Friday, March 16, 2012

A Guide to Getting the Most From Your Classical Concert Experience for the Classically Confused

Photo from the Facebook page for the Utah Symphony, find links at the bottom of the post
So, the title of my post today may seem pretty convoluted.  But here is what I want to discuss today:  How can someone who doesn't know, understand or (even) like classical music have a positive experience at a concert full of classical music.  How about if you kind of like classical music but find yourself bored at an orchestra concert or a symphony performance?  Yes, this post will be for you too.  How about if you love orchestral/classical music?  I think even you may find that you will like this post and you may even want to leave a comment to offer other tips for your cyber friends who may be struggling.

I remember well when I was a young girl.  I hated, let me emphasize, HATED, what I called classical music (pretty much anything without lyrics), opera and anything that sounded old.  I dreaded riding in my grandparents' car mainly because my grandpa loved to listen to classical music.  I loved pop music, classic rock, etc.  My parents had season tickets to the symphony and I dreaded being roped into going on the rare occasion my parents had a free ticket.  I found the symphony boring and spent a good deal of time napping and wishing I was somewhere else, anywhere else!

The turning point came when I was in high school.  During my Senior year, I took a humanities class. We studied art, literature, architecture and music through history.  I had to memorize the names, composers and even know stylistic traits of "classical" music.  I had no clue how this would work since I thought it all sounded the same and I hated all of it.  I learned a couple of important things:  #1 - Not all "classical" music sounded the same, #2 - Classical music specifically describes the music written during the classical era, #3 - When I studied the music, I found I LOVED what I had called classical music (which I now called - and will call for the rest of this post - orchestral music) and even loved opera!  I was shocked!!!  Learning that I could love orchestral music turned out to be a pretty significant thing in my life, since I went on to marry a violinist.  He spends his life playing, teaching and enjoying this kind of music.

Orchestral music (and for the sake of brevity I will just assume that you know I now include Opera in this) is to music what a painting by the masters is to visual art.  Before you think this is getting too hoity toity and want to jump ship, let me explain.  In order to really love and understand a fine painting, whether it is a Van Gogh, Monet, DaVinci, Rembrandt, or anyone else, you must be able to study the painting.  You have to look at it - for a long time.  You have to understand what makes it remarkable (is it the subject? the masterful representation of the scenery? the technique or how the artist applied the paint?), then you have to step back and just enjoy it.  You don't have to understand everything about it, but you have to take the time to understand something about that painting.  It is the same with music.  You need to know something about it to appreciate it and then just sit back and enjoy.  In both cases you are actively participating in the experience.  Otherwise, you are just waiting for something to knock you out.  It can happen, but it probably won't.

So, let's say you are going to a concert tomorrow night.  How are you going to make it a good experience for yourself?  Let me make a few suggestions:

* Know something about the music you are going to hear.
You can look at a wealth of sources, but one of the easiest is to go to good old Wikipedia.   Find that nifty search box at the top and type in the name of the composer, or the name of the piece you will be hearing (warning: many titles in music are very similar and you might not be able to find exactly what you are looking for).  Maybe you only know that it is going to be music from the Baroque period?  Great! Type in Baroque music and you will learn what makes something Baroque. What if you don't have time to do internet (or other research)?  Often, you will find that when you get to the concert/performance, you will be handed a program.  Most of the time, you will find something on the program or inserted somewhere called "program notes." Someone, usually the conductor, has put together some information that will be helpful for you to know.  I love reading program notes and even if they are sparse they at least give you something to look for.  Do yourself a favor and read them before the performance begins and then you can refer to them again during the performance to remind yourself what you are hearing. Or if your mind likes to wander (like mine does) you can re-engage it by reading the notes again.  If you are super duper lucky, the conductor will take the time to make some comments to the audience and will tell you something s/he likes about the work they are going to be playing and s/he may even tell you something to listen for - all you have to do is really listen for it! I love it when this happens, but it doesn't always happen.

