My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

City mouse, country mouse in classical music culture: Part II - repertoire and programming


Painting by Ana Inigo Olea,
from Wikimedia Commons
Such an every-day word in so classical circles.  

"What's on your repertoire list?"
"What rep did they play at the concert last night?"
"What kind of rep do they do?"

As a musician that has gone from being a city mouse to being a country mouse, if I use that word  in the community where I now find myself I get a whole lot of blank stares.  It's not because it's a fancy word or because it's derived from the French language; it's not necessarily because the classical music world, where the word most frequently resides, is a very small, quiet one. I think it's because of one important truth that I've learned about most of the people here - 

Music is simply music for many people.  There is no comprehension of "classical" vs. "jazz" vs. "bluegrass."  It's all just music.

It's taken some getting used to on my part but it's a concept that's growing on me.  There is a lot of freedom that comes with throwing away so many of these labels.  If I am no longer just a classical musician but rather "a musician" there's nothing stopping me from playing and exploring other styles.  And if I am no longer a classical musician I can venture out and try new things without fear of being criticized for trying to be someone that I'm not because anything is possible.

Stripped of my "classical musician" label I have started to play around with my own "repertoire" choices.  Oh wait, let's translate that into country mouse language - I have started to play around with the pieces that I share with others.  My decisions are being shaped by the people I'm playing for here, many of whom didn't grow up around classical music. So far I think the result is that both the audience and I have enjoyed the experiences far more than we would have had I stuck to my city mouse mentality.  Here are some morsels that I've picked up from folks that don't necessarily differentiate between musical styles and how those morsels shape my programming decisions and presentations, mostly as a chamber musician and solo performer.

