Music CUTS DEEP!
Q. What is so special about classical music? How
does it work the particular WAY it does?
A. Everyone enjoys some kind of music. Music is THE
most popular art form expressing passion when words
are not enough. It's regular patterns of beats and
harmony allow for singing and dancing... humankind's
FIRST forms of entertainment! Music co-evolved with
people. Musical languages
developed along WITH spoken languages. With the EXPLOSION of
entertainment technology we have today, many have access to an overwhelming
CHOICE of musical genres and styles, instruments and
performers. These get us worked up into our
FAVORITE MOODS! We feel that our favorite music
speaks FOR us and
that it could quite possibly SAVE THE WORLD by
bringing the same understanding at last to those who
don't understand us. This is what our
grandparents wanted for us, right? More choices? More
happiness? More FREEDOMS! Well... why would ANY musician who grew up on
popular soul, rock, jazz CHOOSE to pursue something
as ANCIENT as CLASSICAL music? Well classical music
TO ME is
RICH with great beauty and powerful emotional ENERGY! And
while it was exclusively the domain of white males, the copyrights have EXPIRED! TODAY classical music is
PUBLIC DOMAIN and belongs quite literally to ALL HUMANITY!
To the NEWBIE it may seem outdated and irrelevant to
modern living; rather like riding a horse or sailing a
boat. But the classical music
tradition, the VAST collection of the
Western world's WRITTEN musical history, EMPOWERS people to do great
things! Even after HUNDREDS of years, it LIVES AGAIN
with every great performance,
achieving IMMORTALITY for its creators and a dance
with God for its re-creators. It SPEAKS to us
in a language BEYOND words, in a dialect beyond
CULTURE. Like receiving a great massage, it
MANIPULATES our brains psychologically into
RELEASING HIDDEN TENSIONS. It alternates constantly
between RESERVE and wild PASSION with great variety!
It HOLDS in front of us a model of
PERFECTION... a CHALLENGE for us to do BETTER! From
Haydn and Mozart to Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Bartok,
this music REFLECTS both the lightness and
darkness of life and every shade in between with a
NATURAL progression of emotional experience. Much
like a great novel or movie, this music offers an EXTENDED
MIX of COMPLEX DRAMA. It offers
an infinite VARIETY of BALANCED combinations of
instruments (orchestration), pitch centers (keys) and
music speeds (tempos), dances and songs, surprise and
inevitability. What makes this music
"classical" as we call it today is its NEW
DIRECTION in the Age of Enlightenment to reflect
CLASSICAL GREEK ideals of beauty.
Classical music is a multi-faceted art
form. And like a DIAMOND, there are many colorful facets to appreciate, which
might make it a bit overwhelming
for the newcomer to think about. For example, we COULD
view classical music composition as a defacto musical
LANGUAGE where just 12 NOTES (A-natural thru G-sharp) are the
alphabet... spelling words as harmonic CHORDS...
which, given their psychological weight RELATIVE to
the home KEY, function like nouns, verbs and
modifiers. The MELODY and HARMONY together form musical
SENTENCES (PHRASES), in which the performer
must decide WHICH word gets the most EMPHASIS... much
like a Shakespearean actor would decide. These sentences
explore (DEVELOP) a single idea (THEME or a fragment
called a MOTIF) to some intermediate conclusion (either
HALF-CADENCE or FULL-CADENCE) before either
introducing a new and
contrasting idea or returning to the first idea.
Contrasting two ideas allows for the creation of an infinite variety
of artistic dramas.
Another major facet to
classical music is its use of the principals of TENSION AND RELEASE.
Like a good author, a good composer BUILDS AND SUSTAINS
PSYCHOLOGICAL TENSION over a long period
of time. We keep in mind this
dramatic tension as it builds from start to finish
only to be released near the end. This seems to
human NEED for resolution and redemption... the SEARCH for
PERSONAL MEANING. But this psychological
principal also drives music in short periods too.
