Is it a pipe dream to want to be The Best?

Dear #classicalmusic fan,

In a society that craves accolade and attention it is disheartening to see so much about music reduced to competition, technical perfection and sales.

On the other hand, when we focus on the music and its multitude ways it impacts both communities and individuals, we actually see a very different approach to life… of which music is just a part.

Rather than chasing the substantially arrogant pipe dream of being “The Best!” perhaps it is time we started looking to being the best fans of classical music we can be… whether we’re performing or listening. There is a big difference between being The Best and becoming the best we can be.

Becoming The Best is temporary, an illusion, and only means you (or someone else) judges you to be better than the person sitting next to you. At least for today until someone else comes along who is 10% better than you are. It is then devastating when someone comes along who doesn’t care how good you or they are, but it turns out they are ten times (1000%) better than you. I’ve seen people crushed by the realization that they weren’t as good as they were led to believe (especially musicians who arrive at a music college). Although they may have been The Best in their limited sphere of influence, it turns out that there is a whole wide world of passionate folk who seem to be far more accomplished.

You don’t have to be particularly good at what you do, but you can still be The Best at it…

Think of a chess tournament among a troop of monkeys.

One of them is The Best!

Until Levon Aronian turns up.

On the other hand, if you choose to be the best that you can be, it no longer matters (quite so much) what those around you are accomplishing or capable of. Don’t get me wrong: surround yourself with others who are striving to be the best they can be, as well as those who have achieved a good level of accomplishment, as they will help motivate you in your own quest. But the burden of sharing live music with others shifts from an outward image-based comparison to an inner desire to discover the “more” behind There’s more to music than music.

It becomes our own private responsibility to dive deeper and achieve more than we ever thought possible, not for the sake of those we share music with, but for our own peace and understanding of how this world actually works.

And how we can communicate emotion with each other when words fail us.

One of the problems with today’s Western World in particular, is the self-esteem boosting trend of the late 80s and 90s.

As Simon Sinek said, Millennials are struggling at work because their parents “gave them medals for coming last.” I’m no Millennial, but most Gen Xers who spent their teens in the USA suffered just the same misguided brandishment: I once received a medal for sitting in the fourth chair (of eight) of the third clarinets in Regional Junior Varsity Band III. I still have it (buried in a box in storage, otherwise I’d have taken a picture). And wonder why I ever got it. Sinek observes that one of the many downsides to overtly disproportionate praise is that recipients actually feel worse, because deep down they know they didn’t deserve a medal.

I was relieved to hear someone explain it to me that way.

The push to become The Best builds arrogance, entitlement, and does society no favors at all.

The push to congratulate and praise everything we do is just as bad.

We all need encouragement to be the best we can be, and we need honest guides to show us how to travel that path: folk who say “Good job! Now let’s work on this…”

It’s funny that Rose Mallare and I just spoke about that in my podcast’s latest pilot episode.

Listen to it here:

4 distractions that spoil your concert experience

Dear #classicalmusic fan,

Another way we can renovate the classical music world is by helping others enhance their live music experience.

Encourage someone else to participate and engage with the music.

How? By listening and watching.

Like listening vs. hearing, there are differences between watching and looking.

Kittens master the art of watching vs. looking pretty early on.

When you look at something, you see it.

It may not register in your mind what it is or what it is doing, but you see it. Your instincts generally let you know whether you should run or engage. However, watching something, like listening, goes deeper.

Watching starts with seeing and looking and then incorporates observation and eventually meaning. Watch one player sharing their music. Look at their facial expressions (or lack thereof), look at their movements. Look at their fingers, hands, arms moving. You’ll have a great time! But that’s just looking. And you’ll probably start thinking about a meeting you had earlier in the day, or the aftertaste of the soup you had at dinner.

Looking is not helpful for engaging in the music.

Instead, as you look at that one player for a few moments, consider the whys and hows:

  • Why are they pulling that face?
  • Why do they sway like that?
  • Is it for show, or are they adding some sort of weight to the sound?
  • Or are they simply dancing because they’re enjoying themselves?!
  • How does moving their fingers in that way influence the music?

All this stuff is watching, and becomes part of your live music experience. You could close your eyes and dream of far off lands and journeys if you wish, but sometimes it’s nice to come back and watch how folk are sharing music with you.

Things to avoid looking at, and definitely not watch, include but are not limited to Noosance behavior:

  • people (performers and audiences) picking their nose,
  • yawning,
  • head-bopping (falling asleep but trying to keep their head up. You see it most often on trains and buses),
  • the conductor’s flapping tails or bouncing hair,

and so on.

