal sin? Why is it one of the main reasons cited for the death of this great art (which, by the way, provides to the soul as much warmth as fine clothing and the sustenance of nourishing food?) It is a double standard, and yet this presents another paradox: the need to eliminate snobbery while defending its honor. 

 

The talent off-stage.

The concert began in silence.

It was not immediate. The din of the audience began to die down as the lights were dimmed, reduced to a hum, then a whisper, then to single voices, punctuated by gentle but firm admonitions of ‘Ssh!’ from every corner, and finally gave way to golden silence.

It was a moment of tension, the calm before the storm. Everyone knew that this evening would begin with a torrent: it was Brahms’ epic First Symphony, after all, and the assembly was fully prepared to bathe in the deluge of sound which was now moments away. They were not disappointed. First came the Lieutenant, the leader of the orchestra. The concertmaster’s slow but steady footsteps broke the golden silence, the brittle sound of leather upon wood giving way to the warmth of applause, cursory but sincere. An equally cursory bow followed, his elegant form breaking only slightly at the waist, before turning with polite authority to the oboist, who obliged dutifully with a spark of a note, a pure, firm, floating ‘A’ to which the winds and brass responded enthusiastically. When the moment had passed, the oboist offered her note once more, now to the strings, whose instruments filled the stage with a delightful barrage of open 5ths, music pouring forth even in this moment of preparation.

Taking his seat, the concertmaster seemed to steel himself, the courage and energy taken up in turn by his colleagues on stage. Silence returned once more. A moment passed; then another. The stage door opened, and now emerged the maestro, striding powerfully and purposefully towards the podium. First came the ascent to the platform; a handshake, friendly yet somber, was offered to the concertmaster, who exchanged a knowing glance with the General, who finally turned full on to the audience, bowing gracefully, before finally inviting the Final Silence.

Now another moment, now two, now three.  Brahms was ready to share with us his fear and trembling, fear of the Master, trembling from the burden of Bearing the Torch, worrying even with his first notes that this fire should burn him rather than provide light. The tension built….it began a crescendo, a crescendo of deafening silence…and then….

The audience felt the timpani. The relentless hammerstrokes fell, one two three four five six, one two three four five six; wood and cork and felt crashing violently against calfskin and erupting in sound. Now was the ear drawn to sound; the winds, an octave apart drawn together for a descent, the violins and cellos finding a way to struggle ever upward while the basses marched behind the timpani.

Talent! Gasped the audience, swept up in this moment of emotion. What talent is before us! What incredible achievement of Olympus, what benevolence of Calliope has given us privilege to bear witness to this spectacle?

Yes, in the end, there is talent: this was evident in the elation (and, now and then, awe) of the listeners. And yet those on stage knew only too well that their own talent was only the final stage of a complex process; their citizenship was only part of a great musical and human society. It is time to address the others.

 

Musicians

A symphony orchestra is a society. At its birth a mere hundred and fifty years ago (give or take), its founders were often explicit in giving it this title: The Musikverein, the Society of the Friends of Music, the Philharmonic-Symphony Association. To be part of it was to belong. And to belong was not easy. It is still not easy; the journey of a musician is long, arduous and often involves heartbreak.

For many musicians, this begins in the early years of childhood. Some musicians begin study as young as 3 or 4. Many are already serious by the ages of 7 or 8. As their classmates graduate from little league fields to full-size diamonds, they trade in their Suzuki and Seitz for unaccompanied Bach, Paganini caprices and concertos by Mendelssohn, Bruch and Saint-Saens. By high school, the real competition begins: preparatory programs and top youth orchestras require mature preparation and present stiff competition, and by age 14 or 15 it is time to think about conservatory. Which teacher, which school? Those are the top two questions, followed closely by How can I find time to practice 6 hours per day?….and the quest for the right instrument.

By the time graduation rolls around, the decision on which conservatory to attend has been made and, that fall, the next stage begins. Conservatory is a grueling 4 (or 6, or 8) year process of study, growth, study, practice, practice, practice….and practice. Repertoire classes, competitions, masterclasses, lessons, recitals, auditions..playing becomes life, and life becomes practice. And then comes the light at the end of the tunnel: the fellowship years or, if one is lucky, the audition circuit, major competitions, and the first job.

