What’s true about program notes?

Dear #classicalmusic fan,

There was a time when people only had access to information about classical music when they attended a concert and read the program notes.

In most of the world such programs are an extra expense for audiences, but in the USA they give you programs for free!

Such a practice comes at a price, though, and free programs tend to be full of the ads that paid to get the program printed and the program notes written.

You might be lucky, though, and find a really awesome essay about the music. Unfortunately, things went a little too far when performers started seeking only credentialed academics to write the program notes. They became in-depth analyses of both history and theory which, to a handful of classical music geeks like me, became a viable source of information. But even I got tired of program notes and just wanted the story behind the music:

The why, what, where, when, maybe a little how.

Another problem with program notes also applies to online sources of information: they actually cannot be relied on.

Just because someone writes an essay about a piece of music, and may even offer some references, does not mean it is accurate. In many cases, we will never know what is accurate especially if the composer didn’t write their own program notes. Even then, though, many academics twist their words and generate some quite remarkable fantasies!

There are also times when composers were not actually allowed to write anything but a specific story.

I’m thinking of Shostakovitch who wrote a remarkable amount of repertoire for the USSR. He kept his own private music very private until much later in life for fear of losing his head. As a result, much of his public writing conforms to dictatorial pandering rather than true meaning. We must ask ourselves “what could be true and what isn’t?” of even many composers’ reflections on their own music.

Suffice it to say that, like with most things these days, get your little snippets of information from here and there, online and in program notes, but take it all with a pinch of salt.

You are gathering just a handful of perspectives, some of which may corroborate and some which may not.

The important thing is: experience the music and let it talk to your inner self, your emotions.

Yes, use your imagination to tell yourself a story; yes, use the information you have about the composition to understand how it was put together, and yes, use the history of the piece and the composer and the world at the time to influence the emotions you believe were intended.


music is alive.

Program notes, Wikipedia and every other source on the planet exist as support material. In fact, you will never be able to read or write enough words about music.

The truth is, words will never replace the actual live experience, and they will never be able to reveal the true truth about music.

They can’t.

That’s actually why music is.


Something else that’s unreliable yet we absorb without question, is others’ response to live music.

For example, these days there seem to be more and more standing ovations at almost every concert, regardless of the quality of the performance or whether or not the music actually touched our hearts.

It’s a bit of a recent pandemic, and one I’m not fully understanding (although appreciate it when it happens!)

So this is a topic I’d like to explore with you on the next episode of my new podcast, From The Podium. If you’d like to chime with your own thoughts the podcast is being recorded live this Saturday morning at 8am Eastern… and you can call in to share your thoughts on the Podium Chat.

Sign up now to get notified about it and I’ll tell you how to listen live, wherever you are in the world:



Getting stuck in the instructions

Dear #classicalmusic fan,

There are two ways to share music with others.

One way is to replicate what the creator (a.k.a. Composer) intended as closely as possible, and the other way is to convey the ‘thing’ the creator was suggesting.

That ‘thing’ could be an emotion, feeling, message, or any number of other inexpressible-with-words… things.

People who share music with others just by playing or singing it and getting the listeners to play or sing it back have generally been lumped into a box labelled “folk” music. Actually, most contemporary pop songs are like that: memorable tunes with some chords identified but little else to go on. As long as performers recreate that tune, it is the same piece of music. Different styles, different moods, different meanings, different instruments in different venues all mean the music itself is different, but it is still the same “piece of music” by the same creator.

Jazz musicians are also renowned for sharing music without notation, just loose guidelines.

What I find interesting is that most classically-trained performers are not usually taught to share that inexpressible thing.

Their teachers insist that performers play the notes on the page exactly as written.

They get stuck in the instructions, and never find the actual music.

Of course, even when composers like Gustav Mahler write incredibly detailed instructions, there is still room for interpretation or slight differences from one player to the next. All that means is, there is less of the performer’s music and more of the creator’s, but the notation should still be considered as reference or detailed guidelines.

It is a mistake to think that notation and sheet music is all there is to recreating music. There is so much more to music than just the notes on the page! Again, hence my catchphrase for the past twenty years: “There’s more to music than music.”

