Jan 5, 2011

Opening Chord

When people talk or write about classical music they often resort to very descriptive, flowery adjective-filled prose. And we perhaps can get from this a sense of how a given piece of classical music feels to the author. But since childhood, I have been obsessed with a very basic question: Why do some people listen – that is, give music their undivided attention as opposed to just hearing it while they do or think other things – and others don’t? And the related questions: Would it be good, edifying, life enhancing for more people to listen? Is there a way to encourage listening?

My first awareness of the issue occurred when I was nine. I attended a choir school for boys modeled after the cathedral schools of England. St. Peter’s Choir School in Philadelphia no longer exists as a choir school – having become an independent, coeducational, private day school, and a flourishing one at that.

But in 1957 there were forty of us, all boys, grades four through nine. The music and academic educations were demanding and wonderful. Mandatory Latin, mandatory French, mandatory piano lessons and sight-singing class, mandatory public speaking and religious education in the ways of the Episcopal Church – these subjects in addition to the usual English, mathematics, science, history and the like.

Everyday a choral rehearsal after school, two rehearsals on Friday and two on Sunday – one before each of the two services sung every Sunday, September through early June. It was at these church services that I first noticed it. We’d be singing some incredibly moving choral composition by Bach or Palestrina or Rachmaninoff, or. . .and during measures when I was not singing but counting rests, my eyes would occasionally furtively scan the congregation.

The Rector of the parish looked bored out of his mind. Some were busy reading the church bulletin, some were asleep – no one ever talked. But some were hanging on every note we sang with rapt attention. Who were these people? Why were they listening to the music – an amazingly rewarding behavior I had discovered even earlier in my life.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my life’s work was being formed and shaped.