The ninety dedicated and fully trained musicians gather around the conductor. Each artist on stage has invested years to master his craft. They made this investment with the goal of working with others to give birth to something truly beautiful. Listening to the symphony is not just appreciating a moment in time – it is appreciating countless moments of loving and painful effort. As with anything that is wrought with understanding, skill and craftsmanship we must be taught how to appreciate it. This education need not be formal, but most of the beauty and subtlety of all the best art is missed because people simply do not understand how to look for it. The purpose here is to encourage and prepare you to enrich your life by being able to participate in the amazing event known as an orchestra concert.
Step 1: Wake Up to a New World
This step could go in a number of different directions: First, you could find a composer or even a specific work upon which to focus and begin a journey into their musical world. Alternatively, however, it seems more likely that you will be able to search for a Symphony-Orchestra concert near you and then prepare to enjoy that. Either way the preparation steps are very similar:
Do your homework – do some basic research upon the composer and the piece of music in questions. Many pieces of music come with rich and interesting histories that add to our understanding and appreciation of the music. Understanding the composer helps you appreciate what he or she is trying to communicate. This is your “first blush” look and should not take more than 10-15 minutes – You are just going for a general idea.
Listen to the music – There is a special moment of pleasure when you are walking around and you hear a piece of music that is familiar to you. Humans like to hear music that is familiar to us. It makes us feel connected and knowledgeable. This reality of the mind can help us to understand much of the human experience. For our purposes today, however, think of this experience like meeting a new friend. Your first meeting should not be at a public venue, dressed to the nines in all your glory. Your first meeting should be comfortable and undistracted. Find a way, if possible, to listen to the piece of music in total and undistracted peace. NOW you have been introduced.
Process – How did steps one and two fit together? Was there a relationship between what you heard and what you read? This is the time to begin to recognize the major musical themes, and purposes of the piece. Which part are you particularly interested in hearing performed live? A fast section? A loud section? A beautiful melody that captures your imagination? There is no magic here: think about it.
Step 2: Prepare to Enter that New World
Hopefully you know just a bit about the music that you are going to hear and so you are ready to dive right in. Buy your tickets, find a date, and get ready to go. It may seem simple to say this, but experiencing this with someone will make it more meaningful.
Next: Sleep. We don’t often open ourselves up to this type of experience in our culture. We watch plenty of TV and movies that are designed to stimulate our minds with the simplistic visual equivalent of nicotine, but we don’t engage in many experiences that demand that WE also engage with the process. So when people are placed in this situation it is common for us to compare it to the only other time we sit still – when we go to sleep. Put simply – if you haven’t gotten a tight 8 hours you will find it more difficult to focus and appreciate what is going on around you, and potentially fall asleep.
Get Dressed: Yes, your tweed jacket and spotted bow-tie make you look conspicuously overdressed and a bit silly at McDonalds. That is because those clothes are most appropriate for a venue like this: the symphony concert! Make it happen, even your clothing helps you buy into the experience and participate. Remember those 90 musicians who worked their entire life to present this masterpiece to you? Yeah. Put on a shirt with buttons.
Eat Dinner: I am beginning to feel like your mother. You cannot focus when you are hungry. Plan a dinner that is on the lighter side, but is satisfying. Hopefully, you know your body well enough to know what will make you feel sluggish or send you running for the restroom unexpectedly. Avoid that.
Step 3: Encounter the Experience
Show up with ample time to read the program beforehand. Seat yourself in view of your favorite parts of the orchestra to watch. This is a visual experience as well. Personally, I prefer to watch the violins. This is owing largely to the fact that my wife plays the violin in most of the concerts which I attend and she is beautiful. However, the conductor, the percussion section and the bass section are also fan favorites.
I have done everything in my power to keep as much technical music language out of this discussion as possible. But there is one bit of inside information which you MUST know. Most symphonic music is divided into smaller sections called movements. One piece will have a series of movements divided by small pauses.
For the love of Mozart’s merry mother: DON’T CLAP YOUR FLABBY MEATHOOKS BETWEEN MOVEMENTS!
It is ignorant and extraordinarily rude to the musicians. They are trying to present a large cohesive musical story in several parts. Disturbing the flow of that because you have a happy and you need the world to know about it is not appropriate. The opportunity to clap will come. It will be extraordinarily obvious when the whole piece has reached its conclusion – you won’t miss it. There will almost always be some yokel in the back clapping every time the music pauses for a moment, they know no better. Just don’t YOU be a part of the problem.
Beyond this – enjoy. You have prepared this much to experience the music freshly and in real life. This will only happen exactly this way once. Breathe and listen to it, soak up the moment. Listen for the melodies which you have heard before. Observe the texture of how the instruments are working together. Let the rhythm of the music affect the rhythm of your breathing. It would be a vain thing for the musicians to work so hard and have no one to bless with their labors.
Step 4: Cherish
You now have a memory. A real experience that you cannot click up again on your camera phone, but it actually happened to you in time. The evidence of this is not your ticket stub, it is the fact that your life is made fuller for it. Have a cup of coffee, a nice dessert. If you are with a friend talk about what you liked and so forth. If you happen to be alone, make a nice cup of tea and sit in silence. Process what years of human creativity and discipline you just witnessed in a single evening and allow yourself to be filled with gratitude for the great gift of music.
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