These days there are a multitude of notation formats, including free-style drawings. It all stems from a rather experimental stage in Music Education which encouraged everyone to be a composer.

After the writing of 4’33” by John Cage, anything is possible, I guess.

But here’s an instruction that is easy to follow, and generates a great deal of that inexpressible thing:

Sign up to get notified when my new podcast episodes are published!

You will experience that inexpressible thing when you listen to the program, and even more so if you listen live on Saturday at 8am Eastern and call in (from the USA) to share your thoughts on the Topic of the Day!

Go ahead…

Don’t get stuck in this simple instruction… find the music within From The Podium!



Be the butterfly

Dear #classicalmusic fan,

My recent letter Continuing the Conversation seemed to inspire a different kind of action, and prompted a lot of readers to let me know what they thought about it.

And the most common feedback was not quite what I was expecting.

It seems plenty more conversations about classical music took place, but what surprised me a little was the encouragement I received about these here daily lessons:

You like them.

Well, that’s good!

My efforts to encourage you to share your passion for classical music are not in vain!

Seriously, the encouragement I received through emails and conversations was wonderful, and inspired me to keep going. But there was one thing that bothered me a little bit…

Readers of my letters acknowledge that they have a passion for classical music.

They acknowledge that, at times, it gets pushed aside in favor of other life priorities.

They acknowledge that they wish there was more of it – both traditional and [tasteful] new.

But only a handful of our fandom seem to acknowledge that it is our own responsibility to share it with others – that we should not just be consumers, but sharers, too.

It seems we are a little nervous about talking to non-fans of classical music (I know I was for many years). We’re frightened that we don’t know what to say to them, or how they might respond. We are passionate about the details we do know and find it easier to talk to others who already understand us and our language (nothing wrong with that – it’s why it’s called a ‘comfort zone’). We pre-determine that a non-fan is not interested in our passion.

And those are problems.

But they are all smoke-screens that are actually very easily dissipated.

Think on this:

By keeping the conversation only deep and detailed with other fans of classical music, we simply cater to each other and end up performing for each other. And that one day when you can’t participate in a concert because of a prior commitment, there is no-one else to take your seat. Concert halls and stages become emptier. Cries of “classical music is dying” resurge.

Maintaining a balance of conversations with fans and practitioners like yourself alongside conversations with non-fans is what brings classical music to life. That day you cannot participate in some local live music adventure? It’s okay because someone you spoke to [read: encouraged to sign up for my daily letters!] has their interest in classical music reinvigorated and now they are intrigued, if not refocused on one of the most fundamental forms of emotional communication. And they may participate in your stead.

Well done you!

So, thanks go to all our fellow fans of classical music who let me know how much these daily lesson letters mean to them, and bravo to those that jumped in with both feet and continued the conversation (be sure to repeat the exercise today).

Be brave.

Classical music is not a disease people shy away from.

Most people don’t know much about it, and like us and phantasmagoria or long-range spinors (perhaps!), it’s only a fear of embarrassment that keeps us from engaging in a conversation. Those openly generic and inviting conversations, even just a mention of a topic like… classical music… can cause the butterfly’s wings to flap sufficiently to boost a storm of passionate interest and follow-up. Maybe even a new participant (audience member or performer).

All because you continued the conversation.

(There is no accounting for Chaos Theory except just one truth: do nothing, and something else will take over.)

If you need something more than just today’s topic, or perhaps the folk you talk to already have questions about classical music, then a great place to start would be the questions I answered from my survey this year.

I created five videos called “What’s the Matter with Classical Music?” that include thought-provoking questions and answers you can use to bring good music to life, too.

Get your copy today:



Continuing the conversation…

Dear #classicalmusic fan,

During a recent rehearsal break, Kim came up to me and mentioned how much she liked and appreciated my new daily letters.

It’s nice to get at least a little connection to classical music every day, she implied.

I expressed my gladness that they are helpful, and made a suggestion:

Why not hit reply and let me know?

Especially when a particular letter hits a chord!

Her response was quite fascinating.

