I always get kind of miffed when I see those compilation albums that are like, “Relaxing Classical Music,” or “Unwind with Classical Favorites” because it implies that classical music is boring, or that it can lull you to sleep. No! Classical music is exciting! It’s intellectually engaging! It’s filled with pathos!
And yet, lately, I’ve come to realize that classical music is an excellent tool for stress relief. Not because it’s soothing and pretty, but because when I actively listen as melody and harmony come together to tell their story, I can be truly “in the moment.”
Okay, I kind of hate that phrase, in the moment. It is a little too Oprah-Chopra for me. But, when I consider how much brain energy I put toward worrying about what has already happened, and freaking out about what hasn’t happened, may never happen, well, I’ve gotta give those hippy-dippy, New Age gurus some props.
Here’s the thing though: No singing allowed. This premise does not work with opera, art song, choral music, or any music with voices or words. I’m a singer and a student of singing and when I hear singers I simply can not turn off the analytical side of my brain. I’m inevitably singing along, or thinking about how I would improve on the singing I’m hearing, or comparing it to a better performance I heard of the same piece, or marveling at how brilliant it is and thinking about what makes it so brilliant, and lamenting that I will never be that brilliant. With all that running through my head, I’m not relaxing.
But when I turn put on a string quartet, or a piano sonata, or a violin concerto, then, finally, it’s just music for music’s sake.
Why don’t I listen to this stuff more? When reading something about classical music movers and shakers not long ago, it occurred to me how little awareness I have of composers and performers who haven’t really impacted the opera world, and I think that’s something I have in common with most singer types. In college I took Symphonic Lit as an elective and was the only student in the class whose primary instrument was voice. (As an aside, I’m sort of surprised how little I remember from that class. I think we talked a lot about Mahler? I’m sure I had to write a term paper but I have no recollection of what my topic was.)
Singers, we should be listening to more of this stuff. We should listen because it will make us more well-rounded as musicians. We should listen because our fellow musicians deserve our admiration. We should listen because, knowing nothing about the technical intricacies of cello fingering, we can enjoy the performance with out being so damn critical. We should listen because it is a genuinely pleasurable experience.
So, singers, and everyone, get thee to Spotify! If you’re not sure what you want to hear, check out this list of the top 10 Classical albums of the year. From it, I particularly enjoyed Jeremy Denk’s Ligeti/Beethoven for being delightfully cerebral.
Or, if like me, you love women who bust into “old boys’ clubs” then check out Nicola Bendetti. Seriously, there just aren’t that many women in the upper echelons of instrumental soloists.
If you have a favorite opera composer, maybe find out what else he wrote.
I’m resolving to listen to one long-form or four short-form classical recordings or performances per week. Join me?