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Musical Fortune Cookies

Recalling the memories that make music special.

by Drew McManus
April 12, 2004

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A few months ago I was sitting in a Thai restaurant talking to a friend of mine, Stirling Newberry, about the current state of classical music and where we thought it was heading. At the end of lunch they served the obligatory fortune cookie and it hit me that much of our discussion was something like a musical fortune cookie. Each memory we shared had a another clue wrapped up on the inside which helped us further define our thoughts about how we could help move classical music back into the mainstream of cultural consciousness. But it wasn’t until after the fact that I realized that one of the best ways to bring back classical music as a relevant form of culture is to simply do what I was doing in the restaurant with Stirling. No, not eat lunch; rather finding ways to talk to people about what makes classical music worthwhile. Stirling does something like this already with classical.meetup.com.

Since that time I’ve shared many such musical fortune cookies with friends and acquaintances and it never ceases to amaze me the variety of ways that classical music impacts people’s lives. Just this weekend while out on a walk with my wife we were having just such a discussion. She was remembering the time when she listened to her first classical music album (we’re just old enough to have grown up in the days before CD’s), it was a recording of Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. The recording was loaned to her by her violin teacher at the time and she said that she listened to the album so many times and for so long that her teacher had to ask her to return it. Even today she has distinct memories of how each movement created vivid images in her head that paralleled each movement’s title; the sunrise, thunderstorm, and the donkey ride on the trail.

She then went on to talk about how the piece inadvertently taught her how to create images in her mind even when the music wasn’t programmatic. She started to realize how every piece of classical music has some story behind it, even though it typically follows templates and preset forms. This allowed the music to come alive and without even knowing it, she was teaching herself how to appreciate classical music. Even today, after she’s gone through six years of professional instruction that teaches the ear to instinctively listen critically for issues of technique, she still maintains the same sense of creative interpretation which allows her to hear something different every time she listens to a familiar piece of music.

Next, let’s jump back a few weeks to a musical fortune cookie I received from one of my old teachers and mentors, Jerry Young. Jerry is an icon in the world of tuba pedagogy and is on of the best all around musicians in the country today. He wrote to me about a music appreciation class he was teaching for his university’s honors program. Through teaching that course he’s discovered that the inherent quality of classical music sells itself, it doesn’t take tricks, gimmicks, or marketing to get people to like it. They just need to have contact with someone who is really in love with the art form and can communicate some excitement about it.

And that’s what pulls all of this together – all of my conversations keep coming back to one central theme; all people need is to cross paths with someone that already has an appreciation for classical music. The more people they can come into contact with, the more their appreciation will grow. You don’t need to know anything about classical music to start learning and there aren’t any prerequisites needed to facilitate enjoyment, but there is a need for a convergence of minds. This is why concerts need to become more interactive and have a higher level of social interaction. Everyone perceives classical music differently, the images they see in their head are unique and learning about what other people pick out of the music makes it an altogether more interesting experience.

When I leave a movie I always talk about which parts I liked or disliked, what I picked up on, and what I thought about the actor’s performances. Going to classical music concerts and listening to recordings is like watching a movie you’ve seen before but it keeps changing. I don’t go to movies alone, it’s boring and I never enjoy myself as much, so why bother? I feel the same way when I go to a classical music concert. If I sit by myself I easily become bored and the music almost always fails to reach me to the same level as when I’m with someone. And this is the way it must be for many people that go to classical music concerts that don’t already attend on a regular basis. If I’m a trained musician and I get bored, what must classical music novices feel?

And if you’ve ever tried to talk to a stranger at a classical music concert before, you know the strange looks people can give you before politely excusing themselves because they have to "go over there now". I’ve only had one successful experience talking to a stranger at length that I can remember; it was at a performance of the opera "Tosca". I was given a comp ticket by my wife and found myself sitting there in the nose bleed section (that’s where they usually put comps) alone when another patron walked in to sit in front of me. When she turned to look at me I asked her who she knew in the orchestra – assuming she was sitting in this section for the same reason’s I was. She gave me a double-take and said that she just bought the ticket at the box office and this was the least expensive ticket there was.

After explaining what I meant by the question we started a conversation and I discovered that her name was Janet and she really enjoyed attending opera concerts but none of her friends would go with her because they all though it was full of fat chicks wearing horned helmets while caterwauling on stage. Because of this, she didn’t go very often although she found it culturally gratifying, it wasn’t very much fun. We then started to talk about the parts of the opera we enjoyed, which other operas we liked and about classical music in general. There were times that she seemed almost ecstatic that she had someone to talk to, as though these thoughts had been waiting for the opportunity to come out. As the time progressed, other friends and spouses of the orchestra arrived with their comp tickets and since this is a decidedly small business, I knew them and proceeded to introduced Janet as they joined in on the discussion.

Shortly before the concert, an elderly couple arrived and sat in their seats next to the Janet. By this time, she was so enthusiastic to talk about the opera she initiated a conversation with the woman next to her. After a few minuets, the woman politely interrupted her to say "Yes dear, we are all here because we like the opera, but that doesn’t mean we have to talk about it". I groaned inside at that comment as I watched my new opera friend shrink a bit in her seat. Fortunately, several of my comp-seat musician friends noticed it as well and made sure to talk to Janet at intermission so she wouldn’t think everyone at an opera concert thought the same way as that lady.

What are your musical fortune cookies? What memories have lasted with you over the years, which pieces of music always conjure up images in your mind? Write a letter to the editor and share your experiences.

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