Being a musician is not so much a way of making a living as it is building a life. A life in music is what we aspire to: to follow in the footsteps and traditions of the great masters, to somehow seek to understand that which is greater than ourselves. Music gives us that—and then some.

Yet behind every musician are ghosts—some imagined, some very real—who are quite Casperian, who push us along or whisper, almost inaudibly, in our ear. These ghosts are present in every concert hall across the world, their legacies on full display for the world to see and hear. The world just doesn’t think about their presence.

Parents

Behind every great musician is a pair of parents. Parents play an enormous role in the shaping of their progeny in many different ways. For the lucky few, there are the parents who are supportive, understanding and passionate. For the even fewer, there are those who are empathetic by virtue of hereditary commonality: professional musicians who pass along their talents and their passions. For many others, there are two basic categories of parents: those who are bewildered, flummoxed but encouraging and those who believe their children are wasting their time.

The two extremes are the most salient examples, to be sure. At one end of one extreme, there is the stage parent, convinced that her child is the next (Mozart, Beethoven, Heifetz) and Heaven help anyone who dares to disagree. On the other end of the same extreme, we see the parent who encourages from the sidelines, allows his child musical (and general) growing pains but will mortgage the house and chose a Hyundai over a Porsche if it means getting his young violinist that 18th Century Italian.

On one end of the opposite extreme, we see the parent who ignores: the child must beg for lessons, drag mom and dad to her recitals and endure social scorns from her peers without understanding (‘Well, honey, maybe if you spent less time with your cello and more time doing normal kid things, people wouldn’t make fun of you!’) And then there is the other extreme: the parent who is willing to disparage and even disown their child for choosing to pursue a life in music. It has happened—and there are some famous examples.

Make no mistake: parenting a child means making sacrifices. Sometimes it means making big sacrifices. It doesn’t matter which end of the spectrum you’re on: if you are supportive, be prepared to give up your weekends, money, and easy conversations around the water cooler (“Hey Jim, didja see the game last night?” ‘No, Ted, but Susan played the most amazing Bach I’ve ever heard her play! Her intonation was flawless, too!’ “…Wow, that’s, um…great?) If you’re on the latter end of things, be prepared to lose a connection—a fundamental, essential and even existential connection—with your child.

And even if you think you’re getting off easy, you may be in for a surprise. Sure, little Johnny decided to play the piccolo instead of the double bass, so woo-hoo—no minivan necessary! Or maybe Tina decided on the oboe instead of the violin—and having seen the prices on violins, it seems like a financial victory. Then reality hits: have you listened to the orchestral exerpts for piccolo…over….and over, and over…and over? And as for oboe, I leave you with one word: reeds.

But parents shape their children, for good or for bad. Even the bad can have incredible results (see Mozart, Wolfgang and Bernstein, Leonard.) The sacrifices are always worth it. And speaking of worth….

 

Instruments

The violin is a romantic instrument. There is no other way to describe it. It is perfectly fitting that the very shape of the instrument is patterned after the female body, that perfect design of nature, capable of genesis and unqualified beauty all at once. The violin is not an easy instrument, not by a long shot. It is one of the most physically demanding instruments to play, particularly in the orchestral and chamber repertoire, where their parts rarely afford prolonged breaks in playing. Nor is the instrument easy: each is unique and, along with its own (often powerful) history comes a personality. It will not respond simply because it is touched, nor yield merely because the talents of its player may be seductive. Like a cross between Excalibur and Audrey Hepburn, it combines exquisite power and timeless beauty, always aware of its value and giving in only to those it deems worthy.

The amount of skill needed to produce such an instrument from raw wood is immense. It is a marvel of technology and engineering: its basic design has remained virtually unchanged in the last 400 years. A violin takes 200 years just to mature. From the shaping of its body to the finesse required to detail its purfling and scroll—aesthetic details that are nonetheless essential to quality and pedigree—it takes a steady hand, vivid imagination and years of experience to master the art of luthiery.

Oh, and it takes talent.

