The Baccalaureate Service I played at last week was on a Friday afternoon. Since I was teaching during the day, I decided I would get a little more practice in by playing my selections for my middle-school classes if time allowed. I was able to play for my last period eighth grade class. I performed Frederic Chopin’s Prelude Opus 28, No.15 and Claude Debussy’s Reverie and Arabesque No.1.
I didn’t know how my students would react to the music. Most of them listen to pop and hip-hop. Solo piano music, never mind a classical style, is not part of their normal musical diet. Each piece is about five minutes long, significantly longer than an average pop song, so I wasn’t sure they would pay attention.
After I played the first piece, they were complimentary. “That was really good,” they said. They smiled and seemed agreeable, but I honestly thought they were just being polite. However, after I finished playing the third piece, one boy quickly turned his head toward me and said, emphatically, “That was GREAT!” Another boy responded, “I liked the first one and the third one the best.” Several other students murmured in agreement.
They really were listening.
And they even had opinions.
On the drive over to the service, I contemplated the students’ responses. Their favorite pieces were not my favorite piece. Out of these three, my preference was the Reverie. I am fond of fantasies, impromptus and the like. And a well-placed augmented chord is delightful, though the Arabesque has a couple of those as well.
I didn’t have time to ask the students why they preferred the other pieces, but I have a feeling that the form of the pieces is what made the difference. While the Reverie is a bit more adventurous harmonically, it is very pleasant and the voice-leading is good, so nothing is truly jarring. Besides, Chopin takes his own risks in the Prelude. Almost two minutes on a repeating Ab, anyone? I understand it is called the “raindrop” prelude. I don’t hear raindrops; I hear a death toll.
The most obvious difference between the Prelude and Arabesque, in comparison to the Reverie, is the form. Both the Prelude and Arabesque have a ternary (ABA) form, which means the musical material presented at the beginning of the piece returns at the end.
It’s one thing to think about form as a composer, but what does it mean for a listener?
A listener, hearing a repeated section, can say, “Hey, I know this!” The listener then becomes more engaged with the music by, consciously or not, predicting (and testing their ability to predict) what comes next, based on their memory of what they heard the first time around. The music becomes more satisfying as they recognize when their predictions were “right” and when they are surprised by slight changes in the music, or by a coda extending the repeated section. The ability to comprehend the whole piece can make them feel like they were a good listener, a smart listener. This builds confidence, which in turn, makes the listener open to listening to more.
This has a great deal of importance in reaching audiences.
The kids in my class are used to very predictable music. Pop songs have a standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus form. That chorus has a hook, and every time it comes around the listener can easily sing along. That’s a “win.” The song induced euphoria.
People who have already had a diet of classical music may be ready for the more adventurous music, but we can’t expect people who have a diet of very predictable music to immediately find satisfaction in music that is not predictable, like a wandering Reverie, or a harmonically unstable piece.
It is a matter of “taste,” but not necessarily a matter of “opinion.”
Taste is based on our culture, and what we have been exposed to.
Can you expect someone who hasn’t eaten garlic on a regular basis to like Indian food the first time eating it? I dare say there are better ways to gently stretch the palate.
So, in music, we must consider our audience. When introducing something new, we need to choose something not too different from what our listeners are used to. As they grow in confidence as listeners, we can expand the repertoire.
They might even start to like it.
If you are interested in hearing new music that may stretch your ears, but not overwhelm them, may I suggest the program, Classical Discoveries, hosted by my friend, Marvin Rosen. It airs every Wednesday morning from 7-10AM. You can stream it at wprb.com.