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Classical music for beginners

Even though Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music offers 1,500 free concerts in a given year, a surprising number of beginners to classical music, students especially, are still intimidated by classical music and how they can begin to appreciate it.

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Photo by: Chris Meyer

When you don't know much about classical music, it's a good idea to research the instrument and pieces that will be played at the performance before attending the concert.

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Connie Glen, lecturer and coordinator of the music in general studies program at the IU Jacobs School of Music, said students are not always aware of the opportunities they have to experience classical music at IU.

"Once you get into the concert, you're sold," she said. "The intimidation is only of unknowing."

The Jacobs School of Music offers several concerts daily throughout April. Glen's first piece of advice to beginners is to choose a concert that seems interesting and to research the genre or the instrument to be played before attending the performance.

"Don't put yourself in a situation beforehand," she said. "If you don't like trombones, don't go to a trombone solo."

Murphy suggests first attending a matinee because evening concerts can seem more formal. Don't worry about what to wear to an IU concert either—jeans are appropriate attire. Even IU opera performances are less intimidating now. All IU opera performances provide the English version of the lyrics above the stage so that the audience can understand the plot.

Jazz concerts often help energize students who have little musical experience, Glen said. The Jacobs School of Music typically offers jazz concerts Monday nights, band concerts Tuesday nights and orchestra concerts Wednesday nights. Glen also suggests that concert goers arrive a few minutes before the show begins so that they can adapt to new surroundings and become comfortable before the concert. Arriving late can disturb not only the audience but also the performer.

Otis Murphy, a saxophonist and Jacobs School of Music assistant professor, said making classical music starts with the performer. Creating an inviting atmosphere for every audience is his responsibility.

"As performers, we control the formality of an event," he continued.

Murphy, who rarely wears a tuxedo to perform, said he tries to explain to the audience a story that coincides with a particular piece of music. He said the audience's time is valuable and that classical music competes not only with individuals' busy lives, but also with TV shows such as "American Idol," so he makes a point of thanking audiences for their time.

Murphy said that he often begins a concert with a short, catchy piece to attract the audience's attention before diving into more complex, darker pieces further into the concert. Murphy said that performers must read the audience's desires and deliver what they will enjoy, along with what the performer wants to communicate to them. After a performance, the audience should feel like it knows something about the performer.

"I don't think we have to be trained to connect with music," Murphy said.

After every performance, Murphy said he is exhausted due to his efforts to connect with the audience on a personal level.

"I think of it as a brand new friendship," he said.

Robert Hatten, professor of music theory at the Jacobs School of Music, said that IU students can build their appetites for music throughout their years at IU by attending a few events each year that they have not seen or heard before. Recognizing good music takes practice.

"It's like going to an art museum," Hatten said. "If you look at a thousand paintings, somehow you've trained your eye to know which ones are better. The same is true with music."

Both Murphy and Glen agree that IUB offers a venue in which students and the public can enjoy classical music in a more casual setting. Glen recommends that non-music majors interested in exploring classical music take her courses: "Z101 Music for the Listener" and "Z100 The Live Performance."