Atop the field stand three giants, a veritable Trinity of makers: Amati, Guarneri and Stradavari. To mention the word Strad, even to the uninitiated, elicits a certain effect of awe. And yet these works are so rare—everyone knows that you cannot simply walk into a violin shop and say ‘I want the best, and money is no object. I’ll take a Strad.’

The representation of this talent on a concert stage is enormous. Along with the old Italian violins (and violas and cellos) are 19th century French and masterful modern instruments. Each has a history, a pedigree—an energy that can work with or against a player, a relationship that plays out dramatically and publicly each time bow is put to string. The hopes, dreams, tragedies, triumphs, tribulations, lives and loves of their makers resound even centuries after their death, the violin a living legacy to their talent, craftsmanship and, in some cases, genius.

Not to be outdone, the winds, brass and percussion instruments are also artistic triumphs. From hand-made  clarinets to hand-hammered timpani, shining trumpets, carefully wrapped timpani mallets to the very baton wielded by the conductor, a lifetime of training and passion lies behind each and every instrument on stage.

Teachers

Last but certainly not least on our list, we come to the teachers.

What would a great musician be without an inspiring teacher?

Teachers are about love; they are about tradition; they are about sharing themselves—their experience, their sense of possibility—in a way that none other can. To teach is to hope for better days, to feel the love of a parent and the responsibility of a statesman. It is to mix a respect for craft with the fire of invention, to instill a sense of duty and tradition along with discipline and endless curiosity.

A great teacher helps their student discover what is possible. A great teacher helps a student to find the right questions, not merely the right answers. They attract with magnetism—a reputation, a body of work, even a status as a living legend—and deliver with integrity.

A teacher combines it all: they help balance the setting and situation (parents), the talent (student) and medium (instrument) and shape not only an artist, but a citizen.

Conclusion

As the final chords of Brahms come crashing down, the silence of the audience is broken at last. Energy turns to sound, and the warmth of the ovation matches the sweetness of the music.

On-stage, the musicians share a collective bitter-sweetness: the evenings work is done, and a well deserved break is at hand. But they know, as they smile at the audience, that they are not alone. Behind them and within them stand the Ghosts of music: inner demons, silent muses, kindred spirits, delighted craftsmen. They have been here the whole time: watching, listening, willing. They, too, have touched the audience—and their legacy will endure peacefully shrouded in silence.

The talent off-stage.

The concert began in silence.

It was not immediate. The din of the audience began to die down as the lights were dimmed, reduced to a hum, then a whisper, then to single voices, punctuated by gentle but firm admonitions of ‘Ssh!’ from every corner, and finally gave way to golden silence.

It was a moment of tension, the calm before the storm. Everyone knew that this evening would begin with a torrent: it was Brahms’ epic First Symphony, after all, and the assembly was fully prepared to bathe in the deluge of sound which was now moments away. They were not disappointed. First came the Lieutenant, the leader of the orchestra. The concertmaster’s slow but steady footsteps broke the golden silence, the brittle sound of leather upon wood giving way to the warmth of applause, cursory but sincere. An equally cursory bow followed, his elegant form breaking only slightly at the waist, before turning with polite authority to the oboist, who obliged dutifully with a spark of a note, a pure, firm, floating ‘A’ to which the winds and brass responded enthusiastically. When the moment had passed, the oboist offered her note once more, now to the strings, whose instruments filled the stage with a delightful barrage of open 5ths, music pouring forth even in this moment of preparation.

Taking his seat, the concertmaster seemed to steel himself, the courage and energy taken up in turn by his colleagues on stage. Silence returned once more. A moment passed; then another. The stage door opened, and now emerged the maestro, striding powerfully and purposefully towards the podium. First came the ascent to the platform; a handshake, friendly yet somber, was offered to the concertmaster, who exchanged a knowing glance with the General, who finally turned full on to the audience, bowing gracefully, before finally inviting the Final Silence.

Now another moment, now two, now three.  Brahms was ready to share with us his fear and trembling, fear of the Master, trembling from the burden of Bearing the Torch, worrying even with his first notes that this fire should burn him rather than provide light. The tension built….it began a crescendo, a crescendo of deafening silence…and then….

The audience felt the timpani. The relentless hammerstrokes fell, one two three four five six, one two three four five six; wood and cork and felt crashing violently against calfskin and erupting in sound. Now was the ear drawn to sound; the winds, an octave apart drawn together for a descent, the violins and cellos finding a way to struggle ever upward while the basses marched behind the timpani.