Now, I realize that many readers have no problem sending me replies containing thoughts, responses, related materials, and even just random thoughts, and I really appreciate them – I do read every reply you send even if it’s not straight away, and unfortunately I don’t get to reply to them all. But occasionally some of them become topics for these letters!

But I had assumed that readers (and there are hundreds, still. I thought by moving to a daily schedule I’d see a whole bunch of readers unsubscribe, but since writing to you every weekday, only five readers have unsubscribed. That’s quite fascinating, too!) …I assumed that readers who did not reply were not particularly interested, not impacted, just skimmed each letter, or for some other reason found my letters uninspiring.

Ah! A dagger to my heart!

(Only kidding).

But my conversation with Kim highlighted something:

As a society, we tend to consume. We are consumers, after all. That is Capitalism’s foundation: someone presents something for others to consume.

But that’s not what I’m about, I’m afraid.

Capitalism? Oh heck yes. Love its intention (as with all social structures, humans get in the way and mess things up, but generally many social theories could work quite well if we all actually understood and followed them without creating exceptions. Like that’ll ever happen.)

What I’m about is bringing good music to life.

There are two aspects to this:

  1. Taking some music and making it come alive with a passionate performance. That means helping performers and audiences engage in the music itself, give meaning to the notes on the page, and use what we have to convey an unspoken emotion to others.
  2. Taking some music and bringing it into everyday life. That means making music a part of people’s lives through all sorts of means, but mostly conversation.

And that second part is what these letters do.


They start a conversation.

Right now, think of someone you will meet in person today. You may live or work with them, or it may be a regular supermarket cashier or the person who delivers your mail. Then think of today’s letter headline: continuing the conversation.


When you meet that person today, use this letter’s topic to continue a conversation about classical music.

Something like:

“You know, I had a letter from a friend today and it reminded me how much I enjoy classical music, but then I realized that not many people talk about it anymore.”

Then ask a question to continue the conversation. Something like:

  • Do you know much about it?
  • Did you ever play an instrument or sing in school?
  • Have you ever been to a classical music concert?

And so on.

It doesn’t matter if they just say “No.” Perhaps it’s best to get on with your day. But maybe not… a smile and a suggestion that they might try it out for themselves might be enough to get them thinking.

Or, you may end up having a really deep and heartening talk about music in schools, how their kid used to practice 10 hours a day, or that they love Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto.

You’ll never know unless you continue today’s conversation…

So, hit reply to this letter and tell me who you are going to talk to today about classical music: A friend, relative, colleague, neighbor, stranger, someone you’ve said hello to but little else.

Then send me another email after you’ve spoken to them and let me know how the conversation went. They may agree with you, not agree with you, be fascinated, or not care in the slightest. And that’s OK. You brought live classical music into their life.

(And if they eventually attend one of my concerts, you know it’ll be good music we’re bringing to life!)

But guess what…

You can do that every time I send a letter to you.

Five days a week.

They are ALL designed to be conversation starters – topics to talk about.

Share your passion for live classical music:

  1. Reply to my letter and tell me what thoughts came to mind,
  2. Continue the conversation with someone else during the day,
  3. Let me know what they said.

When I suggested that Kim hit reply to today’s letter, her fascinating response was along the lines of “Huh. I hadn’t thought of doing that.” Which tells me you might need some encouragement to continue the conversation, too.

If you need something more than just the topic of the day, or perhaps the folk you talk to already have questions about classical music, then a great place to start would be the questions I answered from my survey this year.

I created five videos called “What’s the Matter with Classical Music?” that include thought-provoking questions and answers you can use to bring good music to life, too.

Get your copy today:



Would you like to go for a drink?

Dear #classicalmusic fan,

My letter to you today promotes drinking.

Have I lost my mind?


Alcohol will do that, not classical music.

So why am I bringing up drinking as a lesson to help you accomplish far more in life that you ever thought you could?

A couple of reasons:


Get in the right mood

For fun, think about how certain drinks might accompany certain concerts. Like wine pairing with food, a smooth red might go nicely with some Verdi, or a sherry could accompany Elgar. Maybe Reich goes well with cold Sprite (Lemonade in the UK), or a fancy sangria for Piazzolla. If you’re not allowed to bring your drink into the concert hall, make sure you allow plenty of extra time to get in the right mood with an appropriate drink. Or go out afterwards and celebrate with something appropriate (a light lager for Rossini, but a Guinness for Walton!)