Within each musical
sentence (phrase) some chords carry more tension than others (DISSONANCE)
all RELATIVE to the home KEY. The performers intentionally LEAN
ON these chords to heighten its INEVITABLE RELEASE. Much like
BREATHING or WALKING, music is an ALTERNATION between
contrasting music and moods.
Q. If the conductor
is so important to the orchestra, then why do the
musicians so rarely look UP at them?
A. Conductors, their beat, and the many subtle directions they
indicate by gesture, facial expression or rehearsal
comment are ESSENTIAL to make a large orchestra
sound UNIFIED and INSPIRED. Classical music has a great
changes in tempo (speed), mood, character and instrumental balances
that would be hard to execute without the leadership
of a CLEAR and CONFIDENT conductor. A truly GREAT orchestra
like DSO can reflect the slightest musical nuances from a
conductor; as if they were all connected by some invisible
cords. But while you might think the musicians are
staring a hole in the music and not paying attention,
in fact we are SPLITTING our focus between several
TASKS and CHECKS. Firstly we have to play beautiful sounds
on our instruments; secondly we have to listen carefully
to the rest of the orchestra and neither drag nor
push the beat; thirdly we glance or look up MORE when we
expect the conductor to change TIME.
Unfortunately in classical music, we can't memorize
all that music and so we have to read very DETAILED parts without
getting lost! This third element then complicates
the others. However since the conductor's LARGER movements
are discernable by peripheral vision,
we split our concentration between the page, the
instrument, and the podium. (This is a IDEAL exercise for kids!)
We GLANCE up LESS in the STEADY tempos (a tempo)
and look up at big TEMPO changs.
Another word about memorization though - Some of
us have very good memories and can manage to memorize/recall
several measures at a time, particularly if we play
recurring patterns. Most of us however simply memorize
a bar or two only when we need to look directly at
the conductor (usually when he/she changes the tempo
or is animatedly trying to show us something). At
those times we must be very careful not to play a
wrong note, lose our place on the page, forget which
direction to move the bow, or play a wrong articulation
while attempting to play from memory. Our audiences
may not be able to hear mistakes, but to the trained
ear in ORCHESTRA HALL, mistakes stand OUT! It should be noted however that concerto
soloists are expected to perform completely from memory
unless the work performed is very new or exceedingly
Q. Why is the conductor so
important? It seems like the musicians could easily
perform without one!
A. A good orchestra could indeed perform several
works without a conductor: and in fact the magnificent
Orpheus Ensemble does precisely that. But like any
chamber group they need
to spend many HOURS discussing how any given music
will be played; (drawbacks of a democratic system)
and so cannot (perhaps) rehearse music very quickly or thoroughly.
A good conductor not only keeps our ensemble TIGHT (sounding
perfectly together) but inspires
us to give appropriate character and weight to the
Our former music director Neeme Jarvi is a GREAT conductor in this respect.
He is a person of tremendous musicianship and conducting
ability. No two performances of his are quite alike.
He literally DANCES on the podium, revealing
alternate musical ideas to
us as quickly as he can think of them and FLESHING
OUT all the dramatic
characters of the music. He also demands that we
play faster/slower and louder/softer than we thought
possible. Those exaggerations, we agree, best serve the music
and our audiences.
Q. So how much DO those instruments
A. String instruments, bassoons, gold flutes, harps,
and the many percussion instruments are shockingly
expensive! Certainly you've heard of violins by Stradivarius,
Amati, and Guarneri selling or valued for hundreds of thousands
if not MILLIONS of dollars: well this represents the
extreme high end and obviously few professional musicians
can afford to FIND much less to pay down a loan like
that! Most quality string instruments that are actually
played by professionals range widely from $25,000
- $500,000. Still a shocking figure but the investment
usually proves worthwhile as great instruments are
easier to play well (however they can't really play
themselves!), and they also blend in with the orchestra
better or they can produce exaggerated dynamics than lesser
instruments. Brass instruments
are probably the least expensive in the orchestra
but they often purchase a new instrument every five
years or so as used ones become slightly warped and
dinged. By the way a good BATON runs about $45!