Talent! Gasped the audience, swept up in this moment of emotion. What talent is before us! What incredible achievement of Olympus, what benevolence of Calliope has given us privilege to bear witness to this spectacle?

Yes, in the end, there is talent: this was evident in the elation (and, now and then, awe) of the listeners. And yet those on stage knew only too well that their own talent was only the final stage of a complex process; their citizenship was only part of a great musical and human society. It is time to address the others.

 

Musicians

A symphony orchestra is a society. At its birth a mere hundred and fifty years ago (give or take), its founders were often explicit in giving it this title: The Musikverein, the Society of the Friends of Music, the Philharmonic-Symphony Association. To be part of it was to belong. And to belong was not easy. It is still not easy; the journey of a musician is long, arduous and often involves heartbreak.

For many musicians, this begins in the early years of childhood. Some musicians begin study as young as 3 or 4. Many are already serious by the ages of 7 or 8. As their classmates graduate from little league fields to full-size diamonds, they trade in their Suzuki and Seitz for unaccompanied Bach, Paganini caprices and concertos by Mendelssohn, Bruch and Saint-Saens. By high school, the real competition begins: preparatory programs and top youth orchestras require mature preparation and present stiff competition, and by age 14 or 15 it is time to think about conservatory. Which teacher, which school? Those are the top two questions, followed closely by How can I find time to practice 6 hours per day?….and the quest for the right instrument.

By the time graduation rolls around, the decision on which conservatory to attend has been made and, that fall, the next stage begins. Conservatory is a grueling 4 (or 6, or 8) year process of study, growth, study, practice, practice, practice….and practice. Repertoire classes, competitions, masterclasses, lessons, recitals, auditions..playing becomes life, and life becomes practice. And then comes the light at the end of the tunnel: the fellowship years or, if one is lucky, the audition circuit, major competitions, and the first job.

Being a musician is not so much a way of making a living as it is building a life. A life in music is what we aspire to: to follow in the footsteps and traditions of the great masters, to somehow seek to understand that which is greater than ourselves. Music gives us that—and then some.

Yet behind every musician are ghosts—some imagined, some very real—who are quite Casperian, who push us along or whisper, almost inaudibly, in our ear. These ghosts are present in every concert hall across the world, their legacies on full display for the world to see and hear. The world just doesn’t think about their presence.

Parents

Behind every great musician is a pair of parents. Parents play an enormous role in the shaping of their progeny in many different ways. For the lucky few, there are the parents who are supportive, understanding and passionate. For the even fewer, there are those who are empathetic by virtue of hereditary commonality: professional musicians who pass along their talents and their passions. For many others, there are two basic categories of parents: those who are bewildered, flummoxed but encouraging and those who believe their children are wasting their time.

The two extremes are the most salient examples, to be sure. At one end of one extreme, there is the stage parent, convinced that her child is the next (Mozart, Beethoven, Heifetz) and Heaven help anyone who dares to disagree. On the other end of the same extreme, we see the parent who encourages from the sidelines, allows his child musical (and general) growing pains but will mortgage the house and chose a Hyundai over a Porsche if it means getting his young violinist that 18th Century Italian.

On one end of the opposite extreme, we see the parent who ignores: the child must beg for lessons, drag mom and dad to her recitals and endure social scorns from her peers without understanding (‘Well, honey, maybe if you spent less time with your cello and more time doing normal kid things, people wouldn’t make fun of you!’) And then there is the other extreme: the parent who is willing to disparage and even disown their child for choosing to pursue a life in music. It has happened—and there are some famous examples.

Make no mistake: parenting a child means making sacrifices. Sometimes it means making big sacrifices. It doesn’t matter which end of the spectrum you’re on: if you are supportive, be prepared to give up your weekends, money, and easy conversations around the water cooler (“Hey Jim, didja see the game last night?” ‘No, Ted, but Susan played the most amazing Bach I’ve ever heard her play! Her intonation was flawless, too!’ “…Wow, that’s, um…great?) If you’re on the latter end of things, be prepared to lose a connection—a fundamental, essential and even existential connection—with your child.