Share thoughts and responses

People often say, both before and after concerts “Want to go for a drink?” Say yes. This is your opportunity to influence someone else, AND you can talk about the concert/ music/ composer/ performers, etc. I can’t stand it when folk shy away because either they have to drive, or they don’t drink alcohol.

Did you know coca-cola may officially be classified as a drink?

It shouldn’t matter what beverage you partake in (mine is still water, a little ice, with a slice of lime, please), going for a ‘drink’ is more the social activity than it is actually having an alcoholic beverage. Don’t let them drinkers hijack the chance to share thoughts and responses to a live classical music concert!

And there you have it –

Drinking before, during and after concerts does not necessarily mean consuming alcohol, but it does give you and the person you took to a concert an opportunity to talk about the music, and perhaps even talk with others about the music, too. I have gained some wonderful friendships from chatting to strangers over post-concert drinks.

Interestingly, there are lots of songs about drinking.

Especially in Country Music.

But perhaps the longest-surviving song about drinking is Brindisi from La Traviata by Puccini.

Look it up – I’m sure you’ll recognize it.

So far, I don’t think any of my own compositions are about drinking.

Or even influenced by alcohol.

But you would have to be the judge of that…

In my sheet music shop, you can read little stories about the music I’ve written, it’s influence, it’s structure, and even listen to it.

Not all my pieces are available just yet, but there’s a fair selection you can browse through:


Please leave the candy at home

Dear #Classicalmusic Fan,

Please leave the candy at home.


There are people who still take sugar candy to #classicalmusic concerts and unwrap it in the middle of a piece of music.

They do so slowly and drag out the excruciating process because they think it’s quieter. And they think only a few people can hear them unwrapping.

Believe me, sweet wrappers are like the triangle – it doesn’t matter how much noise is going on, it’ll still be heard by everyone in the concert venue. Please don’t bother trying to prove me wrong – you won’t be able to and you’ll just annoy a bunch of performers and audience members during your experiment.


Another thing about annoying audience members (I’m going to call them Noosances) is when they shush you.

There are times it is good to stay quiet.

There are also times it is totally okay to cheer, whistle, clap and get on your feet, too.

Even during the music.

In fact, whether a solo player does a fabulous job or there is a really rousing end to the movement or piece, the only way the performers know they did a decent job is if you clap. If it was FABULOUS then get up and cheer, too!

You may notice, sometimes, ensemble players scrape their feet on the floor during the music – that is their own way of letting a performer know they did well. Often happens after individual solos. For some reason, oboe players particularly like it.

Clapping Not Permitted.

But what about all this nonsense about ‘to clap or not to clap’ and those Noosances that tell you to be quiet? It is nonsense. I’m going to let you in on a secret:

All this silence between the movements of a piece is a relatively new phenomenon, and not at all what the original composers were expecting (of classical music written before 1940, at least.)

Indeed, this is the story: In the 1930s the conductor Toscanini would present concerts live on the radio throughout the USA. Everyone knew how long the music lasted, so the radio program was designed to last that long and then they could add commercials and whatever else to help pay for broadcast. Unfortunately, the programs kept running late and over time. Toscanini swore (in Italian, probably) that he was not conducting the music slower, and then someone realized… it was the clapping between movements that added extra time!

That was normal, by the way.

Beethoven’s concerts would last three or four hours with lots of music, and even the movements of his symphonies were divided up with other music being played in between! All the while, the audience were mingling, sitting, drinking and eating, and there was generally some chatting, too. Kind of like a regular non-classical concert these days, actually.

Well, the radio station had to ask audiences to not clap between movements of a concerto or symphony and a new ‘tradition’ was born. Academics then decided to add a further layer of snobbery by stating things like “clapping between movements ruins the flow of the whole piece” and other such “considerations.”

As Rubeus Hagrid said, “Codswallop.”

When you next attend one of my own concerts, feel free to go ahead and let the performers know exactly what you think of their efforts.

