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.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The thing about classical music...from the mouth of my babe

© Andy Dean -
You remember that show way back when that was hosted by Bill Cosby called, "Kids Say the Darndest Things?"  Well, in the past few months my seven-year old daughter and I have been living in our very own episode in which the central theme is classical music.  

It started a few months ago in the car when I asked my daughter if she wanted me to turn on some music.  She replied in the affirmative so I slipped in a CD of Rachmaninoff piano concertos - a little light listening.  The minute it came on I saw the oh-so-familiar eye-roll and heard its faithful side-kick, the sigh.  Looking back at her I said, "What?  Did you want to hear something else?"  Not wanting to ruffle feathers she didn't say much but by this point I was determined to figure out what was up with this disdain so I persisted in my questioning.  "What don't you like about this?  It's so incredible!  Just listen."  I proceeded to describe to her what I heard in the music, coming up with some sort of fantastical tale that involved fairies and mermaids (a necessity in a 7-year old girl's stories) and looked back to see her reaction.  Nothing.  No sign of interest, only another one of those sighs.  

A few weekends ago we found ourselves in a similar scenario.  On the way to church on a Sunday morning I again decided to listen to some music in the car - classical, of course and this time a recording of one of my own recitals.  The minute the music started (Rachmaninoff again), she said, "Mommy, why do you like this classical stuff so much?"  I gave her my answer and ended by asking her again, "What don't you like about it?"  Her response turned on a humongous lightbulb that's been burned out for my entire life.  She said, "Mommy, the thing about classical music is that, well, it just makes me feel stuff I don't want to feel all the time.  It's just too much, especially this early in the morning."  

I've heard this before.  Many times before.  Her words instantly transported me back to when I worked in a resort in Switzerland for several months.  I played piano in a restaurant and accompanied four singers that had also traveled there from San Francisco.  On my first night at work, the maitre d' of the restaurant, an intimidating, serious fellow, came up to me and said, "We've received a complaint from a customer - they want no more of this sad music.  They want happy music."  Prior to this experience I had very little experience playing anything other than classical music and in my mind, classical music was happy.  But I realized after a bit of reflecting that it was happy to me because I grew up with it, I liked it, and I connected with it.   Listening to the music from an outsider's perspective, it occurred to me that it could be perceived as something quite the opposite of heart-warming and perhaps overly emotional instead.  They craved Strauss waltzes, Scott Joplin rags, Sousa marches, jazz standards, anything peppy and upbeat that got their foot tapping.  They wanted music that took them out of their emotions and away from the drama of their lives into a simpler, happier place.  

For me, that happier place involves drama and an intense connection with the range of emotions that I can feel but for others, like my daughter, it can simply be too much.  As I find myself performing more and more for people that didn't grow up steeped in classical music, I'm realizing that making sure there's plenty of lighter emotional fare on my musical menu tends to produce more comfortable, satisfied audiences.  Does that mean I leave out some of the meat and potatoes of the classical repertoire when I perform?  Nope, I don't do that because that would mean keeping a large part of myself hidden.  But I also make sure that I include some pieces that are easier on the emotions and less likely to elicit one of my daughter's sighs.  

Ah, those sighs...I could use less of them since I know we'll get plenty in the years to come.  Perhaps I'll avoid Rachmaninoff the next time we're in the car together.  His music can be a little "too much," especially early in the morning.  


  1. This is interesting -- but I'm not seeing the border as laying between classical and non-classical. There's lots of rock and pop I can't listen to all the time for the same reason. If I'm listening to anything from "Raised on Radio," I'd better be prepared to be incapable of getting much done for an entire day. Possibly longer. I can always listen to a Brahms symphony, by contrast -- but ROR is something that I really can't listen to frequently.

    I was also raised listening to classical music as well, so I do agree with you regarding liking it out of the box, but in contrast to the above, I tend to not automatically see it as academic or overly emotionally or intellectually complex. Some of it is fairly lighthearted or even shallow at times -- not in an unpleasant way, just not deeply thinky. :-)

    So for me, sometimes Journey can be emotionally draining and Queen or Sarah McLaughlan overly demanding -- it takes a lot to really listen to them with the attention they merit. Some Rachmaninoff is like that as well for me. And similarly, there's lots of light pop that can be pleasantly shallow on the same level as some classical.