Generally speaking, country mice...
  • don't go to a performance for the sole purpose of hearing "classical music" or any other genre for that matter.  They go to hear music, to be moved, to be entertained, to get their toe tapping - they go for a variety of reasons that are hard to really predict or direct.  As a result I'm getting more and more brave about trying different types of pieces myself and even different instruments.  Not only does it keep it interesting for myself and my audience, it also helps me to let go a bit of my perfectionism.  And since people always show their appreciation regardless of how I feel myself about how successful my attempts are, I'm starting to connect with the fact that people want to hear music, not "perfection," whatever that is.  A good side benefit if you ask me.
  • like to hear music that they've heard before, especially when the music is tied to some significant, meaningful event.  I always try to play something that is likely to be familiar to someone in the audience.  Beethoven's "Für Elise," Scott Joplin rags, Bach's C Major Prelude from the first volume of the Well-Tempered Clavier (many people know it thanks to Guonod's arrangement of "Ave Maria") for starters.  Of course it's impossible to find a piece that's going to relate to every member of the audience but what I've found is that even if one piece on a program touches one audience member, their visceral reaction, often found in a sigh, a smile, and enthusiastic applause, is enough to pull in many others in the crowd.  It's difficult to deny music it's power to move.
  • are open-minded, especially if there is some sort of explanation as to why I am playing the piece I am playing.  I remember being quite nervous about playing a pretty dark, heavy Shostakovich Prelude and Fugue for a retirees' coffee hour at our church but I really wanted to share it with them for reasons I won't bore you with.  Before I played, I spent a few minutes explaining why the piece meant so much to me - that it brought to mind a visit I made to St. Petersburg right after communism had fallen.  I told them of the bombed-out estate on the Gulf of Finland that I stayed in with the boys choir I was with and of the shock that I saw on the boys' faces as they took in this completely different, world - one that was literally a ghost of the past.  After the performance I don't think that everyone left humming the piece, but they did listen and seemed to do so with some level of positive expectation.
  • have a difficult time understanding multi-movement works.  This has been one of the most surprising things to me for some reason.  I just assumed, being the city mouse that I was, that everyone understood that some pieces had multiple movements and that they knew how to keep track of them mid-stream.  But that's just not the case.  The majority of folks where I live do not understand that there is a reason for a large work to have multiple movements - that those movements belong together in some way and that together they make up one story.  And since many have not previously learned classical music etiquette rules they inevitably clap at the end of each movement.  I would even go so far as to say that seeing multiple movement works on a program can make an audience nervous.  I can't tell you how many times I've seen audience members repeatedly elbow their neighbor during a Bach suite and point at the program with a panicked expression, all because they don't know where they are in the piece.  Part of my solution to this issue is, perhaps, somewhat scandalous, at least in the classical music world.  I, , I actually leave movements out or perform just one movement of a particular work at a time.  Sometimes I have been known to play one movement, skip to another piece, and then return to another movement of the first piece later on.  Shocking, I know.  But not once has anyone come up to me and harassed me about it.  
  • have a difficult time paying attention when a piece is long, regardless of how wonderful a piece it is.  That's a simple problem to solve - I don't play really long pieces, at least not for a typical audience and not without fair warning.  A few years ago I had the opportunity to perform all of Schubert's epic song-cycle, "Winterreise."  It is a piece that takes an hour to perform and we did it without any intermission.  Even though I was thrilled to death to be doing it I was very careful to tell people in advance not only about why I was so thrilled to be doing it but also about the length and challenge of the work so that they could decide whether or not they wanted to make such a commitment.  
  • really like music that makes them smile and even laugh.  I'll never forget the first time I performed a piece that elicited laughter from the darkness in the hall.  It was Erik Satie's "Sports et divertissements," 20 short pieces that weave together droll text provided by Satie himself, fabulous paintings by Charles Martin, and of course Satie's own musical representation of it all in miniature form.  Although the score states that the pieces shouldn't be performed with the words narrated, I had my husband narrate and had the paintings projected onto a screen behind the piano.  I'm so glad we chose to do it this way.  We heard laughter throughout and that instantly created a connection and an atmosphere with the audience that I now regularly seek.  This is not to say that I'm headed in the direction of presenting comedy routines on stage but I can't deny that I like to hear people enjoying themselves.  It helps to make that dark hall a little bit brighter and through the sound of their laughter it gives me a glimpse of my partners-in-crime. One thing I have learned when presenting pieces like this is that it seems to help the audience if I let them know beforehand that they should feel free to chuckle, smile, and laugh during the performance.  Otherwise it can make for a bit of a stifled, awkward scene for everyone involved.
I think it's really important to keep in mind with all of these observations that I don't think any less of my audience here.  I don't feel that I'm more sophisticated and I don't think there's any reason they should know what I know about how classical music works.  We come from different backgrounds - that's it.  My aim when I perform in this wonderful community of ours is not to dumb down classical music or to bring classical music to the masses, to show them what they're missing, to educate them.  My goal is now to share music and myself with them whether it's classical music, jazz, bluegrass, whatever.  And so far the experiment has kept this country mouse a proud, content country mouse that's wandering into many more directions than I ever thought possible.  

Other posts in this series:
City mouse, country mouse in classical music: Part I


  1. Loved this! I'm in the middle of exploring my feelings on performing/repertoire/memorization/playing for sophisticated vs. less experienced audiences, and frankly, I think I just want a little more joy out of music making. I so often get caught up in how things are "supposed" to be done that I forget why I play. I play because I love the communication, the passion, the pleasure, and it's nice to remember that a desire for perfection can actually hobble that for ourselves as well as for our audiences.

    Thanks for's good food for thought.

    1. Kerri,
      Oh I so hope you decide to seek out that joy. It is worth it in my opinion, even though it means letting go of a lot of what we're trained to do and I do think there is a happy medium.

      I wish you all the best and would love to hear sometime what you discover in the process!

      Thank you for reading,

  2. Music is a form of communication. In all other kinds of communication we *expect* to make accommodations depending on our audience. Why not music?

    Great post!

  3. So what do you do when you have to learn and perform music you don't enjoy playing but have to play for one reason or another? Like, when you know your audience will like genre of music that you don't like? Or, if it's not up to you to decide what you are performing? More often then not I fail to improve pieces that I do not connect with. The deadline doesn't care for my feelings on the pieces, though, they have to be ready to perform by certain time. Any suggestions?

