Every once in a while, I realize what a huge nerd I am. Though this is a label I proudly wear, sometimes I have to notice that the terms I toss around daily might as well be in ancient Estonian / Finnish to my non-classical friends. While you might not need a full Rosetta Stone course to grasp the language of classical music, we've all been through some kind of journey to pick up the jargon. If you can, think back to a time when you had never heard of terms such as "sonata form", "principal player" and "atonal music". Now those terms are crucial to even getting through most concert program notes! Living in Chicago brings us in contact with all kinds of different people - many who have no idea that in an orchestra there are two different sections for the violins. When it comes to explaining classical music, how do you get past the technicalities?
Not to generalize too much, but in my experience those who are lacking in knowledge about the arts are generally not lacking in knowledge of some sport. The other day I was talking to one of my friends about classical music and explaining how an orchestra works. He's a basketball dude whose idea of a Rondo is the point guard for the Boston Celtics. Our conversation focused on the topic of the conductor, "Anyone could do that, right? it doesn't look that hard... You just wave your arms around! Does the orchestra really need a conductor?". I realized some explanation was in order. I started talking about the complexity of parts in musical scores, importance of keeping the beat and guiding musical interpretation. My friend responded, "So... he's like the head coach. Calling the plays out to the key players". What a great analogy! I'm keeping that one to use for the future.
Making a foreign subject relatable and interesting has always been a challenge. When learning something new, people tend to gravitate toward comparisons with the familiar. Though sports and classical music are viewed as opposites and even pitted against each other in schools as they compete for funding and attention, the core values and goals of both groups are the same. The ideas of teamwork, leadership and work ethic apply to music just as much as they do to sports.
Talking to people who have no understanding of what we do can be frustrating, but keeping the commonalities in mind definitely helps bridge the gap. Of course this is not always the case: Recently in Charleston, my friend and I were trying to explain that we were in the city to play with the Spoleto Festival Orchestra. As we parted ways, the gentleman said, "Good luck with your a cappella group!". Perhaps some people just need some more time....
What are some of your most successful explanations of classical music to those unfamiliar with our world? When you're talking with someone who isn't even sure what your instrument is, where do you begin? Knowing how packed the red line can get coming back from Sox / Cubs games, I am sure there have been quite a few interesting run ins. I look forward to reading your thoughts and experiences!