Let Me Explain

Of all the kinds of music I know, classical is the only genre that comes with instructions. Imagine for a moment the pre-concert lecture at this performance:


No other kind of music really needs to be explained when it’s performed. And often, when it is, you wish it hadn’t been.

But in the classical music world, performances often come with extra reading. Program notes can give insight into a piece’s history and structure, or a summary of the story the piece may (or may not) tell.

There’s nothing wrong with this – well-written notes (like the excellent ones written by my ProMusica colleague Marc Moskovitz) can offer great insight into a performance.

But what about the newbies? What about someone who’s never been to a concert before and doesn’t really care about sonata-rondo form or what aleatoric means?  I bet some of these folks feel that they have some homework to catch up on, and that’s not something we want.

I started thinking more about this after reading a post by Holly Mulcahy, concertmaster of the Chattanooga Symphony on her blog, NeoClassical, entitled “What If Program Notes Were Written By Kids?

Holly is about to perform a relatively new work, Jennifer Higdon’s 2010 Violin Concerto, and got a group of middle schoolers to write down (and draw) their impressions after hearing some of it. You can read (and see) them here.

This is my favorite:



Wow – that’s the kind of fully engaged listener any musician wants, right?

The best point Mulcahy makes is one I’ve experienced many times performing Bach and Boombox – kids are more open to new cultural experiences than adults. And she adds something I hadn’t thought of, writing:

“Somewhere between our childhood and our adulthood we gain a sense of adventure with the foods we try…But the tradeoff for adults seems to be our cultural intake. Many of us lose the desire to experience new art, to explore and appreciate new music or paintings that challenge us the same way we expect new culinary dishes to excite us…This is where kids have us beat. While their palate may not be geared for a roasted Brussel sprout dish enhanced with a pomegranate glaze, their ability to open their minds and imagination freely with art is something adults need to emulate.”


Just a quick aside to take this food/music comparison one step further – I think a lot of people feel this way about classical music:

All kidding aside, I do think that the idea that classical music comes with required reading and studying does make many people think of concert-going as a chore instead of fun.

There are many concertgoers who eagerly read or listen to someone else’s view of a piece. That’s great, of course, but shouldn’t we be encouraging listeners to share their own ideas too?  I bet many adult concertgoers have just as vivid reactions to music as kids do, but they are much less likely to share them – we need to fix that.

Why don’t we ask adult concertgoers to write program notes as well as reading them? What about having an audience member give a pre-concert talk about the first time they heard one of the works on the program? There have even been concerts with “tweet seats” – you can read about one here.

Many groups, like ProMusica, have post-concert conversations – what about one devoted to getting the audience to write program notes for the pieces they just heard? Maybe there could be an incentive given to people who shared their views, like a chance to win free or discounted tickets to an upcoming concert.

Classical musicians and our fans LOVE what we do and think of this great music as life-changing, but we know that many audience members (and potential audience members don’t feel that way yet. In fact, I think our passion for what we do and insistence on its profundity scares some people away!

There’s a great opportunity here to make more people feel welcome and invested in what we do by simply asking their opinion of it – I think we should seek out every opportunity to do that.

Till next time,