Becoming a Gifted Listener

Classical music can bring joy to our lives,
Serving as a playful adventure providing time well spent,
A labor of love that grants perspective on the trivial,
Softening the traumatic and providing magical moments,
The moments of emotional elevation all of us so desperately need.

If we do the work,
If we become gifted listeners,
Classical music will not let us down.

And how does one find the magic?
How does one become a gifted listener?

Three steps.
That’s all it takes.

Step One: Getting Started
A. Select a piece of music.
Find something that experienced listeners say is worth hearing.
Take the recommendation of someone who already knows something about classical music.
Trust their suggestions.

B. Listen to the piece you selected.
Listen to it with no attempt to understand it.
Approach it with no concerns other than curiosity.
Just listen … and enjoy.

C. Take note of how you react to the piece.
How does it make you feel?
What does it make you think about?
Be mindful.

That’s it.
That’s Step One.

You have now entered the world of classical music,
And there’s no reason to turn back.
If you want to progress further,
If you want to become a gifted listener,
It will take a little more effort.

Step Two: Doing the Work
A. Examine the context of the music.
Learn something about the time and place of the music’s creation.
Music from the late 1700s sounds different from the late 1800s.
German composers sound different from Russian composers.
The more you learn, the easier you can hear the differences.

B. Learn the terminology.
Are you listening to a sonata, concerto, symphony, or concert suite?
It makes a difference.
Is the piece in a major key or minor key?
Again, it makes it difference.

C. Understand the form.
Gifted
readers know the difference between a sonnet and a haiku, a villanelle and a limerick.
Gifted
listeners know the difference between a fugue and a chaconne, a scherzo and a rondo.
Take the time to learn what all this means.
It matters.

D. Know something about the composer.
Some composers have thier own distinct style or sound.
Some composers are “mathematical” (Schoenberg and Berg, for example).
Some are introspective and personal (Beethoven and Mahler, for example).
Piano miniatures by Chopin sound different from piano miniatures by Brahms.
Classical music can be much more fun,
Possibly more inspiring.
When you know something about the person who created it.

When you have done the work,
Learning something about music history,
The terms we use to talk about music,
And the composers who created the music,
You can take the next step
And carry your listening skills to an even higher level.

Step Three: Elevating the Experience
A. Give a piece of music repeated listenings.
The more you hear a piece, the more you will understand it.
The more you become familiar with the musical narrative,
The better it will sound.
Trust me.

The music you most enjoy is the the music you know well.
Concertgoers rarely cheer for new songs from an aging rocker.
They want to hear hits from the past
How many times must Paul McCartney sing “Yesterday”?
How many times must Mick Jagger tell us he can’t get no satisfaction?
(Enough times to keep selling tickets, I suppose.)

We generally most enjoy the music we have already heard.
The task is therefore clearly defined.
Select a piece of music and listen to it often.
When listening to classical music,
Familiarity does not breed contempt,
It breeds love and affection.

B. Find the best recordings.
After becoming familiar with a piece of music,
Listen to a variety of performances.
Note the differences from one recording to the next,
The differences in tempo, phrasing, instrumental balance, changes in dynamics.
Note whether the technical aspects of some recordings are superior to others.
Find the recording that, for you, captures the essence of the piece,
The recording that speaks to you personally,
The recording that thrills you or sparks your imagination
The recording that creates that tingling feeling in your spine,
The recording that brings a tear to your eye.

You are now a gifted listener.
You know a few masterworks.
You can talk about them using the terminology of music.
You can place them in historical context.
You can talk about composers from the past as if you know them.
(You will best learn about them, by the way, through their music.)

Keep traveling this path, and you will become obsessed.
I guarantee it.

Mozart, Symphony No. 40 in G minor (1788)
performed by the London Mozart Players

Year of Wonder – September

I have just finished another wonderful month with Clemency Burton-Hill’s Year of Wonder and have embedded videos of four pieces of music that were covered in the book for the month of August. With each piece I have included a quote from Year of Wonder with hopes that anyone reading this blog will be inspired to purchase the book and dedicate themselves to listening to one piece of classical music every day for the next year.

For those who have already begun the journey, I have also embedded a Spotify playlist for September’s recommendations from Burton-Hill’s book.

Enjoy!

Spotify Playlist for SEPTEMBER of the Year of Wonder


J.S. Bach, Partita No. 1 in B-flat major, BWV 825, “Allemande”
“It might seem a bit irreverent to describe the mighty J. S. Bach as a ‘palate cleanser’, but among the many services into which I have pressed his music over the years (commute companion, grief counsellor, baby wrangler, and so on) the role of life-clarifier and head-clearer is right up there. Whenever I’m stuck, whenever I need to quiet my ranging mind, whenever I require what I imagine is the sonic equivalent of yoga or meditation, it’s to this sort of music I turn, and submit myself, and go still, and recover.”

