V.com weekend vote: What is the best way to introduce classical music?

February 26, 2022, 6:45 PM · I recently skimmed through the discussion board and read comments by Mike Pijoan and Stephen Brivati (a.k.a. Buri) that not only inspired me, but really got me thinking: Is there a good way to introduce people to classical music?

In a thread about the beauty of Augustin Hadelich’s artistry, Mike wrote: "His playing is just so incredibly gorgeous. He has the power to turn the heads (or ears) of people who might not otherwise have listened. I had a coworker say 'the only 'classic' music I like is classic rock.' A few days after hearing Hadelich, my friend had Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Mendelssohn on his iPod...that's pretty great! I nudged him toward Hilary Hahn and now he likes Bach!"

Buri responded with a wonderful anecdote of his own: "Actually, I find that Bach really connects with pretty much anyone once they taste it. I have lost count of the number of times over the years a headmaster at an elementary or junior high school in Japan asked me to play for the students and then followed up with the rider 'please play something from Disney because they don’t really understand classical music yet.' I have always played unaccompanied Bach to the unalloyed amazement and (I believe) pleasure of said students."

Over the years, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to introduce opera to folks who were fairly convinced they wouldn’t like it. (As an aside, I’ve never understood the typical remark, "I don’t like opera." To me, that’s like saying "I don’t like food." There are certainly operas I don’t like. And the antiquated "park and bark" approach doesn’t exactly draw me in. But there are operas that I have literally found to be lifechanging. So, unless you’ve heard them all, don’t rule it out.)

I tend to introduce opera to non-opera people with gems like Butterfly, Tosca, Carmen, and Boheme. But I’ve also had success with more contemporary works, such as Dead Man Walking (Heggie), Nixon in China (Adams), and Mary, Queen of Scots (Musgrave). I took my "little sister" to a 30-minute Boheme at a local library and her response was, "That’s opera? Well, I guess I do like it after all."

intro to music
Meeting the artists after an introduction to opera with a 30-minute version of La Boheme.

What has worked for you in trying to introduce classical music to others? Please choose the answer that best fits your experience. Tell us your stories in the comments section. And now that live performances are coming back in full force, let’s all try to open up the world of classical music to a new generation.


Replies

February 27, 2022 at 03:11 AM · I was introduced to classical music through cartoons. For example, I was haunted by "Song of the Volga Boatmen" seeing PopEye wandering through a rough looking town. (Not sure that's quite right--it was probably in the 50's lol.) My daughter loved Beethoven's Pastoral with the unicorns and centaurs, and Zeus throwing firebolts in Disney's Fantasia.

February 27, 2022 at 03:36 AM · For me, it was Leonard Bernstein, and the New York Philharmonic, "Young People's Concerts" on television in the late 1950's. I remember being jealous of the kids in the audience. Plus my mother would buy classical music records at the local "A&P" grocery store. Back then grocery stores sold records, encyclopedias, and several other non-food items. In school, we listened to a weekly classical music radio show hosted by Karl Haas, "Adventures in Good Music". Having a radio in class was thrilling and novel.

February 27, 2022 at 03:53 AM · I don't have a good idea for a post-pandemic strategy to convince people to attend live performances.

I can tell how I got "into" classical music though. I was very young at the time and my parents used to put me to bed at 7 or 8 (after having done th same thing to my younger brother).

At many evenings my mother would then take out her alto recorder and my father would accompany her on his little harpsichord in Bach minuets, Telemann movements and similar repertoire. I enjoyed listening to the music and found the music much more to my taste than falling asleep--even then I was not an enthusiastic sleeper. This is how it began with classical music for me.

February 27, 2022 at 08:50 AM · I started violin at 10 but hadn't really listened to anything classifal wise until I was about 15 or 16 which even then was Andre Rieu which is a regret of mine now haha. I only started "proper" music when I was 17 and started my A Levels

February 27, 2022 at 03:08 PM · I like to invite and bring people along to community orchestra concerts that I’m performing in. I also show videos of shelter-in-place videos that I’m in to my students. The personal connection does a lot.

