Strong Beat and Driving Rhythm Found in Top Classical Pieces

2011 Symposium2

The popularity of classical music is of interest to those who teach music, and to those who run symphony orchestras. One of the things that attracts audiences to concert halls is favorite repertoire being on the program. Contemporary composers of classical music have at times been at odds with audiences, because their music was not what people wanted to hear. Much has been written about the lack of appeal that atonal and aleatoric music has to audiences, but knowing what audiences do like and want to hear is important if orchestras are going to attract and audience outside the tried, true and aging faithful. A list of the top 100 classical music pieces found on kickassclassical provides some interesting food for thought. Let’s look at what is there.Top Ten Classical Pieces

While there are really no surprises on the list, what I find particularly interesting are the keywords associated with each piece. I counted the number of times each keyword shows up in the top 25 pieces; here is what I found. Four pieces or 16% (rank 3, 6, 15, 19) are matched with key words that are or suggestive of life events. Ten of them, or 40% (rank 1, 2, 4, 8, 9, 11, 14, 16, 22, & 23) are matched with key words that are or suggestive of emotions, and half of them are in the top ten. Five, or 20% pieces are associated with the word cartoon. This is born out in my classes. Students will invariably get the most excited and motivated to listen when they hear classical music that they recognize from or that sounds like music they have heard in cartoons.

Another interesting finding from this list is that all of the top five and 8 of the top ten have prominent rhythm in the themes. This produces an overall more driving, active kind of music, and it also results in a more explicit beat. This last point I believe is key. Young people in particular enjoy the heavy rhythm and beat emphasis of popular music. I have observed in my classes that the more rhythm and beat are prominent in a classical work, the more likely it is that they will enjoy that piece. Though not on the list, it is worth mentioning that among contemporary composers, the minimalists, including John Adams and Philip Glass, have been among the most popular, and that minimalist music is much more rhythmic than other styles.

It is also noteworthy that 15 of the top 25 pieces were written in the 19th century, and that the two most popular composers on the list are Beethoven (3) and Tchaikovsky (2). If my students are any indication, it appears likely that Beethoven’s popularity is driven in large part by two works, one of which (surprisingly) did not make the list: the fifth symphony, and Fur Elise. Tchaikovsky gets heavy promotion in the United States every American Independence Day (when the 1812 overture is common fare) and every Christmas season with the innumerable productions of The Nutcracker. 

In general, I could conclude that pieces that have been worked into popular culture are also the most popular in the symphonic concert hall. Between weddings, holiday celebrations and films, many of the pieces on this list are familiar to a large population of people who have rarely or never been to a symphony orchestra concert. That familiarity breeds popularity is a well worn adage in the popular music industry, which relies on heavily promoted concerts and frequent plays on radio stations to popularize its product, and it was well understood by Richard Rodgers, who once explained that he could pick a song from a show and make it popular by placing it in the overture, in the first act, in the n’tract, and reprised in the second act. By the tie the audience left, they had heard the song four times and were humming it on their way home.

Singablility may well be another hallmark of more popular classical pieces. The bottom half of the list also includes many pieces made well known by use in popular media, but many of these have less lyric melodies. These works include Grieg’s Piano Concerto (used in Adrian Lyne’s 1997 film Lolita), Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem (used in a recent DirectTV commercial), Overture to The Magic Flute, “Mars The Bringer of War” from Holst’s The Planets (used often in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and referenced in the opening bars of (Imperial March” from Star Wars), and even “March” from  The Nutcracker, which comes in at only number 75. In conclusion, it may be that the most popular classical pieces strongly appeal to at least one emotion, are already popular to audiences through popular media, and are comprised largely of memorable and singable melodies.

Musical Contrasts: The Changes People Actually Like

2011 Symposium2

We often hear that people don’t like change. This is especially true of the very young and the very old. The young need the security of routine and unchanging surroundings, and the old fear they will be unable to cope with change. In the context of life changes, I’m convinced that this is true. Change throws many people out of their comfort zone, and so they are unwilling to accept change.