    1. Hmmm...good questions, Olya. Personally I wouldn't recommend performing pieces or styles you don't like, if you have a choice. For me it's too difficult to fake it in those cases. If there's a type of music I'm curious about trying out but am not very good at it I try to push myself to do it anyway and to go easy on myself, not expecting too much and to be determined to keep giving it an honest go for as long as I want or whenever I'm asked to try it. For those pieces I really, really don't like but have to perform? It definitely happens, doesn't it? In these situations I try as hard as I can to find as many things about the music or the style as I can and try to highlight them. Sometimes that will be enough to keep me motivated. But I have to say it doesn't always work - there are some pieces and composers that I just can't do very well and I won't if I don't have to. (Ives!!!!) If I can so no to those gigs I say no. If I can't I just do my best knowing that it probably won't be at as high level as I'd like, that I probably won't enjoy it very much and that I'm going to have to be very nice to myself. Sometimes a treat in the end also helps!

      Hope that helps, Olya.

      Happy learning of pieces you do like :-)


    2. I remember an interview with the legendary session drummer Earl Palmer, who was part of the Wrecking Crew. He said that he loved jazz best of all, that that was his favorite music. But when he started to be one of the pioneer session guys in rock and roll, he said that he had to "play that as if THAT were my favorite music" or else he wasn't doing his job. I tend to think that you can choose your audiences as people that you connect with and whose music you like, but also if you are a professional, to some extent you give up the freedom of the amateur to play only what you like.

    3. Good points, Janis and that's an interesting story about Earl Palmer. I'm kind of in some sort in a land in between professional and amateur so I feel fortunate in that I can often perform what I want to perform and for whom I want to perform. But there are the more professional times where, as you say, I have to give up that freedom. I think being in this middle land provides a nice experience - it helps keep me inspired through my more personal performances but also keeps me working to find ways to be convincing about the music and styles I'm not so good with that I often find myself playing in more professional circumstances. And when a performance happens to be a professional gig in which I get to play music I would normally want to play myself? Wow, those can be wonderful performances too.

  4. Totally agree on telling people how long a piece is, just so that they know what to expect.

    Also, a nice reason to play stuff like "Für Elise" and whatnot is also not just playing familiar stuff, but playing stuff that is more likely within the realm of possibility for anyone taking piano lessons in the audience, and ... well, country mice are also more likely than city mice (IMO, I know this is a generalization and somewhat controversial to say) to have pianos and guitars actually in their houses. At least, I've found. City mice have 7,000 CDs in their library, but a country mouse probably has grandpa's guitar in the attic or their grandmom's piano. And playing things that are within their sphere of possibility can also really connect.

    I love Rachmaninoff's musical moment #4, but when I hear even a brilliant pianist playing it in a way that moves me, it's like being on the other side of the glass in an aquarium. It's just not going to be possible for me. City mice don't seem to mind that as much. Or maybe this is a bigger divide than just country vs. city ...

    1. Oh wow, Janis...I had never thought of that benefit of playing more familiar pieces - that it provides some people in the audience with music that they could play themselves which could provide an important connection between performer and audience. And yes! I know many city mice with massive CD collection but many country mice that have multiple instruments hiding in closets or in the attic. I have lots of great stories about stuff like that. I've always had in the back of my mind that if I could inspire just one person to go home and pull those instruments out and get into playing that I'd be a very happy musician. I would love to see more music being made in the home, not necessarily for the purpose of performance but just to be making music.

      I'm intrigued by your analogy about the aquarium glass but I'd like to understand it better. Are you saying that you feel somehow removed from the music that is being played, even when it does move you? If you don't mind sharing more, I'd love to hear it!

      Many thanks,

    2. I guess the aquarium analogy is that I feel as if I'm looking at an alien creature that lives in an environment that I can't survive in, doing things that I can only do in dreams. Even if their activity is incredibly moving and connects with me on a deep level, a yard-thick bulletproof boundary of separation is just unavoidable. Communication is about connecting, and connecting is only possible to a small extent over a non-negotiable barrier that simply will never disappear. Playing music that the audience can also possibly go home and mess with themselves is like having the dolphin reach out of the glass and show me how I can do a little of what they're doing, even just a little. How glorious that would be.

