On High Art, Shabby Shoes, And Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony

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The other day I attended a semi-professional orchestral concert that a few of my friends were performing in. The centerpiece of the program was Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, which I happen to love to death even though it does go by a bit too quick. It’s probably the only piece by the master I wish had a few more repeat signs in it as it sometimes feels like a reckless car ride through a meadow, sending people frolicking for their lives, rather than one of the master’s epic nature strolls.

We had just hit intermission when I felt a tap on my shoulder – an older woman seated behind me noticed I was sitting alone and we made some casual chit chat. During our conversation, she mentioned that her brother was an important artistic figure the orchestra collaborates with. She also asked me how tall I am (A surprisingly frequent topic), asked me if I played basketball (I don’t), and eventually we came to this inspired conclusion:

“Are some of your friends on stage?” she asked.

“Yeah – a friend of mine plays viola and another plays bass” I replied.

“Oh – I thought so. You don’t look like someone who would come to this sort of concert without knowing someone on stage”.

Now, I was dressed pretty casually and had noticeably less grey hair than many others in attendance so I probably stuck out a bit. Also, the tall part. She must have decided that I didn’t look like I was a typical attendee so I must not be someone who goes to these sorts of concerts very often. This arguably innocent comment stuck with me for two reasons:

First – and this is the funny one – I love this music. I spend a lot of time writing it, playing it, writing about it, wondering about it, and basically cramming it into every available orifice. I’m not trying to say I’m a big shot and everybody should lay out a red carpet for me, but I have spent significant hours “digging into the dots”, so to speak. So it should be pretty intuitive that if someone were to come along and say to me something along the lines of, “Ooooh – I bet you didn’t know that violins have four strings”  we can go straight to having a really good time laughing at their expense.

Second, and this is where it gets a little more serious, because classical music has a reputation as an art form for the rich, her comment had an undercurrent of elitism. I can’t really know what she thought about me but when I think back on the situation it really felt like she thought I was a young person of limited economic means – I mean, there are a lot of us, and I have worked in the service industry before, so it’s not like her guess was completely out-to-lunch.

This is such weird concept for me because, on an instinctual level, I don’t really see classical music as “music for rich people”. To me, it’s everybody’s music in that it’s just there for everybody to discover it.

I got into classical music as a teen because I could get Beethoven box sets for 20 cents a record at my local record shop. If I were a teen today, I would probably build a listening library using Youtube. I didn’t see it associated with any sort of inflated expense. Also, tickets to classical music concerts are far and away cheaper than tickets for a hockey game. Spend sixty dollars on a Canucks ticket and you get a terrible seat in the rafters whereas sixty dollars spent on a Symphony concert will get you just about the best available.

But on a more thoughtful level, I do recognize that there are real barriers that prevent people from getting into the music and some of that DOES have to do with your economic class. Music lessons at an early age are a strong indicator that you might become a butt in a seat at a classical music concert and the privilege of early music lessons are strongly tied to whether or not your family could afford them while you were growing up. It’s a significant investment in time and money that many families can’t meet in the face of other pressures.

I bring this up because this is an obstacle to those of us who want to grow and nurture an audience for our art form. People will be disinclined to attend a concert by being made to feel unwelcome and we have enormous power in our ability to make people feel like they don’t belong with what we only see as benign.

Take, as another example, the knowing murmur that ripples around the room when somebody commits the cardinal sin of clapping between movements of a larger piece. Someone had the nerve to have a happy feeling in public, expressed it, and now we’re all rolling our eyes at them. All this does is reinforce our own sense of superiority and alienate someone who might be inclined (Or would have been inclined) to come to more of our concerts. What if we instead owned our art’s bizarre customs and shared them with new concert goers with a sense of pride and excitement?

I know a conductor who , before the performance of every large work, addresses the urge to applaud between movements in order to get his horse before the cart. I think he recognized that there was some value worth preserving in holding the applause until the end of the work but he also had enough awareness to know that people won’t suddenly go against a lifetime of being socialized to applaud. This conductor would even go so far as to encourage people to just sit quietly at the works’ conclusion if they’re moved to do so. In doing so, the frame around the event changes to be more open and nurturing. New attendees will see the event as less of an encounter with music weirdos and more of an invitation to be part of a very rich musical tradition. It’s not actually that hard to do!

As for the woman at the concert who thinks I’m tall – I didn’t say any of this to her as at the time as I was a little bit surprised and it would have been a bit of a mouthful to fit this response into some awkward coughing and rummaging of a concert program. If I could go back and relive the moment, I would probably have the sense to gently correct her – and that likely would have been the right thing to do. At face value, it was certainly an innocuous comment – but that’s with me as the recipient. I’m able to laugh it off because I have a pretty privileged background. Someone who has faced any kind of systemic exclusion/discrimination based on economic class, race, sexuality, or gender would probably have felt it completely differently. I feel like the chance to correct these sorts of assumptions when the stakes are so light is valuable to our social evolution. The small nudges in our conversation that can happen outside of a crisis – where emotions are inflamed and our ears are shut – have staying power. They may not have the visibility of marching in the streets but I can’t imagine how we get farther without them.

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