Have you heard the one about the audience throwing chairs around during the World Premiere of a piece by Stravinsky?

Look that story up, if not.

Hardly a silent audience indeed.

Nails on a Chalkboard

Anyway, the bottom line of Audience Etiquette is… follow the lead of the conductor, leader of the ensemble, solo performer, and then the audience around you. If you see them moving slowly, calmly and quietly, it’s probably best not to clap. If they are smiling, laughing, happy, energetic, swooping, go right ahead and join in their fun! If you feel out of place clapping (even when everyone else is), then don’t clap.

If you don’t care and can’t restrain your enthusiasm, then go ahead and let the world know how happy you are. Nothing wrong with that.

And if a Noosance tells you to be quiet with a giant shhh (which, by the way, is to a performer like nails on a chalkboard), ask them proudly (while still clapping) “You seriously didn’t think that was AWESOME?! Come on, dude! Get real!”

You’ll be giving classical music its long overdue renovation, for sure.

No hall passes for tardiness

Oh, one last thing about the Audience Etiquette point: Don’t arrive late.


Not at the start of a concert, and certainly not after the intermission.

André Rieu was onstage in New Jersey waiting to start his performance while audience members were still arriving. He asked them what the problem was and someone said “Traffic.” He replied “What, you think we don’t have traffic in Denmark? Yet we can get places on time.”

Fair point.

Just don’t be late to your seat.


Interruption-free #classicalmusic

Fortunately, when listening to the radio, you won’t be interrupting any other audience members or the performers while doing another activity (unless you call in and be really annoying, but that takes effort. It’s more fun to just call in and join in the conversation…)

And there’s a great new way to present classical music on the radio in the USA.

You’ll find out what that is on Saturday, November 4 at 8am Eastern Time – either on the airwaves, online, or via Facebook Live.

But only if we have sufficient funds…

Just $100 or even $20 will help.

Please donate today, and encourage other fans of classical music to send their support, too.

Donate online here:


It’s fully tax deductible in the USA!


Kipling was right about one thing…

Dear #ClassicalMusic Fan,

It seems I am attending ever more networking events for the Arts, and I’m not sure they are all totally necessary.

Or appropriate.

But something struck me recently I need help with…

Usually the gatherings I select to attend are by invitation only and consist of both philanthropists (people with money to spread throughout the community) and non-profit practitioners (people with ideas to make life better for others throughout the community).

The purpose of such events is to allow these people to talk to each other.

Except they actually never do.

I am usually a very observant chap (which gets really annoying for my wife: “Golly! Did you see that?”), and at one such networking event we both attended recently, we walked away saying “Golly! Did you notice that we only spoke to other musicians and non-profit folk?”

Upon further examination of the social interaction between the attendees, we both observed that most of the potential funders we were introduced to were very polite, very head-boppingly interested in what we Creatives do, but then laughed and congregated with their own kind… the other philanthropists.

Several times while I was trying to build relationships [!] by finding out what they were doing there (What Artforms they like and what kind of impact in the world they enjoy making), we were joined by another performer or worthy cause representative, and within minutes the funder had moved on to one of their own kind and I was left re-sharing my life story and classical music’s needs with someone who could already commiserate but do nothing about it.

Why is that?

How come the funders talk to other funders, and the seekers to other seekers?

Will such twains ever meet and actually connect?*

What can we do about it?

Perhaps we seekers come across as ‘needy’ – something that Ben Settle rails against.

Perhaps it’s just that we are speaking through different color megaphones and listening (or not) through different color earphones. (Anyone who has read Emerson Eggerichs’ Love and Respect materials knows what I’m talking about).

And here we are back to listening, again.

Something you might enjoy listening to right now is the collection of animals parading through the streets during Mardi Gras, as depicted musically by Camille Saint-Saens.

Really – it’s quite ingenious how music can describe the nature and characters of animals!

It’s the latest piece featured in my Classical Rate N Slate podcast published earlier this week.

Listen to it now – it’s only 2 minutes…

Less time that it took you to read this letter!



*Rudyard Kipling wrote “Never the twain shall meet” in his poem The Ballad of East and West. Hence this letter’s title.