These are distractions and do not support the communication of emotions. In fact, they take you away from the music and utterly spoil your concert experience.

But we live in a Society that reacts.

Images are given to us, and auditory experiences take too much effort. Therefore, we tend look at what’s moving the most rather than listen to the actual music.

Be different and listen more than you look.


Listening and watching are just part of what you can do to make the most of live classical music concerts.

There are basically five steps you can take to make sure you thoroughly enjoy the live music experience.

And I help you find and develop all five action steps in my training “How to Make the Most of Classical Music Concerts.”

Get your copy here:


How is a society’s quality of life actually reflected?

Dear #classicalmusic fan,

The advancement of technology in our world has been so rapid we still haven’t figured out how to incorporate it into living.

Not really.

For example, technology generally makes everything available to us instantly and in short snippets.

Combined with an entire generation telling the Western World we can have whatever we want whenever we want it, Society at large has created a monstrous environment in which people just want Cheap and Fast.

In other words, being Good (at something, i.e. Quality) doesn’t matter anymore.

In fact, such thinking has become so prevalent that a Common-Sensei such as Simon Sinek can make a fortune contradicting the Cheap/ Fast approach to life, even though it’s a VERY recent phenomenon! Check out his interview with Tom Bilyeu about Millennials. It’s all over Youtube.

What Cheap & Fast leads to is that most people in the First World now look at a classical music concert ticket and think “that’s too expensive.” There is no regard for anything else of value that ticket represents AND, in my experience, it matters not how much the ticket is: I’ve heard that exact phrase uttered at a $15 ticket for a full choir and orchestra concert.

How disappointingly remarkable.

However, the good news is that a lot of people actually DO value what live classical music gives us impatient, harried, medicated, genetically-modified food ingesting modern ‘advanced’ humans. Most of them crave Quality over both Cheap and Fast.

Good for them, I cheer!

A society’s quality of life can generally be reflected by its communication through high quality Arts.

Good quality music shared by a handful of expert performers is an incredible experience – no, it won’t be perfect (thankfully) – but the experience will blow any thoughts of expense and boredom out of the water.


Without fail.

There is a huge difference between the cost of live classical music, and the value it brings to each individual’s life.

Make sure you are on the right side of being a human being, and appreciate that the value of Quality far outweighs its cost.


We can learn about good quality from the past, incorporate it into our present, and then create something of value for the future.

For example, let’s take a look at a violin concerto.

Brahms wrote a good one.

Find out what’s good about it in my short (fast) and free (cheap) Rate N Slate episode:


You cannot fake Energy

Dear #classicalmusic fan,

I feel like getting on a soap box about this point.

(Said as though I haven’t been on one for the last few decades…)

No matter how you spin it, a recording can NEVER duplicate the live experience.

Marc Pachter said in his TED Talk that the people he selects for interviewing at the National Portrait Gallery are those with energy. You cannot fake energy, and it’s the same with music. There is energy in the room coming from the performers, the audience, the ushers, the crew, and the building itself, that cannot be transferred onto a physical device and pushed through speakers, however large or small. Technology certainly has its place and, like Sir Simon Rattle, I would definitely not be able to accomplish as much as a Conductor as I do without recordings.

But, like sheet music, recordings are reference material for the real thing.

They are not the real thing.

Another issue with recordings is that they train us to expect perfection: Recordings are, on the whole, manipulated by both microphone placement and post-editing.

When I was pioneering a Student Associate Conductor program with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in Manchester UK, I would often attend recording sessions with the intellectual conductor Sir Edward Downes (formerly Music Director of the Royal Opera House). Talk about a lesson learned! The orchestra would arrive and warm-up before Sir Edward would enter the hall. He’d jump onto the podium muttering “Good morning,” open a score and hold his hands up ready to begin. The orchestra would play for a few minutes. Then he would jump to the end of the piece and the orchestra would play for a few minutes. He would get them playing a couple of passages in the middle, maybe a minute or three at each spot. He would turn to the sound booth and wait. Someone in there would give a thumbs up and Sir Edward would turn back to the orchestra, make sure his score was on page one and hold his hands up. All over the studio little red lights would come on and the music began. All the way through, non-stop.

When they were done, the little red lights stayed lit. The first time I saw this I wondered why. A moment of silence. Sir Edward called out a bar number or rehearsal mark, and the orchestra played for a few seconds. Then another. And another. At which point he jumped off the podium, headed for the sound booth. The little red lights went out.

Nobody talked. Nobody played. Nobody moved.