It is also true that we are made to be attracted to a different kind of change than the one I just described–the life changes. Our senses are wired to notice change while ignoring things that stay the same. We may stare out the window with a general awareness of what we are looking at, but the minute a bird flies out of a tree, all of our attention rushes there, where the change in the picture we’re looking at is changing. The same is true of our other senses. We barely notice the many scents that surround us at work or at home, but the instant a new scent is perceived, we immediately divert our attention there. These are good sensibilities because they enable us to pick up quickly on potentially threatening or dangerous things that anticipateenter into our environment. They are also the sensibilities that make music so enjoyable, fun, exciting, and at times even thrilling.

The piece de resistance of a classical music work is the contrast. All of the things that a composer writes into the music and a performer executes to make the music expressive, interesting, and exciting are devices of contrast. Crescendos and decrescendos, accents, staccato, legato, and slurred notes, even tempo, all set up moments of pleasant drama and expression. The great Pablo Casals was famous for insisting on frequent use of diminuendos to set up expressive gestures. Accents, crescendos, and any note that was to be given added importance had to be preceded by a note that was to be given subtracted importance. Diminuendos preceded accents so that the accent would have all the more impact.

4 T


One of the most famous contrasts in symphonic literature is the moment in Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony when the clarinetist is approaching the end of the beautiful solo melody already heard and familiar to audiences. Just as the last note is reached at pianissississimo, the whole orchestra comes crashing in with an accented chord followed by a faster, more aggressive section.

In the great concertos, contrasts are even more pronounced. There is a traditional tension, even battle at times between orchestra and soloist as they trade volleys of powerful and pristine motifs alike. Here, Brahms masterfully builds drama, contrasts it with beauty, and then builds the drama again as piano and orchestra re-engage in musical battle.

Mozart used contrasts extensively in his works, none less than in symphony no. 40

W. A. Mozart

W. A. Mozart

in G minor. Every few seconds, there is change. Change in dynamics, change in articulation, change in timbre, and sometimes, depending on the conductor, change in tempo. The contrasts underscore the expressiveness of the music, and turn the symmetry and balance of the classical style into a passion-filled musical journey.

When it comes to music we not only are wired to embrace change, we routinely enjoy it, crave it, and are highly disappointed if we don’t find it in the classical music to which we listen. Without all of those contrasts and changes, music, even those great works written by the likes of Beethoven, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky, would not be so great, and honestly would be outright boring. We need contrasts to make music expressive, and we need music to be expressive if it is to have value and meaning. The whole point of music is for it to be interpreted to convey expressive intents of composers and performers alike. You may want to resist other changes in your life, but I’m quite sure you are happy to encounter change in your classical music.

My Lifelong Love of Music: I Wonder Where It Started

2011 Symposium2

Amid the frequent pronouncements of doom over classical music, and the unenthusiastic attitude of many of my general music students toward it, I sometimes ask myself what drew me to classical music. I never became a great musician, yet my love for music has always been great. That’s important because when a child is raised in a music rich environment, he can become a life-long music lover, even if he never plays at Boston’s Symphony Hall, or New York’s Carnegie all or….(you fill in your prestigious concert hall). Here’s how I became the music lover and the musician/teacher I am today.

My parents told me that I enjoyed music from a very early age, but many children do. My earliest memories are discovering the two classical recordings had in their record collection, and delighting in playing them on their phonograph. At some point, I also discovered Leonard Bernstein’s Young Peoples Concerts on television. The whole family waited for them to end before we could have dinner on those precious afternoons when they were broadcast. I soon began imagining that I was the conductor of a symphony orchestra.

At that time, the Hartford (CT) Symphony Orchestra periodically broadcast a concert

Arthur Winograd Conducting the Hartford Symphony Orchestra

Arthur Winograd Conducting the Hartford Symphony Orchestra

on television. The broadcast had a theme song, it was “Getting To Know You” from the musical “The King and I.” I soon began starting my classical music listening sessions by playing “Getting To Know You,” and then switching over to one of the classical records. I would stand in front of the phonograph conducting the music, dreaming of becoming the next Leonard Bernstein or Arthur Winograd (former cellist of the Julliard Quartet, and then conductor of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra.)