  2. Your post reminds me of an experience I had once with my two boys, 4 and 5 yo at the time. We were in the car and it was Christmas season so I put in one of my favourite Christmas music CDs, carols arranged to sound like classical pieces. In fact, my husband couldn't even tell they were carols the first time he heard it. Anyway, we have a van with 3 rows of seats and the boys always sit at the very back. Boys being boys, they are very loud and like playing their pretend war games. So, I pop in the CD and about 5 minutes into it I realize something is terribly wrong. It took me about 10 sec. to figure out what it was. My VERY loud boys went completely quiet. Like, dead silence from the back seats. I even checked the mirror to make sure they were breathing. I enjoyed that for a few minutes until we got to the store and I shut off the car. They both started complaining about music not playing and demanding I turn it back on. I usually just keep our local Christian radio on when we are in the car, so they had never really been exposed to classical music before that. I really wasn't expecting that strong a reaction to it. Unfortunately the CD player in the car isn't working well so we haven't been able to enjoy it since but I might have to address the issue and introduce them to more of my favorite classical pieces.

  3. Sounds like you have a precocious child if she can articulate things that well.

    We cellists constantly face this problem because the cello reads as "sad" no matter what you are playing, no matter how a great a sense of humor you have or how cheery the music itself may be. Fhe Muzak people actually made a point of NOT using cellos or French horns in their arrangements because they sound depressing. And then of course the best cello music IS sad, heavy, and emotional.

    The best line I ever heard about this was in a documentary about an accordion teacher, a local legend in our parts. At one point, one of his students was being interviewed. She was a young woman, maybe in her 30s, who said she played the cello but she enjoyed the accordion more because it a happy instrument. "When you hear the cello in a movie, you know someone's going to die."

    1. Hello, Harriet.
      I'm a little biased since I'm with her all the time and because she's my daughter but yes, she does have quite a way with words - always has since she started talking.

      And I so know what you're talking about in regards to cello music. I guess because I tend to be kind of a drama queen at heart that's partly why I love the cello and the music written for it. I'm trying to think of any "happy" cello music that I like and I'm having trouble thinking of something. Let's see...Rococo Variations, Haydn's concertos, Boccherini, some of the Beethoven Sonatas, the variations...I guess there is some good stuff. But my mind tends to wander to the emotional stuff. Funny.

      I'm actually getting ready to play a gig with a cellist with me on piano this Friday. It's at a black-tie event and we're supposed to play for 3 hours - background music. So in the next few days we'll be on quite the search for "happy" music that includes, per their request, Disney and Andrew Lloyd Weber tunes thrown in now and then. We'll see what we can find!

      Oh, and I love the accordion teacher story. What a line.

      All the best playing depressing songs on the cello, lol!


  4. What an interesting point. It made me think, and I just realized something about myself. I've never listened to classical music, mainly because it tends to bring me down. However, it never brings me down when I'm playing it, on the contrary, it brings me up then, which is why I love it so much. Listening and playing it are very different activities. In the case of your daughter, I'd be curious to know how she feels about Bach and Mozart?

    1. Wow, Geraldine, that is interesting. Perhaps you're a bit like me and like to be a part of the drama that is inherent in the music? I think that's why I like playing so much. If I'm not actually playing I often find myself having a hard time connecting to the emotion of it all, perhaps because I'm not physically and/or mentally involved in the same way. I hope that makes sense - kind of hard to put it in words.

      In regards to your question about Bach and Mozart, my daughter doesn't seem to have a natural inclination towards their music either even though I play it a lot. She is most drawn to Handel and Vivaldi, for some reason. She has some Classical Kids CDs - one called "Hallelujah Handel," and one about Vivaldi called "The Ring of Mystery" that she just loves, largely because of the stories that is told in them. She also used to like ballet music a lot - Coppelia, and Swan Lake especially.

  5. You know, thinking about what I said earlier about some classical music being fairly light, undemanding, and cheerful ... why not play some of that? You run the risk of communicating the idea that pop and rock are "fun" and classical is "serious" and "deep" otherwise. It's a good idea to get across the concept that there is classical music for every mood -- there's 800 years of the stuff after all. It's not all "War and Peace" for the ears.

    Maybe the Bach preludes from the WTC -- not the fugues, just the preludes. Some of Mozart's light stuff is also good, as Geraldine suggested; he's a great guy for a wide variety of music for all moods.

    But you definitely want to avoid sending the message that popular music is for the times when you don't want to use your brain or feel deeply, while classical is for thoughtful, emotionally deep times. There's definitely lightweight, fun classical and extremely demanding popular music.