Sir Edward scuffled out of the sound booth, back to the podium and again, called out a bar number. The little red lights came on and the orchestra played a for a minute. Sir Edward then looked at the sound booth, saw a thumbs up, said “Thank you!” and left the podium for the sound booth, where he sat in a big armchair in the middle of the room. The little red lights went out, and the Orchestra Manager stood next to the podium as some of the musicians left and others hung out for a few minutes to catch up on life, the universe and where they were going for lunch.

The one-hour session was over in about 25 minutes.

The sound booth, however, went into full swing and two weeks later released a master recording for publication, distribution, broadcast and posterity. That one track, though, had been through multiple listening sessions and adjustments such as “a little more oboe here, a little less double bass there,” and so on. There were sections spliced apart and put back together again. At one point, even the pitch of the solo trumpet was raised ever so slightly on just three notes, because they sounded a tad flat (I had to listen REAL HARD to notice it myself, but it was there.) (I was 21 years old!).

One decision made was to silence an early entry at one point (when a performer started playing before everyone else – only ever so slightly, but it was audible) whereas a decision was made to leave the unclean, untogether entry at a different point: “to give the recording a sense of humanness” was the reason.

In other words: “reality” was engineered.

Such recordings, now the norm, make us expect such “perfection” in the concert hall, and that will never happen, I’m afraid.

Some performers get real close (see my previous letter about technique vs. passion), but no-one is perfect, and therefore no music can be presented “perfectly” either.

Sorry – that was a lot of text to demonstrate that recordings are not real music.

They are edited transcripts of an emotional story.

When you read fiction, the story is in your mind – the words are only reference.

When you listen to a recording, the music is in your heart – the recording is only reference.

The only time and place you get to experience the energy of real music is in the live environment.

Hence why I constantly encourage you to go to a concert.

Another tool I recommend you use to support your participation in and enjoyment of music, is my new podcast. And, unlike most podcasts, you can actually participate in this one! (If you listen in during the recording sessions).

Sign up to get notified when each episode is published, and to find out when you can call in and share your thoughts on the Topic of the Day:


A reliable source of arguments

Dear #classicalmusic fan,

One of the most reliable sources of one-sided arguments in my household (meaning, I’m arguing with the air around me rather than my dear wife) is my daily dose of TED Talks.

I watch one every weekday morning while eating breakfast.

(You might actually feel grateful I write my daily letters to you before I watch a TED Talk, otherwise it’s possible you’d catch a glimpse of real-life Armchair Wrath!)

What are TED Talks?

Free videos of the world’s most prolific thinkers (or, at least those with the political clout to get a spot at 18-minutes of fame) sharing what they have discovered about life, the universe and everything. Many of them talk about issues directly and indirectly relevant to renovating classical music.

For example, Sir Ken Robinson’s talk.

If you are not aware, Sir Ken Robinson is an educator whose Ted Talk from 2004 is still the most frequently watched video. He talks about how the Education Establishment dehumanizes us by educating creativity out of us. Think about that as you attend a live classical music concert.

Then there are talks about music itself, the arts, education, creativity, leadership, sociology, psychology, technology, and so on. All these topics affect how we relate to classical music, so watching them will somehow enhance your experience and help renovate classical music concerts for you.

Indeed, they could be a great source of conversation topics, too.

TED Talks also parade a handful of prodigious children mechanically sharing their skills, as well as many other remarkable performances. A piano teacher even shares an inspiring story about his blind student Derek Paravicini and how music gave his autism focus… defo watch that one!

Most TED Talks give answers to questions many people have.

Some of them have even been a catalyst for my own answers to your live classical music questions.

Watch the five-episode video series “What’s the Matter with Classical Music?” to get answers to the most pressing questions fans of classical music have today:



What dress shall I wear tonight?

Dear #classicalmusic fan,

Don’t worry – I won’t be wearing a ballgown to any classical music concerts anytime soon.

Perhaps it would have been better to say ‘attire’ but… Yawn.

It is fun to dress up and go on a date. Even when it’s a classical music concert. Is it necessary? Nope. Is it expected? Depends who you’re talking to. The thing is, anyone can wear whatever they want when they attend a live classical music concert, just like they can when they attend a restaurant to eat something somebody else cooked.

Some venues, including nightclubs and hotels, often do have a dress code. Most do not. I don’t think I’ve ever been a concert hall that declares it has a dress code, or what their expectations of attire are. Yes, I have been in and attended many events with a specific theme that suggest a dress code, such as a Viennese ball, or a Mad Men Gala. But never have I seen a dress code on the poster or ticket of an orchestra’s presentation of Dvořák’s Symphony No.8 in G major, Op. 88.

The problem comes when we care about other people’s expectations…

At least, what we perceive their expectations to be.

