It's a funny thing about music, isn't it? It can tap directly into our emotional state, giving a cheery boost, smoothing jangled nerves, creating mental clarity, and triggering nostalgia, among many other sensations. One word I frequently hear people use to describe the emotional benefit of listening to classical music is "soothing." The word "soothing" implies something quiet, slow and gentle, like a balm. But where listening to music is concerned, "soothing" transcends tempo, dynamic level and character. Whether it's big, loud and bombastic, quiet and meditative, or moderately paced and reserved, listeners often describe classical music as "soothing." It's puzzling. I have even heard fellow musicians express frustration or annoyance over the term because they take it as a subtle putdown, as though the word "soothing" implies the music is boring or nondescript or being used merely as background. But I think they might be taking it too literally and missing the more important point. I think it may be the ACT of listening to music that is soothing for so many people. It's a pleasurable activity and because it taps into our emotional state in all those wonderful ways, it feels satisfying and it feels soothing. Turn on a favorite piece and sing along, or air-conduct, or just close your eyes and -- WOW -- it feels great. It doesn't matter if the music is fast or slow, or if it's a big orchestra or solo piano, it goes straight to the heart. If it's something that appeals to you and touches you on an emotional level, the act of listening will feel good. Soothing! It's a treat you've given yourself. I compare it to my daily runs. I am breathless and sweaty as I expend considerable energy, but it feels great during and after. It feels "soothing" overall -- physically and mentally -- because it's my "me time." We live in such a busy, hectic world and daily life is often devoid of these treats. So when a simple pleasure such as music is introduced into the mix it feels good. Whether it's quiet and introspective or loud and bold, it feels satisfying. It feels SOOTHING. And that's not a contradiction -- it's a little treat you give yourself!
On the pleasures of serendipity
Disclaimer: this blog post has nothing to do with music or Sunday Baroque. It is about human connections, and the benefits of going with the flow of events and enjoying the unique pleasures of serendipity. I recently missed a flight connection because of mechanical issues on our plane, and found myself in Calgary for an unexpected overnight stay. Although this disrupted my originally planned trip and delayed my arrival by a day, I savored this serendipitous adventure. I used the opportunity to ask every local I encountered what their favorite restaurant is, to help me decide where to dine. I met a fellow stranded traveler at breakfast, so we sat together and shared stories of our (mis)adventures. He is an educator. A First Nations advocate. A veteran of the Canadian military. A music fan. A hunter and fisherman. A father and husband. His bucket list includes a long overdue trip to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and a visit to the Far East. We talked about teachers, our hometowns, our current homes of residence, politics(!), our travels, our work. We laughed and shared concerns about our world. Then I boarded the hotel van for the airport to try again to get to my original destination. Imagine my delight that the classical radio station was playing. I complimented and thanked the driver, and another discussion ensued. Music, musicians, travel, cities, culture, and more. (OK, I said this blog post wasn't about music, but it was a little bit, after all.) Now I can't wait to come back to Calgary and explore it more fully. These human connections between strangers delight me. What could have been a boring, disorienting, or annoying travel delay turned into an opportunity to connect with other people about things that matter to us. To share and to laugh. I treasure these "mishaps" because they can be as rich (sometimes richer) and more memorable than the things we plan meticulously. And as complicated and disconnected as life can be in the 21st century, it's gratifying to form and foster these human connections. Have your misadventures ever turned into treasured experiences? I'd love to hear about your serendipitous encounters.
A Warm Welcome to Classical Music
Recently I spoke to a group of public radio donors in Phoenix who love the programming on their all-classical station. The topic was my opinion of the general state of classical music, and what I think the future holds. One of the points I made is that we -- as in, those of us who are passionate about classical music -- may inadvertently pose a threat. Really! Inexperienced concertgoers can feel unwelcome because they don't know all the "rules" such as when to clap and other concert etiquette. Some of the insider attitudes we have adopted can exclude people and keep them from feeling welcome. Some people feel one must know about the music to have a valid opinion about whether they liked what they heard, when it's enough just to listen and feel and enjoy. Unfortunately, we have done all too good a job perpetuating a mystique and, as a result, alienating some people from trying out something they might actually find pleasurable and inspiring. After the talk, a woman approached me, eyes welled up. She clasped my hands and thanked me for that specific part of my talk. Voice trembling, she admitted she has no formal music training and doesn't know much about music, but she loves to attend concerts and listen to classical music on the radio, and is profoundly moved by it. She admitted that privately, though, she often feels exactly the way I had described: excluded, self-conscious, and a little unwelcome, even though she is an experienced concertgoer. I concluded my talk by encouraging these avid public radio classical music fans to be ambassadors and mentors to people who haven't yet fallen in love with this music. Take someone to a concert who has never attended, "adopt" a young person (niece or nephew, grandchild, or a neighbor) to attend, share a favorite recording, or play the music on your local classical station (such as Sunday Baroque!) for your friends, coworkers and family. So that's my "assignment" for you, too! Be proactive, and reach out to someone to share your love of music and give them a warm welcome.
