When I was a kid and just getting into music, my grandmother started taking me to all the Sunday matinees with the Mansfield Symphony Orchestra. The whole experience of going to the Renaissance Theatre was a “to-do,” as she might say. Dressing up, buying drinks and popcorn, getting escorted to our seats like we were important.
I was just learning how to listen to music — how to pull apart an orchestra and listen to one section at a time. There’s the low brass, there’s the high woodwinds, I think that’s a viola? And how to watch an orchestra, too — how to see the players watch the baton of the conductor, the rows of string players watching the first chair, the percussion section watching everything. I was learning a new language. I could already read music, but reading a new language is quite a different thing than understanding a conversation.
I wonder if perhaps you have to grow up with symphonic music to continue seeking it out as you age. My elementary school music teacher was a passionate man. Passionate enough to throw blackboard erasers into the chatty percussion section, gesticulate so wildly as to dislodge his comb over, and to rain insults and spittle down upon the first unlucky row of flutes. Most of the kids hated him. I would have, had he not kept playing fantastic recordings for us: Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Goodman’s Sing, Sing, Sing, and Gershwin. I took a tape of Rhapsody in Blue out of the library and listened to it again and again in my room, letting the music take shape and color in my mind.
My grandmother loved that I was exploring the big band music of her youth and encouraged me with her own stories of the bands that played when she was a young woman. She still remembered all the words and sang along in her ageless soprano to my CDs of Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, and The Andrews Sisters.
As I got older and my tastes refined, my grandmother took me to even more shows. We saw one of Mel Tormé’s last concerts and even saw Yo-Yo Ma, whose luggage had been lost so he and his accompanist wore lumberjack flannels. We spent several summer evenings on a lawn in Columbus, picnicking and listening to The Canadian Brass, laughing at their jokes even if we’d heard them last year. I played trombone and wanted to be the first lady in the brass quintet.
I played in high school — symphonic band, orchestra, jazz band, marching band — and continued to play through undergrad. I worry that music is accessible only to those who already speak the language. Those of us who recognize all the different voices that combine to one. Those of us who have felt the power in that moment between the last note and the applause. But how much knowledge and history behind a certain piece do you need to “get it?” When I look at Van Gogh’s Starry Night, I know little of his life and of the story behind the piece; but I do know it is crushingly beautiful.
I want to share the beauty of this music with others, but don’t always know how to convince my Millennial-aged peers to come to an orchestra concert with me. Don’t get me wrong, plenty of them do come, but I greedily want everyone to try it. I don’t know if it’s some presumption that symphony-goers are stuffy and pretentious or if it’s intimidation by the unknown that prevents more people my age from joining me there. I certainly don’t know everything about each piece that’s played in a concert. Rather than feeling ill-educated and uncomfortable at the end, however, I feel refreshed and new and as if I learned something just by sitting there. Like the first time I heard Rhapsody in Blue, I didn’t feel stuffy and pretentious — I felt like something bold and new was let loose inside me.
This Saturday, I will be going to the “When Swing Was King” pops concert, and I’ll be bringing my now-91-year-old grandmother. We will dress up, we’ll go to the Altered Eats catered dinner beforehand, we’ll gets drinks, and we’ll be escorted to our seats. We’ll sit in the dark and listen as the chaos of tuning instruments transforms into the asymmetrical jive of Shaw, Miller, and Dorsey. I suspect we’ll sing along.