February 27, 2022 at 04:50 PM · I was fortunate to grow up in Evanston, Illinois in the 1950s and '60s where Dr Herbert Zipper brought a small orchestra to the elementary schools for performances of classical music once or twice a year. He would introduce each piece with pertinent information and he spoke with a strong German accent. The concerts were so beautiful and gave us all a wonderful introduction to classical music. I later learned that he had been a prisoner at Dachau.

February 27, 2022 at 06:59 PM · Although I like the idea of bringing music to the schools and have done a lot of it, I didn’t vote for it as the most effective means of introduction. When kids are marched into cafeterias and given lectures about not making any noise by teachers who are annoyed that they have to rearrange their schedules, they tend to view the whole affair with a lot of resentment. You can force kids to attend, but you can’t force them to enjoy anything.

As for myself, I absolutely hated music class in school. I wanted to play the violin because my father played and because I enjoyed it when I went to concerts or heard players live.

When I was in fourth grade I attended an orchestra concert in my home town that included a short segment with a children’s choir. I was so excited by the performance (and the idea that perhaps I could be in a similar one myself) that when my father asked if I was interested I was very eager to join the choir. We went backstage after the concert and spoke to the director of the choir. He sat down at the stage piano and auditioned me on the spot. I ended up singing in that choir all the way through high school and covered every part from soprano 1 to bass and loved it dearly.

February 27, 2022 at 07:14 PM · Every Saturday my mom listened to the Met Opera's broadcasts. I loved the intermission programs, especially the Opera Quiz, and how much the panelists knew from listening to three or four notes, or a lyric. Singing in chorus in HS also fostered a joy for the pieces we sang-many of which were classical-tho' I didn't realize it, I just loved singing them! Many moons later I was friends with a lovely singer and actress who started a children's theatre program called 'Spotlite on Opera' in which they sang and described various arias/duets. At the end they would invite the kids up on stage to play the children in 'Hansel and Gretel' becoming 'real' after being 'cookies'. They had a blast. Oh, in HS, we got invited to see a dress rehearsal at the Met of 'Sonnambula' with Sutherland! So I guess there were many ways of being introduced to music-which turned out pretty well for me and my family!

February 27, 2022 at 09:57 PM · My own introduction to classical music is probably not a common one on this forum. Although I was taking piano lessons, I really had no opportunity to listen to classical music at all until middle school: it simply did not exist in Dubai in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and my parents did not listen to music at all and did not have a record collection of any kind. Just a few weeks after returning to the US and starting 8th grade, I got my own radio for the first time, skimmed through a bunch of local stations, and came across the classical station just moments before Howard Hanson's 1st Symphony started playing. It was instant fascination. I distinctly remember the 5/4 time grabbing my attention.

When I introduce other people to classical music, I think it depends a lot on the person, what their existing music tastes are, and what their preconceptions of classical music are. If I'm recommending a piece to listen to, I try to pick something that either breaks a stereotype or offers some kind of connection to the person or their music tastes. For example, when I was in law school the story of the Brahms Academic Festival Overture intrigued some of my classmates; and I sometimes direct metalheads to the Brahms Violin Concerto (hugely influential on heavy metal guitarists) or to Shostakovich.

As a general rule I don't believe in "dumbing down" classical music by sticking to short pieces or pieces people may have heard before; I think it's important to avoid falling into stereotypes, and I also believe that most people have much longer attention spans than we often give them credit for. My orchestra plays an annual "family concert" where a lot of the program is intended to introduce kids to the orchestra and orchestral instruments, but we always finish it with a full-length piece that goes into double-digit minutes. We played William Grant Still's "Afro-American" Symphony in its full 24-minute length, and it held the kids' attention throughout. (If anything, the parents were more restless than the kids.) Similarly, I think it's OK to lean into complexity to some degree, at least with adults and older children. I've seen a number of reaction videos on YouTube where people listen to a piece of classical music for the first time. In several, the listeners may be unimpressed at first, but at some point in the middle of the piece it dawns on them that they're hearing the musical equivalent of a novel or a play and their whole image of classical music changes.

Also as a general rule, I think getting as close to live performance as possible is most effective. There's nothing like being in the same space as the musicians. (And if people won't go to the concert hall, sometimes you can bring the concert to people; I love concerts in unconventional spaces where passers-by can stop and listen.) If I can't get someone to a live performance, then I still tend to think videos where the musicians are visible are preferable to audio only.

February 28, 2022 at 12:00 PM · Not sure what I can add after Andrew’s excellent post. I agree with every word.

I think the best way to introduce someone to classical music is whatever way is most accessible that suits the person involved. For me, I don’t have such an introduction in my conscious memory. My older siblings were already taking piano, violin, cello, and trumpet lessons by the time I was old enough to pay attention (and my oldest sister was an excellent pianist, so lots of Chopin in my earliest recollection), and my parents would play classical music on the hi-fi (dating myself here). My father had a particular fondness for the symphonies of Schubert, and for Beethoven’s seventh symphony which not coincidentally is the favorite symphony of all of my siblings as well as myself.

February 28, 2022 at 01:27 PM · Francesca, “Fantasia” was the classical hook for my husband as well.

Michael, I loved the “Young People’s Concerts” myself. (And didn’t know A&P used to sell records!)

Albrecht, your memory of listening to your parents play duets when you were supposed to be sleeping is just beautiful.

Jake, nothing to regret. You got where you needed to be.

Karen, I agree entirely about the personal connection!

Marcy, what a truly wonderful experience Dr. Zipper gave you and the other children.

Rich, your story about going from Soprano 1 to Bass is great.

Lydia, Sutherland in a dress rehearsal at the Met! Can’t top that.

Andrew, your comment is so thoughtful and insightful. Thanks for sharing it.

Mary Ellen, your musical family sounds delightful. (And Beethoven 7 is also one of my personal favorites.)

March 1, 2022 at 07:08 AM · My Dad was a fan of Mozart and Vivaldi, and played some of their most popular pieces - I remember The Four Seasons and Eine Kleine Nachmusik most of all. He was also a fan of Handel's Messiah, and to this day I can sing, however badly, some of the parts to it. My introduction to classical music as such, rather than having it trickle into me from Dad, was watching and listening on TV to (I think) Yehudi Menuhin soloing in front of (I think) the London Symphony Orchestra in 1975 when I was soon to exit childhood and become a teen, and falling in love with the violin because I loved his sound. Actually getting into it, actively, had to wait, I must confess.

March 1, 2022 at 01:54 PM · Saying "I don't like opera" isn't like saying "I don't like food." It's more like saying "I don't like eggplant."

Rich wrote "As for myself, I absolutely hated music class in school. I wanted to play the violin because my father played and because I enjoyed it when I went to concerts or heard players live."

I hated my school music classes too. But these days music class is different -- at least, it can be. Our local schools have filled the music classrooms with stuff kids can bang on -- especially little two-octave marimbas -- and other things that are easy to play and don't require being sanitized after use. The district seems equally keen on hiring teachers who are themselves percussionists. The trick is to set up a drum kit right in the classroom, so regardless of the song the kids are learning, the teacher can lead with a groove. Our kids, despite their "advanced" training relative to their peers owing to prior years of private violin and cello lessons, enjoyed their music classes in school well enough.

March 1, 2022 at 04:52 PM · Wesley, what a wonderful story about falling in love with Menuhin's sound!

Paul, I'm with you on the percussion focus in the schools. But I couldn't disagree with you more on the opera comment. To me, "I don't like eggplant" would be akin to "I don't like Wagner." That I completely understand. One can easily dislike Wagner operas, yet love Mozart operas. So when I hear someone say they don't like opera, it's dismissing an entire genre, as opposed to operas by selective composers. Hence my "food" comment. (Apologies if I sound argumentative, which is not my intent.)

March 2, 2022 at 12:21 AM · My problem with opera is those sopranos with their extreme vibrato. As someone who has always had perfect pitch, it sounds jarringly discordant. Garrison Keillor described them as "pagan goddesses screeching and being strangled and thrown off balconies." On the other hand, there are some sopranos, e.g. Dawn Upshaw, who are more moderate and listenable. A friend talked us into coming with them to a Met broadcast of Tosca, and we found it spellbinding. So yes, there are possibilities there, but it's probably a bit extreme if you're trying to get children hooked.

For me, the most memorable classical music from childhood (aside from things like Poet and Peasant that were woven into Saturday morning cartoons) was Walt Disney's Fantasia. How could someone not fall in love with Tchaikovsky after being exposed to that?

(As an aside, several years ago when our orchestra was rehearsing the Dance of the Hours, the conductor started us at rehearsal letter E: "E for elephant," he said. I think that was just a random choice of E-word, which made it doubly entertaining that this turns out to be the point in the movie where the elephants enter.)

March 2, 2022 at 01:38 AM · I voted Sharing recordings and/or YouTube links - although I know there isn't just one best way for all circumstances. But this avenue worked for me. Performances at school followed. That's when the violin muse really got hold of me.

Before I started elementary school, I was already hearing classical music, thanks to my parents, who regularly played it on recordings and radio. They didn't ram this music down my throat. They just happened to like hearing it. So did I.

By age 7, during the cold, gray period from November to March, I had my own Saturday routine of sitting in my parents' living room and listening - on my own - to one classical album after another from their collection, typically 4-5 hours per Saturday.

At school performances, I could tell, from classmates' comments, that some of these kids weren't as receptive to classical music as I was. One advantage for me, I suspect, is that I had already had my own soil prepared for the seed by hearing radio broadcasts and recordings at home before hearing in-person performances elsewhere.

I believe receptivity to classical music is actually greater among the general population than some of us might suspect. A previous poster's comment about "unconventional spaces where passers-by can stop and listen" resonates with me. My unconventional space is my garage. It's warm enough here to play out there about 8 months each year. I don't know at any given moment who my audiences are, since I can't see them; but I know I have them, because they tell me they hang around to listen.

One neighbor down the street told me that her son, about 18 y/o, a classic school jock type, would sit in his car for a few minutes at a stretch and just listen before driving off to meet friends.

Another neighbor's kid, about 6 y/o, parked his bike in the driveway, walked up to the garage door, and knocked. You guessed it. He wanted to try out my instrument.

March 2, 2022 at 02:45 AM · Charlie, Wonderful comment and "E for Elephant" is priceless.

Jim, Your narrative truly moved me, particularly your unconventional performance garage, which clearly is making a difference with young people in your neighborhood.

March 2, 2022 at 07:08 PM · Vivaldi Rocks.

Opera is an absurd art-form, best used for comedy. The best entry-level Opera would be Rossini's Barber of Seville, which is both musically excellent and genuinely funny.

March 3, 2022 at 04:15 AM · Actually, a very good introductory opera might well be The Marriage of Figaro. Especially for people who aren't aware you're not supposed to laugh during the funny bits - both Mozart and his librettist had a sense of humour, and I am someone who laughed quite a bit while watching it for the first time(as a film, with Kiri Te Kanawa as the lead soprano.).

March 6, 2022 at 12:41 AM · Regarding opera: I started hearing, in elementary school, some excerpts from my parents' record collection. Later, as a violin major, I got hooked on listening to and studying whole operas - on my own time - scores in hand. Some really depressing plots but great music that really won me over.

I began in the Italian repertoire and covered some of the above-named shows - Barber, Figaro, Boheme - plus a lot of Verdi. Then I branched out into German and French works.

As I said, above, when I was 7 y/o, I had made my own regular Saturday routine of listening, on my own, to one classical album after another from my parents' collection, typically 4-5 hours per Saturday. I'm sure my level of interest and staying power - plus a long attention span - helped pave the way for me, as a music major, to study Wagner, with some of his scores running 4+ hours.

I saw, in theater, the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th installments of Wagner's Ring tetralogy. What I really like about the later Wagner works is that each act is a continuous piece of musical drama. You can't stop the show to applaud.

Of course, if I hadn't done my own homework on these pieces in advance - and I did plenty of homework - I wouldn't have gotten nearly as much out of the performances as I did. I can shift gears quite easily from the bel canto of Rossini to the symphonic music drama of Wagner. But the latter is decidedly NOT for the tired business traveler.

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