Q. What are "movements" and why are they
so important in classical music?
A. Ever since the prehistory of classical music (say
the Renaissance period), composers sought to STRETCH
music into longer and larger compositions... to
sustain the beauty. Thus
a Medieval song with alternating choruses and verses
(Cantata) may not have been quite as grand as a Baroque multi-movement suite for violin or
Separate and contrasting movements allow the composer
to COLLECT a wider variety of music together into one
larger composition that, taken as a whole, display
more contrasting moods, tempos, instrumental colors
and forms. VARIETY of course holds the attention of
the audience; but the composers have to be careful
to somehow RELATE these movements to one another.
Initially in the Baroque and Classical Periods this
was accomplished by related key signatures or a musical
character; but with Beethoven's famous 5th Symphony
we began to have movements related by THEMATIC material
as well. And this is why we the audience have to check
out the written program at classical music concerts;
to count how many movements will be performed in a
composition before we should applaud. It is somewhat
DISRUPTIVE to interrupt the "flow" of one
movement to another with applause. Symphonies generally
have four movements, while concertos will usually
have only three. (Anything called a suite will have
at least four, but perhaps a few more too!)
Actually much of the first multi-movement works were
indeed dances; hence the use of such a term.
In the Baroque Period the European bourgeoisie were
expected to dance so many forms of the day.
Collections of popular
French dance movements (Suites) helped satisfy
their cravings for such entertainment. (J. S. Bach's 12 suites for violin and
cello are but two famous examples of movement-oriented
works. Each movement after the initial introductory
movement lists the name of its characteristic dance
and their particular rhythm;
such as Courante, Bouree, Allemande, and Gigue.) Read
Q. What's the best way to
enjoy classical music?
A. It becomes obvious to those who grew up
WITHOUT exposure to classical music that it might be
difficult to appreciate. It may seem SURREAL to come
sit quietly for 2 hours without eating and drinking
while musicians play 200 year old music in 300 year
old CLOTHES! But even those who've only heard
the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky can appreciate
that the music can be very dramatic and AROUSING, even
surprisingly FAMILIAR! And it's not just because
of the cannons; but also because they can recognize the
famous French anthem! When people learn
even just a little bit of the music, they are more
likely to enjoy it. In turn, they will
always find SURPRISES mixed in! So I advise people to
familiarize themselves with music by listening to
CDs REPEATEDLY and listening to
classical radio stations like WRCJ
Now... when you can listen to music uninterrupted,
CLOSE YOUR EYES and try to follow the TENSION LEVEL of
the music as it RISES AND FALLS from start to finish.
Q. How does someone develop
their listening skills?
A. Good listening skills are essential to the
enjoyment of classical music. A listener should be
able to distinguish between what is melody and what
is accompaniment at the very least. But further listening
skills will enable you to appreciate such musical
devices as counterpoint, orchestration, harmony, phrasing,
and even FORM. Listening to FUGUES will help you
internalize COUNTERPOINT. HARMONY is perhaps best
heard in CHORAL SINGING. And PHRASING is front and
foremost with a SONATA SOLOIST such as the Mozart
Violin Sonatas. FORM is the OVERALL STRUCTURE of any
movement (song) concerning the recurrence of its 2
or 3 MAJOR THEMES. MOST movements have a DEVELOPMENT
SECTION in the middle, which is an opportunity for
the composer to ROCK THE HOUSE!
Q. This may seem obvious but
how is classical music different from "pop music"?