If you want to dress up to go to a concert, then go right ahead and dress up. I love wearing colorful sports coats to concerts, sometimes with a tie and sometimes not. But I don’t expect anyone else to. I love wearing all black when I’m on stage, including the tie, but I don’t expect anyone else to (unless it’s the attire we all agreed to wear).

Go ahead and wear shorts and flip flops to see the Berlin Philharmonic!

As long as you don’t expect anyone else to.

And what if somebody says something about your “inappropriate” attire?

First, thank them for complimenting you (i.e. catch them off guard), then say how much you appreciate them recognizing the guts it took to wear what you find comfortable among a sea of suits and expectations, and finally share with them that you finally no longer have a need to sparkle in public because you are comfortable with yourself and content with your place in society. (Then walk away, quickly).

Is there any inappropriate attire at all, then? Yes.

What you should find inappropriate is when you interfere with other audience members’ ability to enjoy the concert. For example, an Ascot hat. Really? Take it off, dear. All you are doing is blocking fifteen people’s view of the audience, and attracting attention every time you move anything other than your eyeballs. It’s just rude. Perhaps the only other inappropriate attire for a live classical music concert might be wearing just your underwear. Or a bikini, but there are times even that is acceptable! (I’ve presented concerts on beaches, so…)

Wear what you want, expect to be the only one wearing it, expect others to sneer at you (that’s their problem, though), and don’t give a damn what anyone else is wearing – they dressed exactly how they wanted to, just like you did. THAT’S equality.

I’m not entirely sure how to transition from talking about dresses to helping you enjoy my compositions.

This is the last letter of my “composition week” so I should have prepared a real big bang of an ending, right?

Well, that didn’t happen.

Instead, here is a plain, simple link to some truly beautiful music (along with some uglier cousins, too):

What’s in a title?

Dear #ClassicalMusic Fan,

What’s in a title?


What are all those odd numbers and abbreviations you see on posters and in programs?

Sometimes it can get confusing looking at the title of a piece of classical music.

Old Sheet Music

Sometimes it’s easy to look at the title and think “Sounds great! I’d like to hear that piece.” For example, Short Ride in a Fast Machine by John Adams, or Sea Pictures by Edward Elgar. But tell someone the local library has a concert featuring Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004 for solo violin, and you’re more likely to go get ice cream instead.

Fear not, dear #classicalmusic fan.

Here’s a breakdown of the usual title formatting:

First, the composer’s last name. Bach.

Second, the form, genre or structure of the composition. In our case, a Partita (which basically means a suite, or collection of little pieces, for just one performer on one instrument).

Then if the composer has written other pieces like it, you’ll get which one this is. In our case, this is Bach’s second partita (for solo violin). Hence, No. 2.

Next comes the key of the piece. People write books and books about keys, but suffice it to say here that the key is another identifying feature of the music. We all respond differently to different keys, and some folk even think of colors when they hear music in particular keys. But most of the time, it’s just saying ‘this piece’ as opposed to ‘that piece’. Here’s what you might hear a couple of musicians saying to each other:

“Yeah, I’ve got to prepare a Bach piece, too.”

“Wochya gonna do?”

“Probably a Partita.”

“The E Major?”

“Nah, probably the D minor.”

“Sweet. Good luck with that one!”

Most of the time these long titles end with a publisher’s identifying catalogue number. In our case, Bach’s catalogue is abbreviated BWV, short for Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis. Ironically, this translates to “Bach Works Catalogue” and all Bach’s music is grouped together in themes rather than chronologically.

You’re probably more familiar with seeing “Op. 23” or something. Op. is short for Opus (which is latin for a physical “work” much like the Italian word Opera also means “work”), and usually composers’ catalogues that use Opus numbers do so in chronological order – the order in which the music was written. Or at least, published. (Did you know Dvořák wrote his symphonies 4, 5 and 6 after he wrote symphonies 7, 8 and 9? But they were numbered in the order they were published). Other times, music researchers memorialize themselves with their own cataloguing reference, such as Anthony van Hoboken who re-organized Haydn’s music. Instead of HWV or Op., you’ll now see a Hob. number.

Finally, there might be another number at the very end. This is usually when the piece of music contains multiple little pieces. They are not necessarily related movements, but just a bunch of little pieces the composer (or more accurately, the publisher) thought would be nice (i.e. cost-effective) to combine for your listening pleasure (or… marketing: more bang for your buck).

The title below should now look quite familiar. Can you translate its parts?

Rachmaninoff Prelude in G minor, Op. 23, No. 5, for solo piano.

When I write music, I like to keep my titles simple and, hopefully, memorable.

Check out the five titles in my CD Baby store…

You can download the tracks while you’re there: