TAFTO 2006 Contribution: Brian Sacawa

It’s not easy to create a successful music blog entirely on your own with no affiliation to a larger website or the benefit of name recognition that an established journalist has. You have to have loads of creativity and personal charm. Saxophonist Brian Sacawa has used those precise skills and done exactly that with his refreshing blog Sounds Like Now. His TAFTO 2006 contribution is every bit as entertaining as his blog and his music and I’m certain you’ll be able to take something from it with you while on your own classical music travels. ~ Drew McManus

TAFTO 2006 Contribution
By: Brian Sacawa

In Paul Auster’s “The Locked Room” from The New York Trilogy, Fanshawe is missing and presumed dead. Although a prolific writer before his disappearance, he could never bring himself to publish any of his work, and has left his entire unpublished oeuvre to the narrator, his childhood friend, with instructions that he read the collection and decide whether or not it is worthy of publication. Upon reading Fanshawe’s manuscripts, which confirm to him his friend’s literary genius, the narrator decides to pitch the collection to a publisher, singling out a large novel as the most brilliant work, and as a result, the one that should be considered first for publication. When the publisher asks the narrator for a description of the book, he considers the request but then decides on the following course of action:

“I’d rather not . . . I thought it would be better if he found our for himself. He raised an eyebrow in response . . . as if to imply that I shouldn’t play games with him. I wasn’t as far as I could tell. It was just that I didn’t want to coerce him. The book could do the work itself, and I saw no reason to deny him the pleasure of entering it cold: with no map, no compass, no one to lead him by the hand.”

The idea, of course, is that rather than advance his own agenda or impress his own opinions upon the publisher, the narrator instead insists that he reach his own conclusions about the book free of any bias or outside persuasion.

* * *

I recently read Teaching Genius, Barbara Louise Sand’s book about Dorothy Delay, the famous string pedagogue. What I admire most about Delay’s teaching is that she didn’t dispense answers, but rather demanded that her students discover the answers—be it a question of phrasing, bowing, or musical imagination—for themselves. As a teacher, Delay was not about forcing her own interpretation on her students, and as a result, students were made to come up with their own solutions, leading to the development of a personal voice. Perhaps more than anything else, Delay was in the business of creating “thinkers.”

Delay’s teaching style was very much like the approach of my teacher and mentor, Donald Sinta at the University of Michigan. Like Delay, Sinta is not interested in the idea of teacher as factory, churning out carbon copies of players who will sound and play just like him. The student is challenged required to think for her/himself with emphasis placed on each students’ own uniqueness. I embrace this style in my own teaching and it was probably at work in my subconscious when I took Jihwan to see the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on January 12, 2006.

It just so happened that the BSO concert that night was more than a typical BSO concert—it was Marin Alsop’s first concert in front of the orchestra, following her controversial appointment as their new music director. Although she won’t assume the post until the 2007-2008 season, her presence in Baltimore had nonetheless generated quite a buzz. Jihwan would have gone to the concert regardless of the maestra, however the prospect of seeing “the first female music director of a major American orchestra” was something of a selling point and got her a little more excited about the prospect of going to the concert than if it had been just a typical night.

The program that night included Baltimore-native Christopher Rouse’s Symphony No. 1, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major, K. 414 with Leon Fleisher filling in for the overextened Piotr Anderszewski, and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7, op. 70. Certainly a well-rounded program—classical concerto with world famous soloist, romantic symphony, and obligatory “new music” piece—and not a bad one for someone’s first trip to the concert hall.

Jihwan’s initial excitement about seeing and hearing an orchestra for the first time quickly changed into apprehension mixed with a little bit of fear: “I often thought that classical music concerts are only for people who know a lot about music, like professionals, music students, and rich people. But most of all I feel kind of helpless and a little scared because I don’t know anything about classical music.” (Actually what she feared most, she admitted to me after the concert, was falling asleep during the performance!) What is most interesting (and I’d say pervasive) about her comments, is that her understanding of what classical music concerts are and who attends and enjoys them is based on preconceptions that are not completely unfounded in our society. More on that later.

I should say a little bit about Jihwan, my subject companion for the evening’s experiment concert. Jihwan is not a musician. She prefers listening to R&B, hip-hop, Korean pop music, and my stellar version of Arirang. She’s never been to an orchestra concert and knows nothing about classical music (although she loves the soundtrack from A Beautiful Mind). She does, however, possess an extremely open mind and is always eager to learn and experience new things.

