There is value in repetition. This was a difficult lesson for me to learn, both as a child when I discovered that I was expected to practice my music lessons every day, and as a teacher when I had to repeat a lecture point because some students didn’t understand what I was saying. This lesson was made easier when I realized that even if the exact same notes were played, or the exact same words said, I made new meaning. I heard new things in the notes or felt new things in my lips and fingers as I repeated Clarke technical studies over and over. My students (hopefully) understand more about suspensions when I say again how to prepare the dissonance, especially if they weren’t listening the first time!
Often when I’ve brought inexperienced listeners to a classical concert, they would comment apologetically that they clearly didn’t understand nearly as much as I did. This inequality in understanding is undoubtedly true, but not something to cause shame. I don’t apologize to a Shakespeare expert after seeing a production of Othello with her, even though she knows historical references or poetic conventions that I missed. I do look forward to seeing another staging or reading the play so I can appreciate Othello in a deeper way, noticing more of these references and turns of phrase. I’ve watched Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon about twenty times, and I still don’t understand the ending of the movie. But I do catch more subtleties in the acting or the martial arts with each watching, making each repetition worthwhile.
There is too much pressure put on inexperienced listeners to understand everything in a musical work in the first hearing. Mostly this pressure is self-inflicted, but we aficionados can also cause damage by smirking at ignorant questions or showing off with a bunch of technical jargon. What we need to communicate is that the best classical music has such a wealth of information that it requires and rewards repeated hearings and study.
Two weeks ago I took a classical music newcomer to the DePauw University School of Music’s production of The Marriage of Figaro. What was unusual about this Taking A Friend To The Orchestra event was that we did not go for only one night. DePauw has enough depth of talent in our voice department that every year the main opera roles are double cast, with each cast performing for two of the four nights. Thus I suggested that we go to the opera on Friday and Saturday night so we could see both casts, thus appeasing all of my students who were in the opera. My friend had never been to an opera before, and was always uncertain when we were supposed to clap. But she really enjoyed the singing and acting, and already started noticing differences in the styles and abilities of the various students enough to discuss them during intermission of that first night. At the end of that evening, she was very excited to go again the next night, as she had had such a good time.
The experience highlighted three things that affect anyone’s impressions of a classical performance, but particularly emphasized in neophytes. First, DePauw performs all its operas in English, so the funny lines matched up nicely with the acting. Translating to the vernacular language of the audience makes comedic operas much more accessible to newcomers, though sometimes the poetry or the wordplay suffers, such as some of the duets in The Marriage of Figaro. Classical music has lots of foreign words, either being sung or as the titles of movements or works. We shepherds should be providing translations of all terms for our new listeners, so they don’t feel left out from the jokes. Second, the audience at the Friday night performance was very responsive, laughing at all of the funny lines and shouting “Bravo” after big arias. In sharp contrast, the Saturday night crowd did not laugh or whoop, though they still did clap when appropriate. My friend found the Friday performance to be much more stimulating and fun. The vocal responses of our peers gave permission for us to also be vocal and boisterous in our responses. Third, the immediate (for an opera) rehearing on Saturday gave my friend the opportunity to hear things she didn’t notice the first time. We had talked about recitatives and arias after the Friday performance, even improvising some conversations in recit form for fun. So on Saturday she noticed the pattern and flow from recitative to aria. She also noticed the build up to quartets and quintets at the end of each act on Saturday, and followed more of the plot line the second time through.
There is value in repetition. The context has changed, because we are different people when we cross that stream the second time. There is too much pressure put on inexperienced listeners to understand everything in a musical work in the first hearing. Mostly this pressure is self-inflicted, but we aficionados can also cause damage by smirking at ignorant questions or showing off with a bunch of technical jargon. What we need to communicate is that the best classical music has such a wealth of information that it requires and rewards repeated hearings and study. The more we emphasize that to new listeners, the more they will get out of their classical music experiences. There is value in repetition.