As I grew into my teens, I got to go to Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony, to see that great orchestra play. My mother took me, and we had memorable days together enjoying the music and the cool Massachusetts Berkshire air that is so refreshing and welcome compared to the hotter more humid air we so often left behind in Connecticut. When I got my driver’s license, I subscribed to the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, and drove myself to Symphony Hall in Springfield to hear orchestra concerts. It never occurred to me to object to going alone. I just couldn’t wait until the next concert.
By this time, my clarinet playing (I had started when I was ten years old) had progressed so that I was active in regional festivals, musical theater pits, and the school concert and jazz bands. The more I played, the more exciting life got. I began conducting while still in high school, and was able to conduct a composition I wrote for band. A classmate in music theory class got me interested in composing, and though I never formally studied music composition, I have dappled in it ever since, having several works performed over the years.

I entered college as a music education major so that I would be assured of making a living in music. There were frequent delights in a music conservatory–chamber music ensembles, wind ensembles, an opera orchestra, solo playing with piano–these were more varied and more fun than ever. Four years at a music conservatory were filled with music, though a few performances still stand out in my memory. Playing clarinet and bass clarinet for Pierrot Lunaire, playing on WGBH radio’s “Morning Pro Musica” with Robert J. Lurtsema and singing in a performance of Walton’s “Belshazzar’s Feast” were among the standouts.

And then there was a concert I attended given by the Hartford Symphony. Philip

Philipe Entremont

Philipe Entremont

Entremont played the Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto. I was fascinated. How could a piano concerto start with just the piano? How could the work begin without the orchestra playing the exposition? Yet there it was, only the pianist playing those four repeated chords, and then another four, and then the end of the first phrase. How curious that so much expression could be found in repeated chords, yet it was expressive. By the time the orchestra came in I was both annoyed and relieved. Annoyed that the spell had been broken, and relieved that Beethoven hadn’t left the orchestra out of the first movement! With all the classical music I had heard, I still had the thrill and excitement of being in wonder. That was it. The old music always sounded fresh and was capable of inspiring my inner being.

Harold Wright

Harold Wright

At some point, it was no longer works that were new to me that brought out that wonder, but new interpretations of familiar ones. Lorin Maazel conducting Tchaikovsky’s Fifth symphony with the bell tones of the brass brought to the fore. Copland’s Clarinet Concerto played as I never knew a clarinet could be played, sublime, by Harold Wright. Leonard Bernstein Conducting Tchaikovsky’s Fifth and a few years later, Brahms first symphony. I met Mr. Bernstein after that concert, and it is to this day among the most precious two minutes of my life.

The delights, both remembered and ongoing, are seemingly endless. They started somewhere in my childhood, and snowballed into a life-long delight. How it all started, I am still not sure, but I do know this: I have always surrounded myself and been surrounded by music. I found pleasure and fulfillment in it that others did not. For the past 30 years it has been my privilege to teach young people music, and for some, to move other life-long love affairs with music along. Whether it is the turning of a phrase in the ear, or a lovely body in motion to the music, or the images of a video helping my imagination take flight along with the music, it is a joy that for me has never been matched. Musicians, fill the lives of others with your music, your art. It is an ennobling and necessary part of human life.

By the way, the two recordings were Gaite Parisienne by Offenbach, performed by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, and Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto.

Reflections On Attending A Live Performance With Students

2011Symposium_1_2As I write today’s post, I have just returned from a trip to the New Haven Ballet’s production of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. This is a trip I have been taking with my fifth graders for several years now. Some look forward to the trip, some are skeptical about seeing ballet, and a few are sure they don’t want to go but do because I talk them into it. Without exception, the skeptics and objectors are changed boys and girls. Their eyes are now lit up, they are smiling, excited, and can’t stop talking about how awesome the show was. I’ll discuss some of the things about the performance my students enjoyed, but first I want to make the point that this transformation in their attitudes, and this unconditional enjoyment that they find in attending The Nutcracker is a testament to the power of live music and theater. As much as each student enjoys recorded music, they literally don’t know what they’re missing until they attend a live performance. The idea of ballet, including what they have learned about it, is replaced with the emotion born of sight and sound; the music, dancers, costumes, scenery, and the energy of an audience of their peers is so much more than what they expected.