As we walked to the Meyerhoff that night, I thought about easing Jihwan’s anxiety a bit by telling her a little about the music. I could explain to her a few things about each piece she’d hear. A little about Mozart. A cliff notes version of sonata form. Something—timbre, groups of instruments, melody—to hang onto in the Rouse. But then I thought, wait, that’s exactly what I’d be doing—giving her just something (maybe one, two, or three things) to hang onto. And if I tell her to listen for such-and-such, she’s likely to spend the whole concert listening for that, and it’s entirely possible, probably likely, that in her efforts to hear such-and-such, that this, that, and the other thing, might end up passing right through her ears. And what if she didn’t even hear such-and-such? Would she feel like she’d failed as a listener?

“You know what? I’m not going to tell you anything.”

“What?! Well, I guess it’s going to be very hard for me to understand then.”

“Well, you don’t really need to “understand” the music to enjoy it. The thing is, what I’d tell you about the music is just one way to listen—my way. And my way isn’t the only way or the “right” way. It doesn’t matter whether you know anything about music theory or music history, the great thing about music is that everyone can experience it in their own way. I want you to hear it your way.”

And she did hear it her way. When I asked for her thoughts after the concert, two things were clear: 1) she didn’t hear the technical, analytical, or compositional components of the music (or at least, not consciously enough to put them into words), and 2) she was deeply affected and moved by what she heard. In addition to having feelings of being at ease, sadness, fright, and darkness from the evening’s musical offerings, she was also in awe of the abilities of the composers’ and musicians’ and maestra’s capabilities at bringing the inanimate notes on the page to life. Not bad for her first trip to an orchestra concert, I thought. She had engaged with the music on the level she was comfortable with, had a smashing time because of it, and left the Meyerhoff eager to return. I’d call that a success.

* * *

For the first-timer, going to an orchestra concert can be both overwhelming and frightening. And for someone who has not studied classical music and knows next to nothing about it (aside from the fact that they like the soundtrack from A Beautiful Mind), it can also seem like entering someplace that one doesn’t belong, like trespassing on an immaculately manicured lawn in front of a multi-million dollar mansion with huge pillars marking the entryway somewhere in Newport, Rhode Island. Let’s face it, classical music has a “high brow” image, which is perpetuated to varying degrees depending on where you are geographically. For those of us who are intimate with classical music, the idea of the music as “high art” for the pleasure of the cultured elite may seem like an old cliché. Yet for those not in “the club”—even if we mean it ironically—it’s hard not to feel like it’s just not for them. Jihwan even said she felt like an “outcast” prior to the concert.

Some people believe that educating audiences is the way to build a larger fan base for classical music. I agree with them. Education is invaluable. Right. Yes. Sure. Of course. However, for someone who’s never been to an orchestra concert the thought of being lectured to before the concert will not heighten their experience of the music, but simply make it even more unbearable. (A lecture?! That sounds like school. Yuck!) Do I think we should be excited about telling people more about the music we love in all its minute detail and historical context? Yes, but not at first. The first item of business needs to be getting them to come to concerts. And I believe that the best way to do this is not to tell people what to think, but rather let them experience the music for themselves with an unfettered mind.

Here’s one last analogy: Open up Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce. Begin reading. You may get through 25, 50, 100, 200 pages before you find one paragraph or sentence that makes sense to you. Yet chances are that there will be those moments when you do find something that you understand. The sheer variety of topics, number of foreign languages, and esoteric references in the Wake make it impossible for one person to understand the entire work. Yet there is something for everyone in the Wake, but only if you don’t expect to understand everything and approach it with an open mind. Likewise, newcomers to classical music concerts might be more apt to enjoy themselves and the music if they are put at ease—letting them know that it’s okay if they don’t hear absolutely everything or that they won’t be condemned by the classical music deities if they don’t hear something a certain way. The problem I see is that many people who don’t know anything about classical music feel like there is “a way” to hear it—a single “educated” way. Allowing them to feel comfortable and confident in expressing their own opinions will make them feel like they are part of the experience and not “outcasts.” And if they’re genuinely interested in the music afterwards, they’ll start to seek out more about it by themselves. No need to force it on anyone.