    3. BTW, the aquarium comment was a simile that I first heard when Pine repeated a comment by a cellist named Zuill Bailey here:

      I find it interesting that he felt the same thing as a performer that I sometimes feel as an audience member: a yawning chasm.

    4. Thank you so much for describing that analogy, Janis. I can relate as both a performer and an audience member. And thank you for that link to Zuill Bailey's interview - he and I were often in the same places growing up so it was good to catch up with him. He is incredibly good with audiences.

      I have to say that I'm very curious to learn more about you but I completely understand if you don't feel comfortable sharing that info.

      In the meantime, I'm going to try to tempt that dolphin in the aquarium to reach beyond the glass.


    5. It's okay. :-) I took a lot of classical piano lessons as a kid but went without even an instrument for nearly two decades thanks to years in undergrad and graduate physics and astronomy, followed by years of not having any money and living in apartments. Wasn't until very, very recently that I got a piano -- it's a Clavinova that I adore because it's lighter, better than any acoustic I'd get off craigslist for the same price, and comes with headphones which means that I can actually USE it as an apartment dweller. I live in southern California, so no one without massive amounts of family or movie-made money can afford a house out here.

      I've only discovered relatively recently that I can write music and like to think that after 44 years of not doing it at all, what I'm putting out is pretty good. Haven't sold anything just because I'm still writing stuff at this point and I've heard so many horror stories about artists making zilch in the iTunes era that I'm wondering if it's best to just write it for myself.

      I studied viola for a tiny bit very recently but that was before I got ambushed with an awareness of how to write music; the viola got put on the shelf at that point.

      I have a music-related blog, but it's not under my name and I have turned comments off because I can get cranky and overstimulated with a great deal of online contact sometimes. :-/

      I'm curious about what you do as well. I have a 9-5+ job in high-tech that takes a great deal of my time and don't really interact with any other musicians in my off hours.

      Sorry this is pretty long. :-)

    6. Actually -- and this is horribly presumptuous, so my apologies -- would you be okay with me sending you a piece of sheet music? Not for anything more than a simple look-see. I just haven't shown it to anyone at this point, and I'm curious as to what A Real Pianist might think of it.

      It's okay if you don't have the time, and I'm not looking for any in-depth anything. I'm just curious about how it would be received by someone who does this sort of thing for a living. :-)

    7. Janis, thank you so much for sharing all that with me. I love hearing peoples' stories and since we've been going back and forth discussing things recently I thought it would be wonderful to learn more about you. So thank you for that!

      I think it's fantastic that you're getting into composing - that's something I've done very little of and quite honestly, it kind of intimidates me. Perhaps it's because I don't have the best memory so if I don't write stuff down I forget what I've come up with almost immediately. And when I do write I tend to do it the old-fashioned way, by hand. I'm too lazy and cheap to purchase one of those big fancy computer programs and I don't have a midi keyboard either.

      Anyway...I'm not sure what you do or don't know about me but I'll give you a quick version...

      I started piano when I was 5 because I wanted to start, added cello on top of that when I was around 10 or 11 and did both for a while until my mom made me mad and challenged me to quit one or the other. She didn't think I'd do it but of course I did. I quit piano. Ended up going to music school as a cellist but then my cello teacher got wind of the fact that I could play piano so he heard me and then encouraged me to audition as a pianist. I did both for a semester and then ended up dropping the cello (not literally.) Got two degrees in piano performance. Got married. Played the role of wife and then mom and had piano on the backburner. That wasn't so healthy for me. After our daughter was born and I struggled with major depression I got back into performing and playing again and was a much happier person. That time away from music after getting married was probably the best thing for me - it made be unbelievably passionate about what I do.

      Now I'm mostly an accompanist/collaborator that works with musicians of all levels and ages and I am one of the happiest people around. I love what I do.

      Nice to meet you, Janis! I'm looking forward to more conversation. :-)


    8. Oh, and Janis, in regards to your "presumptuous" question, no worries. I would be happy to look at what you've done as long as you promise not expect anything too profound from me. Why don't you go ahead and e-mail it to me at:

      I'll take a look-see at it. :-)


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