What you hear is what you hear

I often find myself in conversations about classical music with people who know relatively little about it. I love when this happens. I appreciate the opportunity to communicate about what I do to someone outside the classical music bubble, and to hear their perspective.

There is pattern I notice in a lot of these conversations. Usually, the other person is pretty quick to mention that they don’t know much about classical music. If they do have a personal experience to relate, sometimes it takes reassurance from me in order to make them feel comfortable talking about it.

Why are people so shy? I guess because it’s unfamiliar terrain, and it’s a natural human impulse to want to avoid looking stupid. But I feel like the reticence is stronger than it would be when talking about most other art forms. I think classical music comes across, to the wider world, as especially foreign.

Maybe everyone has seen too many billboard ads featuring tuxedo-clad orchestra conductors, and they can’t imagine ever having a normal conversation with one of those guys. But the thing is, I know some of these conductors and they’re totally friendly and approachable. The image is not a true reflection of most of the people in classical music, so it’s unfortunate that it gets presented and perceived this way.

A lot of people have the impression that you need to be knowledgable, cultured, initiated, whatever you want to call it, in order to appreciate classical music. I don’t believe that’s true. Of course there are historical and analytical layers that can add to your experience of listening (as in other musical genres), but they’re by no means necessary. The only indispensable thing is to open your ears and listen.

I came across a neat response to this issue recently as I was walking down the sidewalk in front of an art gallery.


What you see is what you see. Frank Stella was referring to his own paintings when he said that, but I think the gallery directors are implying another, broader meaning, and one that addresses exactly what I’m talking about. They probably thought that some people might feel too intimidated to enter into the sometimes-esoteric art world they may know little about. It’s a perfect response, and from a credible source (even if the meaning is stretched a little from its original intent). Just show up and look with your eyes – that’s enough.

This goes for music too, as far as I’m concerned. When I perform, I sometimes make suggestions on things to listen for and people seem to appreciate it, but these are only suggestions. What you hear is what you hear!

At its core, classical music is a language of emotion, so if you have emotions that’s all you really need. Learn more about the music later if you want. For now, how does it feel to listen to this piece? That’s enough.