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Classical Happenings

The Sound Garden: Opinions Week

Mei Stone Ace Hardware
Matthew Schlomer

Classical music can be intimidating. The sheer size and scale of a symphony can hardly be summed up in a few program notes. There are so many rules: don’t clap between movements, don’t wear jeans, and be prepared to endure the wrath of the entire audience should your phone go off! Often, people new to the classical world don’t feel entitled to have an opinion on classical music. This week, we wanted to empower audiences to share their thoughts without worrying about what other people think. We went to places where people, professionals or not, have strong opinions--a paint store, a brewery, an olive oil shop, and a skate shop--and asked them to expand their knowledge to reach into classical music.

We started at Ace Hardware in downtown Traverse City. Anyone looking to paint their home has a strong preference for colors, so we set up in front of the paint section. With a rainbow of paint chips behind me, I played a short piece for each customer and asked them to pick a color that they thought fit the music best. Many were hesitant at first, but when faced with a decision, they became incredibly specific with their choices. One customer held several shades of blue in her hand, saying that she couldn’t quite pick but she imagined birds in the sky. Another picked a burnt orange that represented Fiddler on the Roof with the setting sun in the background. The customers weren’t professional painters or color theorists, nor were they musicians, but they were still able to talk about classical music through the colors.

Mei Stone Fustinis
Matthew Schlomer

Next, we went to Fustini’s Oil and Vinegars, where the manager helped us organize a little sampling area of five of their olive oils. Some of the oils were slightly spicy, and some had a fruity or nutty undertone. Customers were welcome to sample the different oils as I played and pick the one they thought had the most in common with the piece. They made fascinating observations; in particular, one listener linked the herbal notes of one of the oils to the bright tones of one of the pieces I played.

Mei Stone Right Brain Brewery
Matthew Schlomer

We tried the same thing at Right Brain Brewery, where the owner generously offered samples of three beers to each person who chose to participate in our listening experiment. The acoustics in the brewery were very different from Fustini’s--while Fustini’s was quiet and made for a lovely resonant space, here, the sounds of arcade games, family conversations, and jukebox music filled the air. We could only really hear a few feet in front of us. Yet somehow, despite the clamor, we were able to provide a miniature private concert for each table. One of the listeners told us she almost preferred that because she got to enjoy flute music in a familiar place where she was comfortable.

Mei Stone 2nd Level Goods
Matthew Schlomer

Finally, we went to 2nd Level Goods skate shop. Knowing that skaters are very particular about their boards, we asked a few customers to pick a skateboard based on the piece I played. We didn’t expect teens or 20-somethings to get excited about classical music, but they made some remarkable connections. One customer picked out a board with an elaborate wave design on it, saying the music sounded like ocean waves. Even the owner joined in, pointing at a few different boards on the wall.

By going into our listeners' comfort zones and encouraging them to use what they already knew, we heard more of their unique perspectives. It was refreshing and fascinating to hear my music described in terms of beer flavors or skateboard designs.

After this week, we realized that there are so many types of “sampling rooms” for different things. You don’t need to be a professional to enjoy interior design or olive oils, and there are spaces set aside where you can learn about these worlds. Similarly, you don’t need to be a professional to enjoy classical music. What if we had “tasting rooms” for classical music? What if we created spaces for non-professionals and hobbyists to experience different types of music and find what they enjoy?