Chris Thile - WOW!
There are so many extraordinarily talented musicians in the world. I had a chance to attend a live performance by one of them last week: Chris Thile. He's one of those rare people whose technical command of his instrument is so complete and effortless that every sound he makes expresses his exceptional artistry. The 2012 MacArthur Fellow (the so-called Genius award) is a mandolin player, singer, and songwriter, and his repertory spans many genres, from bluegrass to Bach. His performances included playing a truly extraordinary and virtuosic extended solo while singing. Chris Thile also has the "magic" of a great overall performer -- a complete entertainer who lives and breathes the music, is a generous collaborator with other musicians, and interacts with the audience with his words, expressions and body language. One could see on his face the pleasure and enthusiasm he felt for his fellow performers. We in classical music often worry about the future of classical music, and whether young people will have opportunities to be drawn in and learn to love it as we do. Musicians such as Chris Thile give me great hope! [Hear selections from Chris Thile's recent recording of Bach's Partitas and Sonatas on the October 9th edition of Sunday Baroque.]
A solemn anniversary
Each year, for the Sunday closest to September 11, I try to craft a Sunday Baroque program that addresses this terrible, heartbreaking anniversary. It's not easy. I start thinking about it months ahead of the date, and it percolates actively in my brain throughout that time, because it is such an enormous and painful wound for our country and for our world. With the musical choices, I want to acknowledge the tragedy, but also honor resilience and heroism. The range of music should be solemn, but also uplifting and hopeful. Despite hosting and producing Sunday Baroque for more than 29 years, I still find the September 11 program my most challenging show to craft every year. It never gets easier, and apparently my classical radio colleagues feel the same way. We have a Facebook forum, and many of the posts recently showed people grappling with the same challenges and sharing ideas for how to approach this important and sensitive day in our history. Reading the variety of input from thoughtful classical music radio programmers all over, it occurred to me that the process of coming together, talking openly, encouraging one another and sharing ideas was much like the process of healing from a tragedy. We really do get by with a little help from our friends. In whatever way you are marking this solemn date, I hope you find peace, healing and inspiration from loving friends and uplifting music.
Flying home from a family wedding over Labor Day weekend, my seatmate on the plane turned out to be an avid and longtime public radio listener and supporter. The lovely and interesting woman described how she had lived in several states over the years, moving for jobs and family. She was flying back to her relatively new home in a new city near her son. Just before our plane landed, she leaned over to add, "You know, I've made all these moves to places where I didn't know anyone, and I didn't know my way around. But as soon as I found the local public radio stations, and my favorite programs, it was so comforting. I instantly felt at home." I know exactly how she feels!
An ode to teachers and mentors
Students are returning to school this time of year, and I've been thinking a lot about teachers and mentors. Specifically, I'm recalling the many wonderful people who guided me on my path over the course of my educational life and beyond. These caring role models not only imparted their knowledge about the subjects they taught, they modeled what it meant to be deeply committed to one's work. They demonstrated through their actions that they grasped what each of their students needed on a deeper level -- the intangible things such as encouragement to lift a sagging self-esteem, a smile, clear boundaries, firm rules from an adult, and so much more. In hindsight, I have no doubt they also knew which students needed lunch money, school supplies, or other basics, and found a way to help them. That's what teachers do. That's what teachers have always done. They educate parents, too. I remember my first private flute teacher guiding my parents through the bewildering process of buying a higher quality flute to play when my skills as a musician surpassed my original student model instrument. Years later, the terrific high school band director sensed I needed specialized guidance for my career path and steered me into a college music program. My teachers and mentors led by example, and I continue to try to emulate the best of them as a teacher and mentor myself. A friend recently shared his fond recollection of his high school French teacher, who lit up with a big smile when my friend entered the room and trilled his name with great flourish. All these years later, that teacher's cheerful welcome made such a deep impression that it's still a cherished part of my friend's "story" of his school years. I'll bet you have stories like this, too. To all the wonderful teachers -- mine and yours -- who were such skilled educators, enthusiastic cheerleaders, role models, and caring mentors, THANK GOODNESS FOR YOU! And to today's teachers, who are educating, guiding and grooming the next generation, THANK YOU for ALL you do to make our world a better place one student at a time!