A. While it may indeed seem obvious, it might help
to acknowledge some of the major differences between art forms. Growing directly
out of the Western development of MUSIC NOTATION after
1050AD, this music is completely WRITTEN OUT so someone
OTHER than the composer may RECREATE it. Perhaps the most
dramatic differences for people are that classical
is a completely ACOUSTIC (unamplified) medium. Classical music
seeks to entertain listeners by a pleasant (or NOT)
PRESENTATION OF CONTRASTS;
contrasts of speed (tempo), instrumentation (color
& texture), volume (loudness), even contrasts
of movements (pieces). Even VARIATIONS are
contrasting STYLES applied to the same theme. Classical (esp. orchestral
music) comes in very extended forms; seeking
to "embrace the world" as Gustav Mahler
I think of pop music as a MOTORBOAT and classical as
a SAILBOAT. The motorboat moves powerfully, loudly,
and quickly along, propelled by chemical reactions and mechanical
means. The DRUMS act as the propeller, literally
DRIVING the music forward. The sailboat moves quietly, gracefully, ADVENTUROUSLY along, propelled by physical
leverages of its plane forms against the wind and
water. The HARMONY tends to leverage the music
forward like the SAILS of some sleek sloop! Furthermore
sailing requires a learned SKILL
SET, patience and is ALSO popularly viewed as
being acoustic music, is closer to nature. Cradled on
a the WARM SILENCE of a good hall, sound is produced by HUMAN
mechanics and BREATHES of air.
But WHAT ARE THESE if not THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED?
POP music is by definition that which is EASIEST TO
ACCESS. Therefore fine art music is at least in part
defined by its LACK of accessibility. There's no
doubt about it... the MORE YOU LEARN about fine art,
the MORE REWARDING become your experiences! I often
advise people to TAKE UP an instrument if they want
to go deeper. But just attending LIVE CONCERTS is
THE BEST WAY to appreciate this incredible LEGACY
FOR ALL of mankind!
Q. What are some
IMPRESSIVE things I can tell my date at an orchestra concert?
A. Here are ten!
"I love how the conductor
drew out that big climax in the third movement!"
"It was great the
way the soloist really nailed those tough licks
in the concerto!"
"I thought the brass
were too loud in first movement: I couldn't
hear the woodwinds at all sometimes!"
"Man, the acoustics
in this hall are amazing! You could hear a pin
drop and know which end hit first!"
"I wish Schubert (or
whichever composer you liked) had lived another
twenty years. I can't get enough of his music."
"The cello section
is my favorite. When they play the melody, my
heart starts to melt!"
"This conductor really
makes the finales of symphonies very exciting!
Probably because he picks up the tempo toward
"This orchestra gets
a very rich sound! You'll notice that the strings
use a lot of bow and the woodwinds and the brass
are rather dark sounding."
"Look, they're playing
Mahler 5 in two weeks! His music expresses the
gamut of human emotions and experience: it's
very uplifting! Let's come back for that one!"
"Y'know, I have a
CD of that last piece I listen to alot; but
I enjoy live concerts so much more, because
the musicians find so many different ways to
phrase the music: I'm always moved by it."
Q. What are some
things I SHOULDN'T tell my date at an orchestra concert?
A. Here's another eight!
||"I wish they'd fix the sound system: sometimes
they play so softly I can barely hear 'em!"
||"Y'know, I used to play string bass back
in grade school and they never let me use a bow!"
||"I saw that movie Amadeus back when it
came out and I thought it was MUCH more entertaining
||"Y'see that cute girl playing the fiddle
over there? I like to watch her chest shake when
they play real fast!"
||"Hey I know THIS tune! It's the background
music to my favorite hemorrhoid commercial on
||"Y'know the musicians aren't really following
the conductor... he's only up there because he
can't play so good!"
||"Could you ask the guy sitting next to
you if he's got a spare set of earplugs so I can
listen to the game with him?"
||"Hey WAIT... I thought that ROBOT was supposed to conduct!"
Q. If the music is so much FUN, how come the musicians onstage don't LOOK like
it? Some even frown!