And even if you think you’re getting off easy, you may be in for a surprise. Sure, little Johnny decided to play the piccolo instead of the double bass, so woo-hoo—no minivan necessary! Or maybe Tina decided on the oboe instead of the violin—and having seen the prices on violins, it seems like a financial victory. Then reality hits: have you listened to the orchestral exerpts for piccolo…over….and over, and over…and over? And as for oboe, I leave you with one word: reeds.

But parents shape their children, for good or for bad. Even the bad can have incredible results (see Mozart, Wolfgang and Bernstein, Leonard.) The sacrifices are always worth it. And speaking of worth….

 

Instruments

The violin is a romantic instrument. There is no other way to describe it. It is perfectly fitting that the very shape of the instrument is patterned after the female body, that perfect design of nature, capable of genesis and unqualified beauty all at once. The violin is not an easy instrument, not by a long shot. It is one of the most physically demanding instruments to play, particularly in the orchestral and chamber repertoire, where their parts rarely afford prolonged breaks in playing. Nor is the instrument easy: each is unique and, along with its own (often powerful) history comes a personality. It will not respond simply because it is touched, nor yield merely because the talents of its player may be seductive. Like a cross between Excalibur and Audrey Hepburn, it combines exquisite power and timeless beauty, always aware of its value and giving in only to those it deems worthy.

The amount of skill needed to produce such an instrument from raw wood is immense. It is a marvel of technology and engineering: its basic design has remained virtually unchanged in the last 400 years. A violin takes 200 years just to mature. From the shaping of its body to the finesse required to detail its purfling and scroll—aesthetic details that are nonetheless essential to quality and pedigree—it takes a steady hand, vivid imagination and years of experience to master the art of luthiery.

Oh, and it takes talent.

Atop the field stand three giants, a veritable Trinity of makers: Amati, Guarneri and Stradavari. To mention the word Strad, even to the uninitiated, elicits a certain effect of awe. And yet these works are so rare—everyone knows that you cannot simply walk into a violin shop and say ‘I want the best, and money is no object. I’ll take a Strad.’

The representation of this talent on a concert stage is enormous. Along with the old Italian violins (and violas and cellos) are 19th century French and masterful modern instruments. Each has a history, a pedigree—an energy that can work with or against a player, a relationship that plays out dramatically and publicly each time bow is put to string. The hopes, dreams, tragedies, triumphs, tribulations, lives and loves of their makers resound even centuries after their death, the violin a living legacy to their talent, craftsmanship and, in some cases, genius.

Not to be outdone, the winds, brass and percussion instruments are also artistic triumphs. From hand-made  clarinets to hand-hammered timpani, shining trumpets, carefully wrapped timpani mallets to the very baton wielded by the conductor, a lifetime of training and passion lies behind each and every instrument on stage.

Teachers

Last but certainly not least on our list, we come to the teachers.

What would a great musician be without an inspiring teacher?

Teachers are about love; they are about tradition; they are about sharing themselves—their experience, their sense of possibility—in a way that none other can. To teach is to hope for better days, to feel the love of a parent and the responsibility of a statesman. It is to mix a respect for craft with the fire of invention, to instill a sense of duty and tradition along with discipline and endless curiosity.

A great teacher helps their student discover what is possible. A great teacher helps a student to find the right questions, not merely the right answers. They attract with magnetism—a reputation, a body of work, even a status as a living legend—and deliver with integrity.

A teacher combines it all: they help balance the setting and situation (parents), the talent (student) and medium (instrument) and shape not only an artist, but a citizen.

Conclusion

As the final chords of Brahms come crashing down, the silence of the audience is broken at last. Energy turns to sound, and the warmth of the ovation matches the sweetness of the music.

On-stage, the musicians share a collective bitter-sweetness: the evenings work is done, and a well deserved break is at hand. But they know, as they smile at the audience, that they are not alone. Behind them and within them stand the Ghosts of music: inner demons, silent muses, kindred spirits, delighted craftsmen. They have been here the whole time: watching, listening, willing. They, too, have touched the audience—and their legacy will endure peacefully shrouded in silence.

Listening to classical music: The concern of a generation.

