TAFTO 2007 Contribution: Roger Ruggeri

POP QUIZ: What do rattlesnake hunting, taxidermy, and binge drinking have in common with orchestra concerts?!? To find out the answer, you’ll have to read Roger Ruggeri’s TAFTO 2007 contribution. The first in our Three Basses series, Milwaukee Symphony bassist, Roger Ruggeri, is not only a professional musician but he’s also an accomplished composer, program annotator, lecturer, and expert in orchestra governance. After all, there’s nothing quite as comforting as having a guide who has “been there, done that” when you’re seriously thinking bout charting unknown waters and that’s precisely what TAFTO readers will find with Roger’s contribution. And since you might have dodge rattlesnakes on the way to the taxidermy shop all while nursing a killer hangover you acquired after attending your first orchestra concert, having a knowledgeable guide along just sounds better and better. ~ Drew McManus

First off, let me say that I often won’t even try to take an uninitiated friend to an orchestra concert, in part because many of my friends already are enthusiastic concertgoers.

Maybe I find that there is so much less to talk about with those who seem apathetic or antagonistic about symphony concerts…heck, I’ve found that I’m related to some of them.

I mean, putting myself in their place, how might I like it if I’d never darkened the door of a concert hall and someone tried to talk me into going.

Forget about it!

You may think I’m being hypothetical about this, but I’ll bet we’ve all been there. For example, over the years, various friends have tried to get me to share their fondness for 1) loud pop-rock concerts, 2) hunting for rattlesnakes, 3) football games in freezing rain, 4) taxidermy of creatures that one might have hoped to see in real life, 5) drinking ’till you can’t see straight, etc. etc.

Mostly they’ve just managed to solidify my original reservations about their beloved enthusiasms.

Oh my! I’m feeling much the same reaction I’d likely get if I tried to strong-arm someone else into a symphony concert!

Suddenly it’s apparent that most variations on direct coercion are unlikely to win new friends for orchestra concerts. No matter how eloquently I try to persuade, no matter how cogent my arguments, my chances for converting just anyone seem extremely slender.

Why? In part, because many American minds are already decided– consciously or unconsciously–against “high art.” Anything that one “should do” because it’s “good for you” or has “higher purpose” immediately falls into that black hole reserved for the dutiful consumption of broccoli and spinach. In popular movies or television, a displayed taste for classical music will more likely characterize a villain or an object of ridicule than a person with whom the audience would like to identify.

This may not be a desirable state of affairs, but it seems to be what we have.

Therefore, I’m rather careful about first identifying some expression of interest from anyone I might invite to a symphony concert. (Of course, right along I will have been gently trying to fertilize potential interest by occasionally relating my own enthusiasm about musical activities, human-interest stories about our musicians, our orchestra’s activities, our guest artists or the music we’re playing. On the other hand, if one only expresses negative impressions of an art music scene, it’s little wonder that those within hearing range might not want to experience more.)

Once their interest is expressed, try to find an event that has reasonable likelihood of making a positive impression on the novice concertgoer. This is a little tricky, because–it seems to me– there are no pat answers. An all-Tchaikovsky or all-Gershwin concert may win many first-timers’ hearts, but certainly not everyone’s. For some, a maiden voyage with a Bruckner symphony might throttle their interest in its crib, or it might be just launch their lifelong symphonic nirvana.

The uncertainty of finding just the right program for your friend is kind of a good thing, because one doesn’t want to wait forever for the perfect match. It’s best to get those folks to a concert within a few weeks of their expression of interest. Even more than the actual program, their interest is perhaps the best indicator for a positive concert experience.

Actually, it seems to me that most people are not going have trouble with the music, even very modern music; they’re actually far more capable in that area than is commonly assumed. What will trouble them are the social conventions of the concert: what to wear, when to applaud, what to expect. A relaxed briefing on some of these issues may relieve a lot of their anxiety.

Another factor to be considered is the social one. When I try to get someone to have a positive concert experience, I’m usually going to be plugging away behind a bass, leaving him or her alone in the audience. So, if I’m trying to be certain that they’ll have a good time, I’ll try to join them up with a couple of friendly and experienced concertgoers.

Enhancing that, I’ll try to have dinner with them before the concert and/or a social get-together after the concert. Ensuring a successful social component is among the most sure-fire ways to win more friends for the concert experience.

And besides, it’s more fun for you, too!