Thanks, everyone, for all the comments on my recent posts, including those that disagree with me. I’ve responded to some, by commenting directly on the comments. So I won’t address anything in detail here in the blog. 

But there are two threads, two motifs, in the comments that I think are worth mentioning. 

     Sports are simple

First — because I said that sports fans know far more about how their team plays than classical music fans know about how orchestras play — comes the notion that my comparison isn’t valid, because sports are simple. It’s all about winning and losing, nothing more than that. And the performance of individual players can be measured simply by statistics. (By contrast, I guess, orchestra concerts deal with lofty matters of the spirit, intangibles that could never be measured, or that it would be laughable to try to measure.)

But anyone who knows sports well knows this isn’t true. What makes a team win? Quality performance, in big and small things, tangible things and intangible things, honed — both on a team, and by individuals, over many years. Take, for instance, an outfielder who knows, from long experience, exactly how the ball caroms off the stadium walls behind him. He’ll get to balls other outfielders miss. But there’s no way to measure this, and — as baseball commentators often say — a skill like this (or a shortstop’s extraordinary range in the field, how fast and how far he can move, on any given play) may actually lead to worse stats. An outfielder who knows the caroms can get to more balls, some of which will be really hard to pick up. So he’ll make more errors, which brings his fielding average down. Same with shortstops with lots of range, who get to more ground balls.

How about hustle? Another intangible, but every fan knows it’s crucial in sports. Running as hard as you can to first base, even if the ball you’ve hit looks like an easy out. Throwing a dangerous pitch — one you might easily miss with, but which, if it goes where you want, might be unhittable — with the game on the line. 

And instinct. The way some basketball players have an almost supernatural sense of where everyone on both teams is, on the court, at every moment. Or quarterbacks, about to be sacked, spotting in 1/10th of a second a pass receiver about to get free, way down the field. And then throwing the ball at the last moment directly…not to where they are now, but to where they’re going to be when the ball arrives. 

And brains. The number of situations, in baseball, that you as a player have to know, is uncountable. You’re in the field. What do you do if the ball is hit to you? Depends on where you are in the game, who’s on base, how many outs, what the count is, and also, if there are men on base, often on the speed and habits of the runners. You’ll play differently if you know, for instance, that a runner on second is slow, but takes hopeless chances, for instance getting to third on a single, but then bolting for home, when he shouldn’t. If you know a runner has that profile, you’ll be poised to throw him out, much more than you’d need to be with someone really fast, who’d probably make any base he ran to, or someone slow but smart, who wouldn’t take chances. 

And then, on the next pitch, with a different count, all those calculations might change. There’s a book that goes into these situations, Pure Baseball, by Keith Hernandez. Astonishing, how many details there are, how much players, coaches, and managers have to know. And know in their guts, so they can react instantly if things go according to plan, but also improvise something new, if there are surprises. 

Players practice incessantly, too. Or the good ones do. I remember hearing once that Phyllis Curtin, the distinguished soprano, felt in her younger days that she didn’t sing “ah” vowels well enough. So she vocalized the entire role of Salome (in Strauss’s opera) on “ah.” A ballplayer, similarly, may feel he doesn’t react fast enough to ground balls hit to his left. So he’ll get someone to hit 500 of those to him, until he starts getting it right. 

An accumulation of all these tiny things, most unmeasurable (but instantly spotted by experts), make a team win. And the lack of them makes the team lose. 


The other thread I noticed was people saying that people who go to orchestra concerts don’t want to critique them, because they go to be uplifted. 

I find that an extraordinary view. What makes a concert uplifting? Surely it’s the accumulation of small and big things done right in the performance (just as that makes a sports team win). And so why shouldn’t people who go to the concerts demand the best, and know when they’re not getting it?

Or do we believe that the mere fact that an orchestral masterpiece is competently performed makes it uplifting? And that therefore we don’t need to ask any questions. That, it seems to be, is expecting the audience to be ignorant, passive, almost childish. Orchestral players, certainly (as so many commenters said, so strongly) care and work hard on the quality of their playing. So the audience shouldn’t notice? Shouldn’t care? It’s beyond them, over their heads?

Are we asking them to check their brains at the door? Or do we imagine that orchestral performance is such a subtle and complex affair that only those trained to hear it should even bother making critiques? i’m sorry — it’s just not as fancy as that. If people heard these things talked about, they’d catch on very fast. Take, for instance, how well the members of a string section play together. I used to be deaf to that, until someone pointed out mistakes to me, notes that frayed apart, for instance. Anyone in the audience could learn to hear such things, if they were pointed out. The difference, for instance, between the first violins of a top-rank orchestra sustaining a soft high note and those in a third-tier or student group — that’s not hard to hear, once you know to listen for it. 

And — back to uplift — don’t we, these days, critique just about everything? One commenter wrote, sagely, I thought, about going to the movies with friends, and having lively conversations about all sorts of artistic and technical things that they notice. But then they go to an orchestra concert, and his friends just say, “That was nice.” People go to church, and critique the sermons! Even though, presumably, they’re there for uplift. 

And not all classical works are uplifting. Rossini overtures — which, by the way, I love — are lots of fun. But uplifting? They’re so sacred you shouldn’t notice that (in a performance you just heard) the crescendi just didn’t have much force? 

Makes no sense to me. And i think it’s part of the reason why classical music has trouble in the world today. Its ideology says that everything’s wonderful, when (a) plainly it isn’t, and (b, my main point here) we don’t react like that to anything else in our world. Newcomers go to classical performances, and may well like them, but the sense of unreality — of classical music being treated as nothing else is — makes it less likely that people who go for the first time will ever come back. 

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  1. Phillip says

    Forgive me if you’ve already mentioned this in a previous post and I missed it, but in terms of having an ongoing community conversation about the performance of the local orchestra: to me that was one of the big reasons to have a music critic on staff at one’s local paper. One could agree or disagree with the local critic, but at least the presence of (sometimes) informed criticism promoted the idea to the general populace that critical listening such as you are espousing is an essential part of the conversation between performer and audience.

    It’s a “chicken-or-the-egg” kind of question as to which trend caused which effect, but to me I can’t help but think that the decline of music criticism in print has tended to leave only the promotional, “everything is fine” press release in place, understandable if an orchestra is trying to sell tickets.

  2. David Ezer says

    The problem with the sports comparison is that the process by which the technical complications and nuances of sports are learned is social and sociable. It involves talking with friends, listening to announcers who speak in terms a layman can understand, and going to games and talking and shouting and engaging in the experience with friends and family.

    The way the nuances and technical complications of classical music are learned have none of that. You can’t talk during concerts – your friend can’t say, here’s where the theme comes back but using different instruments. There’s no announcer walking you through the piece (short of Schickele’s New Adventures/Beethoven 5 sportscast, which is *perfect* and I wish orchestras would do similar, though seriously, of course). When you’re not at the concert, there’s not much opportunity to learn or engage with the music socially — do your friends really want to get together and over a beer talk through the Mahler 8th?

    Hi, David. Good points, except — nothing you say changes the fact that, in past generations, people did know about classical music the way they now know (and then knew) sports. And that people now know about pop music, even though they’re not explicating the music to themselves during shows, or hearing anyone else do it.

  3. says

    I think there are a lot of non-musicians out there that still believe that athletes make better members of society than musicians. They believe that the work ethnic and teamwork personality of athletes leave them better suited for corporate jobs and excelling in their careers than musicians. I beg to differ, as any musician knows…the amount of dedication, motivation, coordination, and team work you need to play an instrument well is extraordinary… – Theresa