A. OK. Maybe I haven't addressed this one enuf above.
#1, to be performing in a HIGHEST RANK orchestra like
DSO, you have to CONCENTRATE INTENSELY on what is
often BARELY PLAYABLE LICKS. And when you're trying
to play your BEST, you simply don't think about
We are struggling to find and stay IN
THE ZONE... SPLITTING OUR ATTENTION among the
many facets of our job... so that everything comes together
technically and artistically PERFECT! We monitor NOT ONLY our
own pitch, rhythm, loudness, articulation, phrasing,
timing, dramatic intensity in relation to the
conductor's direction (hopefully inspired)... but we
must also REMAIN AWARE of the players around us and
even ACROSS the stage! On top of that we have to work in our
body's need for breath, rest or stamina, itching,
playing posture, etc. Plus we must keep our
place across DENSE PAGES of music. The instruments themselves
often need some adjustment (during any rests of a piece) such as
wetting the reed, cleaning build-up from
inside the woodwind, releasing spit from a brass valve, flicking the bow hair for better grab... All this calls for
sensitivity, split-second, on-the-fly readjustments
and patient focus. I guess you
might say we DELAY our gratification-showing for the
END of a successful performance... just like the
#2, we are taught in music school and early jobs
that to ACT, DANCE, or SING ALONG in the performance
is DISTRACTING both to the other performers and the
audience; much like TALKING would be. MAKING FACES or
REACTING VISIBLY to the music arguably falls under the
same category of distractions and is usually
discouraged in any orchestra. Probably because
movement and emotive faces are the properties of the
CONDUCTOR and the concerto soloist who are supposed to
thus INSPIRE the orchestra. However the case CAN be
made that SHOWING ENJOYMENT would ENHANCE the visual
aspect of our performances. Certainly most chamber
ensembles move, sway, smile, wink, even BREATH
together in a compelling show of dramatic emotions.
And very exceptionally, the Vienna Philharmonic
musicians ALL sway like a forest of tall white pine
trees on a windy day! But these visual aspects are
generally viewed as taking attention AWAY from the
focus and enjoyment of the music IN AN ORCHESTRAL
SETTING. Here is a link
to a discussion of this topic. In fact, I get all MY
smiling, reacting and swaying out of the way during
#3, to make faces on stage in REACTION is to show
JUDGMENT... of the music, of the conductor, of the
soloist, or of each other. And this is a potentially
DANGEROUS habit to get into since an ill-timed CHUCKLE
or FROWN could be interpreted in any number of ways.
Thus it is SAFER to maintain a "NEUTRAL
FACE" during the music to avoid
Q. Why does the very first
violinist walk onstage to begin each half of the
A. It is a famous yet mysterious tradition in this
country for the concertmaster to walk onstage alone to
applause, bow to the audience, and turn to the 1st
oboist to start the orchestra tuning process. I say mysterious
because I think most MUSICIANS don't understand why
this is so, since many players applaud too! Many
assume the concertmaster entrance is a sign of deep
respect for the concertmaster. However whenever
I see a European orchestra perform, the reason seems
apparent (although I reserve the right to be
completely mistaken!). The European orchestra players
usually all walk onstage as a group! This calls
for a very LONG applause INDEED! One that challenges
ANY audience to sustain it. Sometimes they applaud
TWICE... at both the beginning AND the end of the MASS
ENTRANCE! Thus it is MY contention that the concertmaster
SYMBOLIZES the orchestra's entrance and
the audience's respect merely to save TIME and the
audience's patience! This has the ADDED bonus of
allowing the orchestra to continue warming up onstage until
the last minute.
Well, that's all for now. Thanks for coming! I hope
I've been able to write some things helpful to your
discovery of classical music. I delve DEEPER into the
mysteries of music making in the Young
Musicians Guide if you want to sample some musical
philosophies. I firmly believe that if
we can't get more people to appreciate classical music then we're not working
hard enough! Concerts by CutTime Players are indeed an educational
experience as well because you'll hear many of the
players speak from a variety of personal experiences! Let us cut YOUR time to enjoying this fabulous
I encourage you to submit questions by email
which I may post up here!
ENJOY! - Rick