The best place to sit in an orchestra concert is, of course, on stage. The conductor’s face will tell you more about the music than a million programs.
It’s a treat to see the ethos of the piece coming through the conductor’s facial expressions, interrupted by a moment of satisfaction when a musician performs a particularly beautiful line or follows a gesture perfectly. As my friend commented to me the other day, from on the stage, musicians are able to watch a combination of the conductor’s engagement both with the music and with the people making the music. Harpists enjoy perhaps more moments of quiet listening from the stage than other instrumentalists (the violinists are almost always playing) and I have realized that almost every piece sounds better from stage-right of the flutes than from a comfy seat in the house.
Unfortunately most people don’t have this seating option. Here are some ways I’ve discovered to either a) while away a long concert or b) cultivate a deeper appreciation for the music.
#1. Watch the conductor. He or she functions like a tour guide. Often a gesture will call out the piccolo entrance, or foreshadow the violin entrance, or define the character of a phrase. Watching a conductor is almost like reading the introduction to a book. Not only do you read the book itself, but you read someone else’s (possibly more informed) analysis of the material.
#2. Watch the individual musicians. I have fun comparing how some violinists slouch in their chairs with stolid faces, while others look like they’re about to fly out of their chairs with energy, or impale their neighbor with a particularly energetic up-bow#3. Read the program. (Not a novel idea, I know, but a bit of context can add a lot to the music.)
#4. Close your eyes and pretend you’re listening to a movie soundtrack. What is the plot? What’s happening right now?
#5. Attempt to identify what instrument has the melody at any one moment. Rather than hearing the “Woodwinds” play, ask your ears whether they are listening to a flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, horn, or piccolo. If you can’t tell by listening, try tell by watching. Often music is written like a game of catch, where the flute plays a bit and then throws the melody to the clarinet, who then passes it off to the cellos. If you’re quick, you might be able to spot who is “it”.
#6. Close your eyes and pretend that you are an iTunes visualizer. Create shapes and colors in your mind that match the music you’re hearing. (This works especially well for 21st century non-tonal pieces that aren’t always quite as enjoyable in conventional ways.)
#7. If you’re close enough, learn something about the instruments that you never knew before. How many fingers does a harpist actually use to play the harp? What keeps a cello from sliding away from the cellist? Which hand does a bassist use to hold the bow?
#8. Look to see if the program gives you the date of the piece. Remember everything you ever learned about that period in history and ponder what might have been going on in the composer’s life as he or she wrote the piece.
#9. Try decide who each of the musicians would be if they were a character in your favorite novel.
#10. Decipher what time signature the orchestra is playing in. Does it change? Is it a waltz? Could you swing dance to it? What would it sound like if you added a techno track in the background?
How do you spend your concert hours? Comment below!
Stephanie Claussen is a professional harpist from Minneapolis, Minnesota. She performs on her harp throughout Minnesota in various concerts, recitals, and collaborations with other musicians. Consider signing up for her e-mail newsletter to be notified directly of upcoming performances and important announcements.