    1. Janis,
      I'm replying to both comments here just to be confusing ;-)

      It's so interesting to me to hear about the differences you hear and respond to in other types of music in addition to classical. I'm such a classical nerd that's practically all I know and can write about. I'm half-tempted to listen to all the stuff you mentioned in the first comment.

      In regards to the second comment, I'm doing that and making a point of it for the very reasons you mention, in addition to some other reasons. For instance, I happen to love playing music that is considered lighter fare. I even got in trouble for doing some of it in my recitals at music school. (It was Satie that really got me in trouble.) But I don't regret any of that at all.

      Long live variety in all types of music! When we play a variety we are more likely, I think, to reach more people.

      Thank you, Janis!

    2. Ooh, I can think of some good examples of the sort of pop and rock that I like, definitely. :-) But a lot of what I like doesn't exactly read as "cool" or progressive. For example, a lot of people pretty much roundfile you out of the gate if they find out that you like Journey. Their earlier albums are a bit lighter -- their later ones were heavily driven by the fact that they had hideous touring roadburn, and their lives were falling apart at the same time.

      Hm ... I'll mull and see what I can come up with. Be forewarned though, if people find out that you are listening to this stuff, you may hear your cred with them deflate audibly. :-)

      Regarding my non-academic take on classical music, I think a lot of that had to do with my upbringing, which was very blue-collar Italian east-coast. My family was very much a lunchbucket family, but at the same time it was soaked in classical music and opera, so I sort of picked up a very visceral appreciation for it. It wasn't only visceral; there was definitely an appreciation for it as a structured and "cultured" thing, but a generation back from my mom, they could all sing "Rigoletto" and "La Traviata" from memory, and none of them could read or write English. My dad's knowledge of classical music was encyclopedic, but he was an office machine repairman who got a job and stayed in it for 20 years straight out of high school. So my response to classical music is as gut-level as brain-level.

      I'd also love to know what your favorite composers are -- for other than piano. :-) That's always a neat question to ask a musician.

    3. Janis, I love hearing about your family and your blue-collar musical upbringing. Sounds like something from a movie or something. I came from a musical loving family but not Italian. ;-) My dad, however, loved opera and we regularly sang this one aria from "La Traviata." Mind you, it was hard to tell that's what he was singing and I'm sure he was making up half the words except for "misterioso."

      So let's favorite composers that are non-piano-ey...that's tough but I'll try.

      Brahms: the symphonies, all his chamber music
      Shostakovich: I think I'm reincarnated from a Russian soul
      Rachmaninov: I'm a sucker for the cello sonata
      Puccini: operas :-) Love, love, love!

      That's a start.

      Until later,

  6. I could totally relate to your article, Erica! My boyfriend's take on a recent concert we attended where a a Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto was also performed was that it was all 'doom and gloom' (and no, he didn't grow up with classical music!). Whereas I loved it...

    1. See, it's that Rachmaninoff again! Just kidding. I gotta give the guy a break. He did, after all, right gorgeous music, at least in my opinion. But it is quite dramatic and emotional. For me it's almost impossible not to get caught up in that doom and gloom, and I'd add passion too. I happen to like that aspect of it but I think for many it can be overwhelming. It's good to keep that in mind, I think.

      Thank you for sharing your story!

      All the best,

  7. I once described being able to play classical music as the modern-day equivalent of being a traveling actor in the days of Shakespeare, when most people couldn't read. Being an actor in the middle of the story, knowing all of the lines, being familiar with every "in" joke, pun, and sight gag was a privilege not available to the masses, but by bringing together a collection of people who could read and perform the plays, the masses were able to enjoy the stories even though they couldn't read them.

    Today, classical musicians are the equivalent of the traveling actors. Most people can't read music or play an instrument, and if they can, they almost certainly can't play well enough to be part of a professional ensemble. The musicians in the ensemble, however, are intimately familiar with each musical line, how the lines weave among and interplay with one another, creating a mosaic of harmony that rises and falls, creating a gut-level emotional response that the audience feels and enjoys without being able to understand it.

    The audience may love their Shakespeare, but they won't necessarily be in the mood for a steady diet of it, and the same is true of Rachmaninoff. It's important to remember that the plays and the music were written for audiences that could only get to the theater or concert hall on special occasions. For most people, the idea that someone could go through day-to-day life with a steady stream of Rachmaninoff in their ears wherever they drive, walk, or sit down to rest is as foreign as the idea that they could go through day-to-day life with Shakespeare constantly playing in their cars, on their iPods, and in their houses.