The performance we attend is a special student performance, edited down to a ninety-minute presentation, mostly by omitting the first act, the party scene, and then including a behind the scenes look at the stagecraft of a professional ballet production between acts two and three, where an intermission would normally go. During that time, the children were given the opportunity to ask questions. “How does the snow fall?” “How does the curtain go up and down?” “How long did the dancers have to practice?” What is the snow made of?” These are the questions children asked. They all have to do with the parts of the ballet that they could not see or even imagine from listening to the music ahead of time, or learning the story of Clara and her adventure with the nutcracker turned into her prince.

Then there is the music, which nearly every child has heard at some point. Many have been well-prepared by theirThe Nutcracker music teachers before attending, so that at least the tableaux pieces are familiar. Many have also heard some of the themes in television commercials for Lexus and jewelry. There is a delight  in them as they sit there watching the ballet and taking it all in at the moment they recognize the next musical piece. Smiles, eyes opened wider, and perhaps a whispered “I know that music.” There it is, the Russian Dance or Snowflake music that they had heard before, but that now has a magical, illustrious sparkle amid bright costumes, expert dancers, and even falling snow.

During this interval, the students were also shown how the dancers do some of the moves and steps they had been watching. The Snow Queen and her partner showed how they did pirouettes and jumps, how she danced on point, and how he supported her during a spin. Because we were seated in the first rows of the theater, my boys were able to appreciate how much strength it takes to be a male ballet dancer, lifting the girl over his head and often holding her while carrying her across the stage. They understood by being up close to those dancers that men who dance ballet are strong and athletic.

Next year at about this time, if things go the way they usually do, I’ll have some students, mostly from those who initially did not want to attend The Nutcracker, ask me if they can go again. Every year I have sixth and seventh graders who want to go. This experience is worth doing for precisely this reason. Attending live music and theater is not only fun and emotionally rewarding, it is the stuff that life-long memories are made of.

Preparing students to attend “The Nutcracker”

2011Symposium_1_2One of the delights of this time of year is the yearly field trip to see Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. While literally children of all ages attend performances of this holiday time favorite, I take the fifth grade at my school to a special morning performance our local ballet company puts on for students. Most of my students have never seen The Nutcracker before I take them, and many have never been to live theater. In fact, they are surprised to learn that I am not taking them to a movie! Today I would like to share with you what I have found to be worthwhile activities to do with the students prior to attending the performance.

My preparation has three goals. Before they see the production, I want my students to know the story and which piece of music is associated with each part of the story, I want them to recognize the major musical themes, and I want them to recognize the five basic ballet positions as they watch the dancers. Because the ballet director goes over the story before the performance, I spend the least amount of time on that. His recitation will be a review for my students, reinforcing their preparedness to follow the plot. Recognizing the musical themes is the most important goal for me. For this, I first play musical excerpts as I tell them the story for the first time. This is an introduction and overview to the music. Next, I use a chorus arrangement; Nutcracker Jingles arranged by Chuck Bridwell and published by Alfred. It is written for 2-part choir and is an ingenious combining of “Jingle Bells” with themes form The Nutcracker. It begins with a piano introduction playing the opening of the overture, followed by a rollicking setting of “Jingle Bells.” Next, “JingleThe Nutcracker Bells” is set as a partner song with “Marche” with added words for the latter derived from “Jingle Bells.” That is the approach for the rest of the arrangement: the main theme from a piece is set to words derived from “Jingle Bells.” Included are “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” “Dance of the Reed Flutes,” and “Waltz of the Flowers.” The students enjoy learning these sections, and by the time they get to the performance of the ballet, they are delighted to hear the themes they know well enough to sing. The only downside to all of this is that I occasionally have to stop them from singing along during the performance!

