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Nov 16

Written by: masterblogger
11/16/2009 4:49 AM  RssIcon

There are days when I feel the wind sucked out of my musical sails. Nothing inspires me, and I get a sinking feeling, followed by the fear that I'm a hack. I start asking myself questions like, "What right do I have to call myself a real musician?" On those days, I have two choices. I can either find a way to jolt myself out of the self-pity and self-doubt, or I can let it pass and come back to it.

My latest well of inspiration is Ted.com. I could watch a talk about anything (yesterday it was this one about advertising: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/rory_sutherland_life_lessons_from_an_ad_man.html), and it might pull me out of my funk. I find the speeches are funny, enlightening, and moving.

This morning, I watched Benjamin Zander, the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, talk about helping people realize their untapped love for classical music. Zander started with a story about two salesmen who traveled to Africa in the 1900s to see if there were opportunities to sell shoes. They wrote telegrams back home, and one wrote, “Situation hopeless. They don’t wear shoes.” And the other one wrote, “Glorious opportunity, they don’t have any shoes yet.”

Zander likes to look at situations as opportunities: “There are some people who think that classical music is dying, and there are some of us who think, ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet.’”

He looked at the crowd of 1,600 people and said, “My estimation is that probably 45 of you are absolutely passionate about classical music…. The there’s another group, a bigger group: These are people who don’t mind classical music. You come home from a long day and you take a glass of wine, you put your feet up, and a little Vivaldi in the background doesn’t do any harm. Now comes the third group: These are the people who never listen to classical music. You might hear it like second-hand smoke at the airport…. That’s probably the largest group of all. And then there’s a very small group: These are the people who think they’re tone deaf.”

And here’s an interesting idea I hadn’t thought of: “An amazing number of people think they're tone deaf. Actually, you cannot be tone deaf. Nobody is tone deaf. If you were tone deaf, you wouldn't be able to change the gears on your stick-shift car. You couldn't tell the difference between somebody from Texas and somebody from Rome…. If your mother calls and says hello, you'd not only not know who it is, but you wouldn't know what mood she's in. Everybody has a fantastic ear.”

Tone deaf people aside, the gulf between the passionate classical lovers and the people who don’t have a relationship to it is huge. But Zander presses on: “I’m not going to go on until every single person in this room and everyone else looking will come to love classical music.”

He sounds pretty damn sure of himself. And then he makes this point: “Now, you notice that there’s not the slightest doubt in my mind that this is going to work, if you look at my face. It’s one of the characteristics of a leader that he not doubt for one moment the capacity of the people he’s leading to realize whatever he’s dreaming.”

So Zander plays a prelude from Chopin and jokes, while playing, “I don’t think we should go to the same place for our summer holidays next year.” When we listen to classical music, it’s pretty easy to drift off in thought, especially if you’ve had a long day. And it’s particularly in the way the music is played. Zander talks about the number of impulses, or emphases on the notes, and poses the question, “Has it ever occurred to you that the reason you feel sleepy in classical music is not because of you but because of us?”

So he breaks down the piece. He says, “This is a B, and the next note is a C. And the job of the C is to make the B feel sad.” [Lots of laughter from the crowd.] There’s a B, A, G, F, and it ends on an E. But Chopin doesn’t want to go right to the E because then it’d be over. So he goes back up again, and when he gets to E the first time, it’s the ‘wrong’ chord,” meaning it’s a different E chord, not the type of E that ends the piece. He said, “We call that a ‘deceptive cadence’ because it deceives us. I always tell my students, ‘If you have a deceptive cadence, raise your eyebrows, and everyone will know.’” The deceptive cadence adds to the tension or suspense. And then eventually, the piece gets to the final E chord. And it feels like home.

“For me to join the B to the E, I have to stop thinking about every note along the way and start thinking about the long, long line from B to E,” Zander says.

So Zander plays the piece one last time all the way through and asks the audience to think of someone they adore who is no longer with them. “Bring that person into your mind, and at the same time, follow the line all the way from B to E, and you’ll hear everything that Chopin had to say.”

Zander said he tried that experiment in front of some urban street kids, and one thought of his brother who’d been shot and killed the year before. He came up to Zander and said he’d never listened to classical music in his life, but when he played that Chopin piece, the tears were streaming down his face. Zander says, “Classical music is for everyone.”

How can you not appreciate classical music now?

 

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