  8. jcgbigler,
    I love this analogy between taking in Rachmaninoff and Shakespeare. I particularly found powerful how you summed it all up in your last paragraph. And ironically this is something I was just reading about and talking about last night on my facebook page after reading a chapter out of the book, "Guitar Zero" by Gary Marcus. He spent a chapter talking about the how musicians often get to know music in an analytical way and shape the music based on the facts even though the audience might not really understand or hear those nuts and bolts. He points out that it isn't even important that they do and I think that's so true. The important thing is for the performer to pull the audience into the performance somehow.

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful analogy. I will walk out into the world today thinking of myself as a traveling actor of sorts, just a musical version.

    May I share a bit of your comment on my facebook page? I think my readers there would love it.

    Many thanks for the consideration, for reading, and for taking the time to contribute,


  9. love this post. To be honest, the only kind of music I'm interested in IS music that makes me feel something strongly, takes me into another world, or brings to the surface emotions that normally gets supressed in everyday life. I don't listen to 'happy' music if I want to feel happy. I listen to extremely beautiful music (and for me, 'beautiful' means intense and complex). This isn't limited to classical music, nor does it encompass ALL classical music. But there is a LOT of very, very beautiful classical music.
    What I feel comfortable listening to varies according to my mood, and I know I'm not alone in this. But regardless of what style of music I feel like listening to, and regardless of how different those styles may be, they usually have two things in common - intensity and complexity. I guess I'm just that sort of person! :P
    And yes, Rachmaninov CAN be a little bit 'too much'- that's why I love him ;)

    1. Thank you for reading, Dorothea. I'm with you on being drawn to music that plays with my emotions or transports me. I've depended on it throughout my life, even when I was a young girl. It's good to know I'm not alone in that! And give me Rachmaninov any day. It never fails to make me feel something.

      So let's keep listening...and playing.


  10. Continuing to think a bit on this ... I wonder if it's also partly that classical music is just written to be listened to as the focus of all one's attention. People generally listen to it because they want to zero in on just IT. But people go to a restaurant for the food and the conversation -- that should be the focus. Playing music that demands all of one's attention, or grabs it, is not what people go to a restaurant for. In cases where the music should not be the focus, one needs to play things that work better for background listening. Classical music a lot of times doesn't work well for that, as some pop and rock doesn't. If you play "Bohemian Rhapsody" or "Don't Stop Believing" the entire room will come to a halt for ten minutes.

    I think it may just be a matter of choosing music that's not meant to be the center of attention in situations where the music shouldn't be the center of attention. I guess this is just another way of looking at the Shakespeare comparison jcbigler gave above.

    1. Interesting, Janis. I don't know how much classical music was written specifically with the intent that it would be listened to almost as a study or as the focus. There's a lot of music, I think, that was written as entertainment and as background music. Even many premieres of some of the most famous works, like the Beethoven Symphonies, were performed in environments where the social atmosphere was perhaps just as important as the music itself. But there is a lot of music that was written to be presented as a work of musical art and some of that seems to be what can be too intense for many listeners.

      Then again...

      I had an interesting experience on Friday. I played piano with a cellist at a private dinner at a fancy resort. They said they wanted classical cello/piano music but the problem with that is that there is only so much music for that combination that doesn't sound, well, kind of like a bummer. Cello is, although beautiful, kind of one of those instruments that sounds sad all the time. So we were faced with filling up 3 hours with appropriate background music. We actually ended up playing a lot of stuff that I didn't think would work, for instances pieces in minor and slow. Those are usually not good for such situations but we managed to play them in a way that kind of worked. We took ourselves and the music a little less seriously and it wasn't bad. As for the dinner attendees, either they had had enough wine or they weren't bothered by the music - a win for us!

      Which reminds me of another time when I was playing piano duets with a friend of mine at a restaurant that we both worked at. We pulled out a four-hand version of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and barreled through it, trying the whole time to put a light spin on it so that it didn't make the dinner guests run for the door. Quite the fun challenge. And I'm not sure how many did end up leaving - I chose not to pay attention.

      So perhaps there are times when we can sell Shakespeare in unlikely just means we might have to let go of any notions of what how we are "supposed" to be playing it.

      Thanks, as always, for your thoughts, Janis. Keep 'em coming!!