Audrey Abela, piano



Anton Bruckner, Locus iste
“This three-minute motet makes a strong case for the argument that there is little more powerful in music—or indeed, in life—than the sound of intertwining human voices.”

UniversitätasChor München, conducted by Johannes Kleinjung



Sergei Rachmaninoff
, Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Second Movement
“This is the sort of unashamedly wonderful piece that some classical music critics pride themselves on deriding—for being, I don’t know, ‘cheesy’ or ‘populist’.… Being universally loved does not detract from the concerto’s genius. Quite the opposite.”

Hélène Grimaud (piano) with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, conducted by Claudio Abbado



Leonard Bernstein, “Somewhere” from West Side Story
“Bernstein, together with his lyricist Stephen Sondheim, takes the simplest yet most gut-wrenching of scenarios—not now, my love, but someday, somewhere, we well be able to be together— and enshrines it in music that is so direct and relatable it just takes you apart.”

Cynthia Erivo with the National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda


Year of Wonder – August

Every day I open the Kindle app on my iPad, read the day's entry from Year of Wonder, listen to the music, and then sit back in awe over the richness and diversity of music history. That has been my routine since New Year's Day (yes, it was a resolution).

In
Year of Wonder, Clemency Burton-Hill describes one piece of music for each day of the year. Her descriptions generally take less than five minutes to read and the music takes less than ten minutes to hear. If you want to know more than what Burton-Hill describes, a quick online search can take you to other resources. If you want to hear more of the music, you will more than likely be able to find it through online streaming. (I recommend Spotify.)

A day-by-day devotion to
Year of Wonder exposes you to a tremendous diversity of composers and styles of music. In short, the world of classical music contains much more than the compositions of dead European males. I always knew this, but Burton-Hill’s book has allowed me to experience what this means in a way that I have absorbed the lesson well.

If I may, I'd like to make a suggestion. Take a break and listen to the music from
Year of Wonder. Rather than saying, "Stop and smell the roses," I prefer to say, "Stop and listen to the music.” Burton-Hill’s Year of Wonder does a terrific job mixing well-known classical masterworks with lesser known, and sometimes obscure, works. All told, a trip through her book will provide many moments of pleasure and the type of inspiration that can only come from listening to music.

I have embedded a Spotify playlist for next month’s recommendations from Burton-Hill’s book. I have also embedded videos from this month to provide a sampling of what’s in Burton-Hill’s book.

Enjoy!

Spotify Playlist for AUGUST of the Year of Wonder


Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor, Fourth Movement
Performed by Claudio Abbado conducting the Lucerne Festival Orchestra


Scott Joplin,
Gladiolus Rag
Performed by Joshua Rifkin, piano


George Gershwin,
Porgy and Bess, “Bess, you is my woman now”
Performed by Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis


Emahoy Tsequé-Maryam Guèbrou,
The Homeless Wanderer
Performed by the composer


Maria Szymanowska,
Nocturne
Performed by Roberto Piana, pianoforte


Johann Sebastian Bach, “Chaconne” from
Partiat No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004
Performed by Jascha Heifetz, violin


Francisco Tárrega,
Gran Vals
Performed by Ankia Hutschreuther, guitar


Year of Wonder – July

And the journey continues! I have been reading Clemency Burton-Hill's Year of Wonder since January and listening to the one piece of music she describes for each day of the year.

I have embedded the playlist for July below, as well as videos for a few of my favorites from Burton-Hill's recommendations from June. If you would like to read what Burton-Hill has written about each of these pieces (and many more), I highly recommend purchasing a copy of her book.

Enjoy!

Spotify Playlist for JULY of the Year of Wonder


Bach/Gounod,
Ave Maria
Performed by Kathryn Scott (piano) and Yo-Yo Ma (cello)


Shankar/Menuhin,
Raga Piloo
Performed by Anoushka Shankar and Patricia Kopatchinskaja


Vaughan Williams,
The Lark Ascending
Performed by Hilary Hahn (violin)


Lang,
I Lie
Performed by the UCLA Early Music Ensemble


Abel,
27 Pieces for Viola da Gamba, Prelude
Performed by Petr Wagner


Richter,
Mercy
Performed by Hilary Hahn (violin) and Jessica Osborne (piano)


Mozart, Hell's Vengeance Boils in My Heart (1791)

For no particular reason other than it's always fun to hear, I have embedded two videos of Mozart's great Queen of the Night aria from The Magic Flute, "Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen." (“Hell’s Vengeance Boils in My Heart”).

