Reflections of a Music Student

How To Know What You Are Listening To

Attending concerts is a lot like visiting a museum. A musical work in the concert program is comparable to a painting in a curated exhibit.   While it is perfectly acceptable to wander the museum and look at the pictures, a guided tour gives a deeper understanding of the history, context, and subject of the artwork you viewing.  At a good concert, that opportunity to really understand and appreciate what you are listening to is typically available when the pieces performed are discussed by the conductor or artists.

After the Bach Festival Orchestra’s Concertos By Candlelight concert, horn player R. J. Kelley talked at length about the history of the horn and Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 4, which he performed. To my surprise, only about a dozen members of the audience stayed and took part in the intimate Q&A session with him and Dr. John Sinclair, the conductor and artistic director of the orchestra. I could not understand why so many people would give up such a worthwhile opportunity to have a discussion about what they heard by such a distinguished artist. The discussion revealed that the piece was originally to be performed on a natural (valve-less) horn, but it is not performed that way any more because this would require that all the instruments would have to tune differently to reveal the historically accurate sound.  The experts also discussed how our perception of musical dynamics, what is considered loud and soft, has evolved as the public has been exposed to sounds of modern industrialization. Knowing these details about this piece suggested that other pieces from that era also sound different today than when they were written.

In the same way that a museum docent explains how the lighting, perspective and depth evolves through art history, learning these details puts music in context and allows you to better interpret music in the future. 

The Importance of Attending Concerts

I walked into Tiedtke Concert Hall at Rollins College not knowing what to expect when I sat down to listen to Paul Galbraith perform a two and a half hour guitar concert. It was the first of many concerts I would be required to attend as a music student. Growing up, my parents, like many parents, exposed me to the Chicago Philharmonic, The Marine Band and many jazz artists. However, the requirement to attend 15 concerts a semester would prove to introduce me to a wide range of diverse ensembles, gifted soloists, and rarely performed literature that deserves a greater audience. 

Paul Galbraith ended his concert with an amazing performance of Manuel Ponce’s 20 Variations and Fugue on “Las Folias de España” which Mr. Galbraith exquisitely performed in its twenty-six minute entirety. It was captivating to see this virtuoso stun an audience with such an exceptional performance by memory. In my second semester I saw another incredible performance by Organist Christopher Houlihan who filled the chapel with awe as he performed works by Saint-Saëns, J. S. Bach, Ravel and Liszt. Organ has a fascinating ability produce incredibly diverse range of tambres depending on the pipes used. Once again I had broadened my horizon with a musical experience I would have never considered, and I found a new love for organ music. Another interesting experience was attending my friend Adam Ravain’s Senior Piano Recital. Among the students in the music department, Adam is admired as one of the most gifted musicians. His recital demonstrated the level of achievement students reach even at the college level, as he played Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit.

They say that college is about experimenting. Professors encourage you to take unusual courses like “Decade of Decisions 1920s” or “Chemistry in Society” in the hopes that it will broaden your world-perspective. The music department’s requirement to attend many concerts is much same; you are exposed to string quartets, contemporary orchestral works, ethnic folk ensembles, and whatever else you end up going to. Each concert broadens your horizons.

Dr. Sinclair, the Chair of the Music Department, once recounted that he was once an avid rock-and-roller and jazz trumpeter, but that a Bach concert changed his musical passion. So next time you find a concert and the program looks unfamiliar, take a chance you may discover a love for something new.

Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music.

—Sergei Rachmaninoff