Take a Chance on Classical Music: The Joy That You Get from It Will Last a Lifetime

Byvu lita

Aug 28, 2023

If you had told me that when I was 9 or 10 years old that I would grow up and be blessed to be on the Board of Directors of the Harrisburg Symphony, I likely would have cocked my head and asked, “What’s a symphony?”

Classical music was the great unknown. I suspect it often is for most of us. At least two generations, nearly three, have come of age in America with school music programs eliminated or cut to the bone. Colleges have followed suit. So have churches and synagogues. For young and old, the notion of a symphony has become almost as foreign as Mongolian throat singing.

I grew up in a house without classical music, at least not much. While on the mission field in Papua New Guinea, we mostly made our own music. We sang robust Wesleyan hymns in Tok Pisin, the Creole lingua franca of the island, and we observed the indigenous “singsings,” dances and songs of the people in the valley. My brother played ukulele and sang Elvis. Elvis’s gospel albums and Andy-Williamsesque love songs having been given a Protestant version of the imprimatur, his twitching hips not so much. There were some LPs, though not a large collection: mostly Southern gospel (a polite way of noting, but not saying, that the groups were exclusively white) and a few gospel-inflected country and western albums. No Bach or Handel that I remember.

I have firmer musical memories of life when we returned to Oklahoma. My father was a solid baritone. When we drove cross country, he’d pass the time singing Wesleyan hymns, or, sometimes, bouncy tunes that I later discovered were the pop hits of his own generation, sanitized like Elvis by the passage of time. He loved Dixieland.

On Sunday mornings, while my parents got ready for church, we kids were set in front of the television to be entertained by the Gospel Singing Jubilee. Not much classical, though I do remember wearing out the grooves of Disney’s Peter and the Wolf. Like the rest of my generation, most classical music came to me courtesy of Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse.

My love of classical music came later. College played a role, though I mostly endured my required musical appreciation class. I argued with a music major on my freshman floor about whether classical music was dull and repetitive, and I’m afraid I took the dull and repetitive side. But over time, my college opened a door.

I was introduced to the classical tradition of Christian music, something different (not better or worse) than the church songs I knew. More important were piano lessons, my college repertory shifting from my high school hymn arrangements to Bach two-part inventions. Baptizing myself in Bach was, at first, just a physical challenge. Then came the satisfaction of competence. Then spiritual pleasure as Bach’s joy bubbled up through the mathematical precision of his compositions.

In my 30s, I joined a church with a solid classical tradition in music and discovered I had a decent tenor voice that, apparently, I had been hiding while trying to sing like Bob Dylan. I sang Handel’s Messiah for the first time, and felt I could die happy. With a church friend, I attended my first opera, La Boheme. The sweep and power of Puccini’s music, the costumes, the chorus, the absorbing spectacle, overrode me. My body said, “I want this.” My mind and spirit followed.

In my 40s, I began taking voice lessons, a present from my wife that led to bit parts and occasionally more than bit parts with local opera companies. I took ten years of voice lessons with local legend and personal hero, John Darrenkamp down in Lancaster. I’ve enjoyed singing with Messiah University choirs as they’ve performed with our symphony. I’ve been lucky enough to be a tenor soloist with the choir at St. Stephens.

And, important to say, I still love Wesleyan hymns, Andy Williams, Dixieland, Beyonce, Bob Dylan, and Willie Nelson, besides the occasional Apple Music track of Mongolian throat singing. I sing Elvis in the shower.

All this is to say that education—of the mind, or the heart, or the ear–is the project of a lifetime. Such an education isn’t one that asks you to leave your former loves behind. Good music is music done well, and listened to, with openness, passion, and intensity. And love.

If your ears are like mine used to be, without much sense of what classical music is all about, or if your children never got classical music through a school program or in their houses of worship, let me just say, “Take a chance.” Dip your toes in, or rather your ears, to see what happens.

The symphony provides many ways for you to be involved even beyond the spectacular performances: educational programs, free summer concerts, volunteer programs that can get you in for free. Let the music, like water, wash over you. Come on in. The water’s fine.

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