I have had the chance to go to a few concerts over the last week. It has been refreshing to take part in the wonderful social experience of the concert after a long and busy summer, a time in which the ‘routine’ of concert culture is often broken or unpredictable. 

The concerts were excellent: the musicians played beautifully, the repertoire was fantastic and well chosen and the venues were intimate. There was just one issue: the audience was old. Very old.

Please don’t misunderstand: I have nothing against the chronologically advanced. But it is quite disheartening to see an audience comprised almost exclusively (often but for the family, students and friends of the performers) of senior citizens. Where or where are the 20 and 30-somethings? For that matter, were are the 40-somethings?!

It is an ongoing problem, one which orchestras across the country are struggling to address. From marketing campaigns to special pricing on concerts, from music in the schools programs to ‘crossover’ events, classical music organizations are looking for solutions. The results are heralded in different ways, ranging from the benign (being more active in the community, being a community leader in education) to the boderline-suspicious (Revolutionizing Classical music! Making classical music cool!)

The lamentation of this issue is often met with a chuckle, usually followed by a gentle sigh and shrug of the shoulders as if to say ‘Well, what can we do? Times are changing. Young people don’t have the same interests or traditions their grandparents did.’

I spoke with a friend of mine who is not a classical music aficionado nor a regular concert-goer; however, she enjoys classical music, has a good education, a good career and an appreciation for culture. She’s also in her late 30s. This makes her a perfect example of the ‘type of person’ that we hope to get into the concert hall regularly. I asked her directly: Why don’t you go? What would get you, or your friends or students, to make classical music a regular part of your life? 

Her reply was quite frustrating, and something I’ve heard before: “Give the kids something they can relate to!” she offered. “You know, you could bring in a hip-hop group and have a violinist play something over the hip-hop beats…and the kids might think ‘Hey, this is cool–now I think I’ll try listening to it with just the violin.’ That could be good!”

I know what the reaction might be to my frustration: accusations that I’m an elitist, a snob, stubborn. But that isn’t it. Not this time. It made me frustrated. It made me mad. And maybe, just maybe, this could be an acceptable response. Why? I’ll tell you why.

There is no reason that classical music itself could not be an independent frame of reference for young people. Why shouldn’t young people–children, teens, young professionals–have a basic knowledge of Beethoven and Mozart, Brahms and Stravinsky? These men wrote long before ‘hip hop’–along with rock and pop–ever existed. And they were not living and writing in ivory towers: their message, for lack of a better term, was for everyone. 

And the idea that classical music needs to be made ‘cool’ and ‘relevant’ is insulting. Nobody should have to apologize for Beethoven and Mozart. Nobody should have to dumb it down. Nobody should have to dilute it or allow it to be associated with just one mood. If I had a nickel for every time someone said to me Oh, I like classical music…it is so relaxing….

I will not apologize. 

There are other criticisms: concerts–or even single pieces–are too long. The atmosphere is stuffy and formal. There are all these rules. The music is boring and antiquated–sorry, old fashioned.

I’ll give you one of those for free, but I’m taking issue with the rest. Sure, the atmosphere can be stuffy. You know why? Because some people relish the chance to be snobby. Well, that performance was okay, but it wasn’t nearly as good as my Bernstein recording!” Ok, buddy, we get it: you collect records, you know a bit about classical music, and you enjoy lording it over people you perceive to be less educated and intelligent than you are. But you know what? That snobby comment may have just turned a future subscriber into someone who will never set foot in here again. Nice going! And you know what else? Being snobby doesn’t make the music any better. The guy who bravely bought a ticket to his first symphony concert has every bit as much the right to enjoy the concert as you do. So yes: those who allege that concerts can be stuffy, I acknowledge your complaint. We will work on that. 

Now, onto the rest:

Concerts are too long? You can’t sit through a 45 minute symphony? Believe it or not, sitting still and concentrating for extended periods of time are actual, important life skills. Grown up skills. If you can’t concentrate on something for 30 or 45 minutes, the problem may be with you rather than with the music. That doesn’t mean that every 45 minute long piece of music is a masterpiece–but maybe you could take the time to find out. And frankly, these composers wrote about some pretty serious things: life, death, love, faith, desire, war. Those things can’t always fit into a 3 minute song. Sorry. 