Bar(Rock) and Roll
Last week I made my third visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Are you surprised that someone who hosts a baroque radio program would be interested in a Rock and Roll museum? Are you curious why a classical flutist with a music degree would care about the Beatles, the Stones, Prince and Eric Clapton, to name just a few? Or perhaps it makes perfect sense to you, based on your own musical tastes. I heard a saying once -- THE MORE YOU LOVE MUSIC, THE MORE MUSIC YOU LOVE. Unfortunately, I can't find the original attribution, but it's become my mantra. The older I get, the more I find myself appreciating the craft and artistry of talented musicians in all genres. Music is powerful. It affects our emotions, taps into our personal history and sense of nostalgia, and can connect us with important societal messages, and that's true for ANY genre of music. Our brains (and hearts) don't necessarily sort and categorize music the way record retailers do; the lines between genres is more ambiguous and (I think) based largely on our own learned biases, as well as our natural tendency to sort, define and label things. One of my favorite exhibits at the Rock and Roll Hall is one that illustrates my theory of those blurred lines between genres, and exemplifies music's inherent power. The exhibit celebrates the history of MTV videos. There are stacks of monitors featuring excerpts from iconic music videos spanning decades and popular musical genres. The big finale of the exhibit shows scenes from many of them flashing as one powerful, driving piece of music plays. That piece of music is (wait for it) ... O FORTUNA from Carl Orff's CARMINA BURANA! Seriously! Right there in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, blasting from the speakers, is one of the most iconic compositions of the "classical" music tradition, and it's being used to illustrate the power and significance of MTV videos! To me, that says it all.
What's your favorite?
"What's your favorite piece of baroque music?" I'm asked that question frequently, but it never gets any easier to answer. I like so much music of many different genres -- and not just baroque music! Music speaks to me in many ways depending on my mood, the activity, the setting, and other intangible factors. So my "favorite" is a moving target, even when limiting the choice to baroque music. However, when I'm asked that question, one piece does come to mind every time: Johann Sebastian Bach's Double Violin Concerto. Specifically, the middle movement. It expresses such tender longing, it's an intense and expressive conversation between the two solo lines, and it is (to me) musically perfect. And there's no one favorite performance -- I enjoy hearing this music played by a variety of violinists and ensembles. That's the tip-off to me that it's the *piece* that speaks most strongly, not just a particularly beautiful performance of it. What about you? What's YOUR favorite piece of baroque music and why? What is it that "speaks" to you about it? Do you have a favorite performance, or does it move you no matter who is performing? There's no right or wrong answer, and I hope you'll share your thoughts and feelings about what music you love and why.
Is smaller better?
A recent article in the NY Times caught my attention. It was a review of performances in the Mostly Mozart Festival’s new venue – a 230 seat space used for part of the concert series – and it also advocated for smaller venues, in general, for classical music performances. (“Let’s Get Intimate. Big Music Doesn’t Need Huge Halls” by ANTHONY TOMMASINI AUG. 3, 2016) Its general message is that the typical concert halls where classical music performances take place are too large to cultivate a personal connection with the audience. As a musician, I do find smaller venues to be more gratifying. And as an audience member, I also prefer attending concerts where I can see the subtle communication between performers, watch their fingers on their instruments, hear the scrape of bow on strings, see the beads of sweat on their brows, even hear them breathe together. Don’t get me wrong – there is a certain electricity to attending a performance in a grand concert hall. The collective appreciation for the performance by a large and appreciative audience can enhance the overall experience, for sure. But there is something uniquely unifying about witnessing an outstanding musical performance with a smaller audience. It feels somehow more cohesive, even conspiratorial, as though we’re all sharing a delicious secret with one another and with the performers. We can look each other in the eyes and communicate our appreciation beyond our applause. I’m curious to know what you think. Do you agree with Mr. Tommasini that “smaller is better”? What is your experience as an audience member attending classical performances in both smaller and larger halls? If you’re a musician, what are the advantages and disadvantages of performing smaller and larger venues? How can larger ensembles (orchestras) create a more intimate and personally connected concert experience for you, especially if their concert “home” is a large hall? Musicians, arts administrators and arts journalists spend a lot of time speculating and preaching about how to cultivate and better serve audiences; now I’d like to know what YOU (the audience) think about the subject!