Aug 26, 2014

The Opening Chord Revisited

I’ve been blogging now for a little over three years. I sometimes wonder if anyone out there has actually been reading them. To recapitulate, as we’d say in sonata form, I thought it might be good to republish, with a few changes, my very first blog from June of 2011. This entry means a lot to me because what follows recounts when I first became aware of the fact that some people listen to music – a behavior I had taken for granted since about the age of four – and some people don’t!

When people talk or write about classical music they often resort to very descriptive, flowery adjective-filled prose. And from those kinds of descriptions we can perhaps get from a sense of how a given piece of classical music feels to that author. But since childhood, I have been obsessed with a much more basic question: Why do some people listen – that is, make a conscious decision to give music their absolutely undivided attention – while others just physically hear it as a background as they do or think other things? I’ve also given thought to some related questions: Would it be life enhancing for non-listeners if they learned to listen? Are there ways to encourage this kind of behavior?

My first awareness of the listening versus hearing situation occurred when I was nine. I attended an Episcopal 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, but has become an independent coeducational, private day school – and a flourishing one at that!

In 1957 there were about forty of us, all boys, in grades four through nine. That made for some small, wonderful classes – one teacher for five to eight students. The music and academic educations were demanding but definitely worth the effort. Mandatory Latin, mandatory French, mandatory piano lessons and sight-singing class, mandatory public speaking and religious education – these subjects were in addition to the usual English, mathematics, science, history and the like. Everyday there was a choral rehearsal after school, two rehearsals on Friday and two rehearsals on Sunday – one before each of the services sung every Sunday, September through early June.

It was at these church services that I first noticed it. We would be singing some incredibly beautiful, moving choral composition by Bach or Palestrina or Rachmaninoff, or whomever. . .and during measures when I was not singing but counting rests, my eyes would furtively scan the congregation.

The rector of the parish frequently appeared to be bored out of his mind. Some congregants were busy reading the church bulletin, some were asleep. No one ever talked as frequently happens in church and sadly even at concerts today, but I noticed that some people were hanging on every note we sang with rapt attention. Who were these people? And 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.