Animated Graphical Score by Music Animation Machine
 

Diana Damrau, soprano

Year of Wonder – June

Since January I have been posting a Spotify playlist each month for Clemency Burton-Hill’s Year of Wonder. Burton-Hill's book has been great fun for me, and I look forward each day to reading about a piece of music and finding a variety of recordings for that piece on Spotify.

I have embedded the playlist for June below, as well as videos of a few of my favorites from Burton-Hill's recommendations from May.

Enjoy!

Spotify Playlist for JUNE of the Year of Wonder


Debussy, Children’s Corner, “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum”
Performed by Stephen Malinowski with the Music Animation Machine


Tavener,
Mother of God, “Here I Stand”
Recorded at Kulturtemplet, Göteborg, Sweden


Peter Maxwell,
The Yellow Cake Review, “Farewell to Stromness”
Performed by the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet


Bernstein,
Overture to Candide
Performed by Leonard Bernstein conducting the London Symphony Orchestra


Year of Wonder – May

After four months I am still chipping away at Clemency Burton-Hill’s Year of Wonder and listening to one piece of music every day for 2019. In previous months (January-April) I embedded pieces from the book on this blog that were either new—or relatively new—to my listening repertoire. This month I’ll take a different approach and embed videos of six pieces that are well-known in the world of classical music. I do this to make the point that Burton-Hill’s book will not only introduce you to new music, but also ask you to revisit the music that anyone who listens to classical music should know about.

I have also, as usual, embedded a Spotify playlist of Burton-Hill’s music for the next month.

Enjoy!

Spotify Playlist for MAY of the Year of Wonder


Beethoven,
Symphony No. 5, Fourth Movement (1804)
Performed by Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra


Paganini,
Caprice No. 24 (1817)
Performed by Hilary Hahn, violin


Wagner, Overture to
Tannhäser (1845)
Performed by Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic


Gershwin,
Walking the Dog (1937)
Performed by Sebastian Manz, clarinet, with Danish String Quartet, Martin Klett (piano), and Lars Olaf Schaper (double bass)


Copland,
Fanfare for the Common Man (1942)
Performed by Marin Alsop conducting the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra


Górecki,
Symphony No. 3, Second Movement (1976)
Performed by Zofia Kilanowicz, soprano, with Sir Gilbert Levine conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra


Tchaikovsky, Serenade for Strings (1880)

"I should have gone mad but for music. Music is indeed the most beautiful of all Heaven's gifts to humanity wandering in the darkness. Alone it calms, enlightens, and stills our souls. It is not the straw to which the drowning man clings; but a true friend, refuge, and comforter, for whose sake life is worth living.” – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

This energetic version of Tchaikovsky’s
Serenade for Strings is played by the New Century Chamber Orchestra under the leadership of the great violinist, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. In 1999, Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg received an honorary Master of Musical Arts degree from New Mexico State University, the first honorary degree ever awarded by NMSU (my alma mater, btw).

Enjoy!

Tchaikovsky, Serenade for Strings, First Movement
Performed by the New Century Chamber Orchestra

Billy the Kid Reading List

For everyone attending my Billy the Kid walking tour of Silver City, NM, here's a list or resources to get you started with understanding the Kid and his endlessly fascinating life. Although I could recommend many other books and resources, the items on this list should serve as a good place to begin.

About Billy the Kid – Website

Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride
by Michael Wallis (2007)


The West of Billy the Kid
by Frederick Nolan (1998)


Billy the Kid: A Graphic History
by Willard Ballow (1998)



The Illustrated Life and Times of Billy the Kid
by Bob Boze Bell (1996)

  


Antrim is My Stepfather's Name: The Boyhood of Billy the Kid
by Jerry Weddle (1993)



Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life
by Robert M. Utley (1989)




The Tragic Days of Billy the Kid
by Frazier Hunt (1956)

My favorite book on Billy the Kid, even though it contains more legend than history.
 

Catherine's Son
by James L. Smith (2013)

I hope I am forgiven for using this list to promote my own novel about Billy the Kid.


And let's not forget the music.
Aaron Copland composed young Billy's arrival in Silver City. Very cool!

Year of Wonder – April

In Year of Wonder, Clemency Burton-Hill provides descriptions of 366 pieces of music, one for each day of the year. I made a New Year's resolution to listen to every piece in the book, and I have not yet missed a day. What an adventure!

I have already posted playlists for
January, February, and March on this blog, and here's my playlist for April.

Spotify Playlist for APRIL of the Year of Wonder



Here's a few of the book's highlights from March.

Ravel,
Concerto in G major
Performed by Helene Grimaud, piano, with Vladimir Jurowski conducting


Piazolla,
Libertango
Performed by David Robert Coleman conducting the Berlin Philharmonic


Schubert,
Quartet in C major, Adagio
Performed by the Camerata Quartet