* Understand something about concert ettiquette.
If you don't understand why the person next to you isn't clapping at the "end" of something, the conductor doesn't turn around and some severe looking person is giving you the evil eye when you clap, you may be clapping at the wrong time.  How is that possible?  Many great works in the orchestral world are separated into movements.  This is indicated in the program.  The movements are usually indented and listed under the title of the piece.  They have funky Italian names like: Allegro, Andante, Scherzo and the like and sometimes they are lettered (A,B,C, etc.).  Most of the time the orchestra stops playing for a minute between movements and that is an easy way to keep track.  There are occasions when there is no stop between movements, but that is pretty rare.  A good conductor will make it very obvious that the entire work is done with his/her body.  My favorite cues are a sharp breath out and slumping shoulders, indicating that s/he has worked very hard and is now ready for a rest. Another great cue is when the conductor turns around beaming and looking like s/he wants to bow.  If you are still not sure, just wait for everyone else to start clapping.  If you are wondering why you don't just clap for everything, I will just say this.  I have asked my musician husband and he has told me that #1 - that's just the way it is and #2 - musicians like to have their work appreciated all at once and not in bits and pieces.

Other helpful concert etiquette items include:  refraining from whispering to whoever happens to be sitting next to you during the concert (yes, it is actually distracting to the musicians and it's just rude anyway), refraining from rubbing your partner's back (that is distracting to everyone sitting around you), turning off your cell phone and whatever you do - do not respond to a text!  If you get an emergency call from your babysitter or an SOS from your best friend, slip out (wait until there is applause if possible) before calling or texting back.  These silly things may seem like basic decency, but I see all of these things at concerts on a pretty regular basis.

One last item, and it is just for your own comfort.  Find out about appropriate dress for the venue and concert you will be attending.  It may be a dressy affair (it usually is if it is a Symphony experience), or it may be dressy casual or just plain casual, but you will want to dress the right way so that you don't spend the whole time feeling like you stick out like a sore thumb.

*Sit back and enjoy the music
Ok, so now you have learned something about the music you are going to be hearing.  At last,  you get to sit back and enjoy.  Notice I didn't say, "relax."  In order for you to have the best experience you need to be actively engaged in the music and trying to connect with the performance in some way.  If you've done some research you may be listening for a recurring theme, you may be trying to figure out how the composer was depicting a bird's song in nature and which instrument is portraying that image.  If you are listening to some 20th century music, you may have to just focus on the emotions the composer was feeling when he wrote the piece.  You could also try connecting the music you are hearing to your own emotions.  When have you felt like what you are hearing?  What was that time like in your life?  Was there any resolution? and does the music resolve those emotions in any way? Another way to connect to the music is just by connecting with your inner child and using your imagination.  Imagine a story that goes along with what is happening in the music.  It doesn't have to be the story the composer was trying to tell, it can just be what you imagine is happening.  Kids are really good at doing this.  It can be a little harder for adults, but if you just practice a bit, I'm sure you can do it too!

So...what if you still can't stand orchestral music and Opera?  Well, you've made a valiant effort and can now give yourself a break.  But don't leave the genre aside forever.  Try again in a few months.  Try a different orchestra, or just a different kind of concert.  Remember this is mind engaging stuff, not mind-numbing like some other options may be.  Beyond that Classical, or Orchestral Music is life enriching.  You may not like every piece, genre, time period or instrument, but you will like something and it will add something beautiful and wonderful to your life.  So, go find it and enjoy it!!!!!

The closest major Symphony Orchestra to me is the Utah Symphony and they are wonderful!  They even have awesome concerts in the mountains in the summer.  Find their homepage by following this link and find out about upcoming events.  You can find their Facebook page here.

In my little corner of Southeast Idaho we are super lucky to have a University with an amazing music program.  There are always a multitude of music events at BYU-Idaho for everyone to enjoy and all too often the audience attendance is sparse.  I always feel bad for everyone who misses out on such awesome opportunities to hear first rate musicians playing first rate music.  There are many performances which are free and they are amazing!  From Student Senior Recitals to Faculty Recitals (generally free) to the Center Stage performances and Orchestra Concerts, there are several events every week.  This is a link to the BYU-Idaho Department of Music, on the lower right hand area of the page there is a scrolling list of upcoming events, click on an event and it will give you details.  Or you can go to the Ticket Office website and see and order tickets by following links on that page.


Richelle said...

Love this! Glad to see you blogging again!

Rach said...

Wow I so needed to read this. It's been a huge struggle for me- I have always hated classical music... so slllllowly I've been learning to enjoy it the last 3 years and this definitely helps. Thanks! I'm so happy you're blogging again!