Next: The setting is formal and there are rules: well, yeah. First, not every concert is formal. Plenty aren’t. But lets assume you’re at a concert which has a bit of formality involved. Fine. You know what? Putting on the big boy pants, tying your own tie and being polite aren’t the worst things in the world to have to do. Again, these are actual life skills! Consider it practice for your cousin Marge’s wedding. We know you don’t like Marge that much–but trust us, you’ll love this Mozart. And those rules? Sorry, sometimes you have to follow the rules. Sure, trying not to cough, rattle paper, make a call or make other noises at certain times can be tough–but if you can’t at least try it for a couple of hours, again, the problem may not be with the music.

Finally…the music is boring? Excuse me? Boring, did you say? Listen to Shostakovich. The guy lived with a bag packed, looking over both shoulders, waiting to die a long, painful, horrible death for, you know, not wanting to call a violent, erratic sociopath (Stalin) the greatest guy who ever lived. Good ol’ Dimitri defied official orders time and time again; he was brave, and he was honest: this fear (and his love of his homeland) found its way into his music. Listen to the 3rd movement of the 8th symphony. Go, ahead, do it–then tell me that this music is boring. What? More examples? Hm…well, lets see….how about the last movement of Beethoven’s 7th: if you can listen to that and not want to dance, then you are not alive. How about the 2nd movement of Mahler’s 5th? Chaos! Barber’s Adagio–need a tissue? And there are many, many more examples I could give–thousands, quite literally.

Yes, there is work to do. Yes, the classical music world is hardly without sin. But the music needs no apology. I am through apologizing for this great music, this wonderful tradition, this living history. 

It is time for a new generation.

Studying music: much more than rhythms and notes.

It is that time of year again! As students return to school, eager to begin learning new things, making new friends and growing through new experiences, there is a feeling of renewed hope, a sense that there is a bright future even in these difficult times.

Of course, some classes that your son or daughter had last year may not be offered this year. As budget cuts take their toll on curricula around the country, certain areas of education are pushed to the side or even cut altogether. Often at the top of the list of the latter is music: that wonderful tonic which brings together people of all backgrounds.

As these cuts are made, there is often an apathy that accompanies it. “Why do we need music programs?” goes the argument. “Classical music is just for rich people and old people! It is a hobby, not a career, so why should anyone waste time studying it? And anyway, it is so expensive–lessons, band/chorus trips, all that time spent practicing…no, music doesn’t have much of a tangible value or effect!”

Nothing could be further from the truth, and there are plenty of articles bemoaning this attitude and attempting to educate and rectify this issue. But at the heart of the argument lies this: Music, especially classical music, doesn’t really have much educational value beyond the playing of an instrument. To refute that argument, I’ve decided to look into that a little more closely. To wit, here are some things that your child, if they study an instrument, will be learning along with music(with specific examples given where appropriate.):

Teamwork (playing in an orchestra or chamber ensemble)

Discipline (from practicing, often unsupervised, for an hour or more every single day.)

Resilience (from dealing with frustration, rejection and impatience.)

Self-expression

Restraint

Leadership (again, from playing in ensembles)

Critical thinking

This is not a comprehensive list, of course, but it is a good start.

Still not convinced? How about this:
When a student plays Bach, they learn about devotion. When they play Haydn, they learn how to express humor without words. When playing Mozart, they learn about invention and ‘outside the box’ thinking. When they play Beethoven’s ‘Eroica,’ they are learning about the Napoleonic wars and the devastation that comes from watching an idol fall, a hero become a villain. When they play Wagner, they learn about the power of folk-tales and mythology; they also learn that good can come from evil and that the world is not black and white.

When they play Brahms, they learn of unrequited love; in Schumann, they find the voice of madness. Through Mahler they learn what it feels like to struggle to find ones identity. In Tchaikovsky they learn the pain of being an outsider and in Bernstein they search for a way to live an ideal life in turbulent times.

And through all of these composers we are introduced to great literature, philosophy, history, culture and different times.

Yes, music is a gateway–and a wonderful chance for a child to gain entry to a much larger world than most adults invite them to experience. Don’t give up on music–it will never give up on you.