So you got an invitation to the opera, or free tickets to an upcoming orchestra concert? Maybe you just wanted to take a chance and spontaneously bought some tickets yourself. YEYY!! You are in for a treat!! Classical music is a whole new world, but it's been around for centuries, let yourself be amazed! But now... what is important to know? How should you prepare? Should you just let yourself be surprised? I have some tips for you!
1) Don't try to know everything! You don't have to impress anyone and the world you're about to dive in is way too broad for you to try to tackle all at once. Music is a universal language and the way you perceive it, even if you don't understand it completely, is correct!
2) Don't go "empty handed"! Google a couple of things so you don't feel completely lost. Learn about the composers and their lives. Maybe you're going to hear some Mozart - what characteristics do you hear in his music? Maybe in the next concert you visit, you'll notice some of those characteristics are also found in Haydn’s music and you'll know both lived and worked during the Classical Era. This will help you start educating your ear, which will lead to increased enjoyment. You'll start identifying styles and eras just by listening and trust me: as someone who had to learn all of this during some very boring theory lessons, learning by listening is much more interesting and effective!
3) If it is a symphonic concert, (orchestra concert), you can check the program on the orchestra's or hall's website. If there are any words that you don't know, try googling them, be that a intriguing "title" or a word like "Suite", "Variations", "Symphony". There are then two options: you can google the pieces too if you want to know what to expect, or not so you can be surprised!
4) If you are going to the opera, read the plot! Opera is like driving for the first time: there's way too much to pay attention to. There are a lot of unexpected new things going on, so the story of what's happening shouldn't be completely foreign to you. The singers might be singing in a language you don't understand, (Italian, German, French), or the stage director might have made some "loose" interpretations and make the understanding of the story development difficult if you have no clue at all.
5) Don't let this feel like homework or you won't feel inclined to do it again! Just read quickly some things on the way to the concert or in the evening before. If possible, don't google the artists: and you ask WHY? Let yourself be open to liking the singers, musicians, conductors - or not! This is something I still do myself, even as professional musician who goes to plenty of concerts. We shouldn't read biographies that were specifically written to wow you and then feel obliged to like it or feel disappointed when the person doesn't convince you.
6) Take company! This isn't a must! If you're doing this alone because that's the experience you want, do it! I'll say from experience, however, that taking a friend, loved one, or colleague can enrich the evening immensely and can lead to some profound conversations afterwards.
7) Whether you read about the repertoire in advance or not, while listening to it, pay attention to what you're hearing. What does it remind you of? Can you imagine a story/situation from your own life that this music evokes? Lean into those feelings and memories.
8) If you find yourself a bit lost or bored, you can try focusing on particular instrument or person on stage. See what they are doing and try to zero in on it - it's difficult to isolate the sound of one instrument in the middle of an orchestra but it's an amazing exercise! (Start with the woodwinds or brass!)
9) Look around the stage and try to see if there's a job you'd like to do yourself. Imagine yourself as the conductor. Or maybe you'd like to play an instrument or sing. Be childlike and have fun!
10) Close your eyes and just take it in! When you do this, you'll omit the distractions of the visuals and will have the space to trust your sensibility, just focusing on the sound. If you do close your eyes, just open them every now and then so nobody thinks you fell asleep! HA!
11) Write down your impressions. The experience of music, sound, and art in general is way more universal than you think! Forget everything you know and be creative. How did it make you feel? Do you want to go back? What surprised you? You are entitled to your opinion, your interpretation, and your creativity. Art happens when there's liberty to interpret. Save the program and/or ticket, take pictures. Make it a memory and encourage yourself to do it again. Music is fun and music is emotional. Music heals, music makes things clear. You'll enjoy it!
If you use some of these tips I'd love to hear about your stories! Don't hesitate to send me an e-mail or message on my social media, and thanks for reading!
Francisca Bastos is a professional bassoonist, teacher, and writer. Learn more about her or send her a message here!