chicken soup for the audio soul

by pieces of moments


That’s what’s going on here today. It’s chicken stock day, which will eventually turn into butternut squash soup day.

Mini vacay is over. Music is oozing out of my speakers. Things to be read are queued up. Later today I have given myself the unenviable task of trying to organize the (ever expanding) stack of printed journal articles I have been dragging around the country with me. What’s the solution for this? Are there any other researchers out there who have found some magic solution? Honestly, the idea of scanning them all makes me nauseated. So, that’s not happening. All I can think of is three ring binders. Ah, the pleasures and pains of being part of the technologically transitional generation.

There are a couple of interesting articles on the web right now that I would like to point out to you.

First, there’s this awesome review of last Fridays NY Phil concert. From everything I am hearing, it seems Maestro Gilbert is just about the best thing that could have ever happened to those Lincoln Center kids. I have said for years (no offense, Boston Symphony Orchestra) that too many of the major orchestra sound like they are falling asleep whilst performing. Between that and all the people in the audience falling asleep, they too often should call it what it is – a slumber party. Or maybe music sedation therapy? Ouch. Anyway, this is for what I have been waiting! Orchestras re-discovering the repertoire! I mean, if artistic directors are going to continue to program the old war horses, the best thing that can happen for them is to have an orchestra on the audience end that is actually doing some interpreting again, rather than just playing through the pages. As Steve Smith (who also maintains the fantastic blog, Night After Night) notes in his review:

The Philharmonic musicians could play this music in their sleep; what mattered was that they did not. As detail after vivid detail emerged, you were constantly reminded of the enduring freshness and vitality in Bernstein’s score.

YEEEEEEESSSS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! High five, New York Philharmonic!! Way to be PRESENT. That’s the real deal right there. If you can get your audience to hear something new in pieces they have heard more often than they can count, you are on a superior track.

Second, there’s this list of pieces that kids apparently have ranked as their favorites over on the Guardian. It’s interesting, though totally not shocking, to read. Although…since when is soundtrack considered “classical”? Or, more specifically, Harry Potter? Whatever. The thing that annoys me about this article, however, is how little information about the study itself is withheld. I’m thinking, 1) what is the age range of these students 2) were they simply asked an open ended question (what’s your favorite “classical” piece?) or were they given a set of pieces from which to choose (thus skewing the results of the study, no?). Taken from the article, here’s the top 10:

Kids’ top 10 classical music

1 John Williams Harry Potter

2 Howard Blake Walking in the Air (The Snowman)

3 Sergei Prokofiev Peter’s Theme (Peter and the Wolf)

4 Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy (The Nutcracker)

5 Sergei Prokofiev The Duck Scene (Peter and the Wolf)

6 Paul Dukas The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Fantasia)

7 Edward Elgar Pomp and Circumstance Op. 39, No. 4 (Fantasia)

8 Johann Pachelbel Canon

9 Sergei Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet

10 Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov Flight of the Bumblebee

Like I said, nothing surprising, right?

You know, it makes total sense to me that kids gravitate toward programmatic music, meaning, music that paints a picture or is directly narrative. Every child is born with a great imagination, it’s just that some are encouraged to cultivate it and others are encouraged to exchange it in favor of realism (granted, we all have to come to grips with the “real world” at some point, or you have got yourself bigger problems). I wonder, however, if the pieces kids would pick would be different if the programming at  concerts for children focused on less programmatic repertoire picks? Or, is it part of the natural progression of things that you work your way from blatantly programmatic pieces, or pieces that portray a story, to the more abstract “stories” you hear with your emotions in more complex pieces of music you listen to later in life? I wonder.

In reflecting on my own childhood in music my clearest memories are really random, which, perhaps explains the eclectic taste I harbor now. My childhood was a jumble of light “classical” hits (just like many others) such as Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker [aside: I was obsessed with Mikhail Baryshnikov as a young ballet student and would, faithfully, each Christmas season put on my full ballet gear to dance along in front of the television with his version of the Nutcracker for the American Ballet Theater…to this day one of my greatest dreams is to go see the ABT dance the Nutcracker live], and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.  But, then there was my little cassette tape of traditional Philippine dance music, and my dad’s Michael Jackson and Bee Gees records. Then there was the big band music my grandfather would always play, so I also grew up singing Glenn Miller hits like Chattanooga Choo Choo, Pennsylvania 6-5000, and tapping my feet to In The Mood (to this day, no matter how terrible I might be feeling, if I hear In The Mood I feel better). Add on top of all that my most visceral musical connections to my childhood, my mom’s records of Glenn Gould playing Bach, Horowitz playing Mozart, Rubinstein playing whatever.

As I got into high school I developed the habit I practice to this day, listening to music at night, with all the lights off in the pitch dark. I remember being about 13 years old and hearing the Rachmaninoff Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor for the first time. It was on the 1993 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition cd with the gold medal winner that year, Simone Pedroni. I cried at the second movement. It hurt it was so beautiful to me (literally hurt…I have a very physical reaction to music). I listened to it every night before I went to bed for weeks on end. Weeks and weeks.

It was during my high school years that I developed a penchant for listening to, and playing, more and more abstract music. I often wonder how that progression was achieved, and I have no real idea. I would be practicing or listening to various recordings and my mom and I would talk about how she just couldn’t appreciate in the same I way did those abstract structures. She did note to me that the more she heard a piece, the more it became familiar in her ear, the more she could appreciate it. That’s totally logical, and I think that’s why more orchestras should play modern works more often. They need to become part of the vocabulary and not just strange words pulled out from the back pages of the dictionary, therefore viewed as “elite” somehow in their usage. The only conclusion to which I can come is that the well of intense emotion that harbored deep inside of me simply acted as a resonance chamber for whatever music came my way, whether it be more traditional or extremely abstruse.

Now is the moment when you think I’m going to wrap this all up with some amazing statement. Well, I’m not. I don’t have an amazing revelation to make at all. But I do have a simple conclusion to all this, which is we all just need to listen to more music. The more sound we put in our ears, the more points of reference we have with which we can be armed either when entering a concert hall, or just facing the world. All these pieces the ended up in the top 10, or the tried and true pieces on the New York Philharmonic program this past Friday are basically chicken soup. They soothe and console you because they are familiar, just like chicken soup wasn’t just about the medically therapeutic qualities, but about the fact that it is a comforting go-to standby when your state of health is in doubt. Chicken soup is a good thing and we should never take it out of our food repertoire, just like these pieces should always remain a part of our lives. But the more other flavors you know, the more you can enrich, or provide context for those that are classic. Right? So, listen to more music. Try something you think you won’t like. Even if you still don’t like it, I promise you that you will return to your standby selections with a new set of ears.