The next part of my preparation for them is to teach them the five basic ballet positions. These are described with photographs on numerous websites. I have them all stand and go to each position, and learn them by name. Then I teach them how to do stage fencing using third and fourth positions. We use rhythm sticks for “swords” and each student must maintain third and fourth positions, especially with toes always pointed in the right direction. The students enjoy pretending they are swashbucklers, and they gain appreciation for what it is like to travel about a stage with your feet pointing in strange directions. When they attend the performance, they can watch the dancers’ feet and recognize which position they are in when the dancers are doing ballet steps. My students also pantomime the opening scene of decorating the Christmas tree, trying to stand in one of the positions whenever they are not traveling across the stage.

The final part of their preparation is to learn about the composer, Tchaikovsky. For this I use an activity I found at Each student has to pretend they are Tchaikovsky applying for either a teaching or composing job. The students have to read about Tchaikovsky and then, from the information in the article, write a resume for the job they are applying for. I then interview each student, asking them specifics about what they have put down. The questions I ask at the interview are all answered in the article, but they force the students to pay attention to every detail, instead of just gleaning the facts they need for their resume. While they work on this, I play lots of different music by Tchaikovsky, so that as they write down what musical works they (as Tchaikovsky) have written, they can hear the pieces and perhaps describe them in the interview. In all, preparing my students for their trip to the ballet takes about four 45-minutes classes. We have a lot of fun, and are well prepared to get the most out of our experience at the theater.

What Your Students Will Tell You

2011Symposium_1_2As I taught my pre-kindergarten three year olds today, several of them were really good teacher’s helpers. I don’t mean they shared a snack, or helped a friend put on a jacket, I mean they helped me teach them their music class. Children will tell you a lot about how to teach them if you’re observant enough to notice. For example, at one point during the class, I told the class to walk to the beat of the music I would play. The music was the first movement of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Most of the children walked around the room, most of them doing very well to follow the beat. As I watched, I noticed two children were noticeably not stepping in time. One looked like he was running, and the other was hesitating, not knowing quite what to do. I was just about to admonish the first child for running when I noticed he wasn’t trying to run, he was stepping in perfect time to the eighth notes he was hearing. His beat was not the tactus quarter note, but the divided eighth note beat. I complimented him on his beat, and left him alone. No one else was as precise as he was. The other child wasn’t getting any better, so I said “walk to the beat, like this.” I began to walk beside him taking is hand, but his feet still didn’t move. Earlier in the class, we had moved expressively by moving our arms but not walking around the room. Perhaps this child remembered that. In a moment of brilliance, he began moving his arm to the beat, not his feet. His arm moved in perfect time to the quarter note tactus. Then, once his arm was going, he began to walk in time with his arm. As long as he kept is arm moving, his steps were in perfect time. No one can walk to a beat before they feel the beat in their body. This child couldn’t feel the beat by walking alone, but sure could feel it by moving his arm. After that, his whole body new what to do.

Later in the day, I had a class of third graders. These children were trying to do a body percussion activity designed to teach them to recognize eighth, quarter and notes longer than a beat in a familiar piece. The music was the first theme in Tchaikovsky’s “Marche Slav.” They were to stomp on notes longer than a beat, clap on notes equal to the beat, and patsch on notes shorter than the beat. I had already taught the same activity to another third grade class earlier in the week, and they succeeded at it quickly, but not so with this class. It is one of the essentials of teaching that the same method rarely works exactly the same with all all children, so I was not surprised when this group of third graders had more difficulty. I thought there might be fewer auditory learners and more visual learners in this class, so I wrote the rhythm of the theme on the board, and taught them which motions went with which durations. I told them that all of the notes that were not colored in (half, dotted-half, and whole notes) were to be a stamp. Notes colored in (quarter notes) were to be a clap, and notes colored in that were connected (pairs of eighth notes) were to be patched. I presented it this way because although they frequently read rhythms, we use rhythm syllables, and I had not reviewed the note names lately. Almost immediately over half of those children who had been struggling were able to correctly perform the rhythm with the correct body percussion after three tries.  Switching to a notation based presentation was better suited to the learning styles of those students. When students are struggling, often they are telling you something very important;  “I’ve tried but I can’t get it this way. Is there another way I can do this?” Those challenges and the need to find another way are, for me, what makes teaching exciting and fresh every day.