“Normal Person Music”

When I first began playing oboe, I threw myself into the classical genre with all the passionate superiority a twelve-year-old could muster.  Previously, my musical tastes had hinged on what my friends were listening to — sixth grade had been a year of ABBA covers and sk8er bois — but now, as a sage seventh-grade symphonist, my CD collection held titles like 100 Classical FavoritesMozart Hits, and — regrettably — Greatest Sousa Marches.

“Don’t you know that you’re toxic?…” (source)

I had been raised on equal doses of Scheherazade and Santanta, but no sooner had I learned to play a B-flat major scale on the oboe than I completely abandoned music-with-words — a genre I came to call “normal person music” — in favor of what was suddenly and obsessively my preference: classical.  I eschewed pop music altogether: ignored Green Day, never learned the words to “Toxic” (probably for the best), and only paid attention to Usher for long enough to figure out that “Yeah” was in the key of G minor.  I was a band geek, and all my friends were band geeks, and we met up in the band room after school to fetch our instruments from our lockers (so we could take them home and practice, of course) and talked about how much we loved Sousa and Mozart and the main theme from Star Wars that we were learning how to play in Beginning Band.

I think the reason I let classical music become such an obsession (besides the fact that I, you know, enjoyed it) was because, for the first time, I wasn’t letting peer pressure dictate my playlist.  The instant I first set foot in the band room on that fateful day in seventh grade, whatever meager social status I’d held in the middle school hierarchy vanished: other kids’ opinions no longer mattered to me.  As a bona fide band geek, I had no chance of ever being considered “cool,” so I could listen to the least-cool music out there with no repercussions.  It was liberating.

It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I started listening to normal person music again.  But for five years, between when I first picked up the oboe and when I decided to pursue it in higher education (and, ultimately, as a career), my listening tastes were superbly limited.  Those five years were important for me — I learned about different composers, styles, time periods, forms — but in retrospect, there was a lot of music I missed out on, music that essentially came to define my generation in the form of songs-that-everyone-knows.  During my high school tenure, Taylor Swift was just coming into her own; Coldplay, Jason Mraz, and Sara Bareilles were in competition for 2008’s Song of the Year; and Katy Perry kissed a girl (and liked it) — all while I was fangirling over Shostakovich and Vivaldi as though they were the only artists worth listening to. 

My quintet at band camp, circa 2010. Clearly, none of us was a “normal person.”

Sure, I was exposed to normal person music during that time — my mom listened to pop radio when she drove me to youth orchestra rehearsals; my sister blasted All Time Low and Yellowcard from her bedroom — but I deliberately avoided listening to “that type of music” when the choice was mine.  The superiority complex I developed as a result was a fierce one: my music was smart music; it was beautiful and old and unique.  Normal people listened to normal person music; but I, of course, was far from normal.

There are many, many problems with such an attitude.  For one, I was perpetuating the notion that classical music is an elite genre, requiring some special knowledge or “in” for proper listening.  (Deeming classical music as something other than “normal” certainly didn’t help the cause.)  But above all, I was closed-minded and myopic, completely unwilling to try something new.

Classical music’s biggest fight right now is to battle the omnipotent sentiment of, “Nah, it’s just not my thing.”  Most people who make such a comment when confronted with classical music have never actually given it a try — never actually attended an opera, or an orchestra concert, or even a free chamber recital at their local synagogue.  They have no grounds on which to dislike classical music, but no interest in liking it, either.  For five years, I approached normal person music with the same stubborn reluctance as most people approach classical: it just wasn’t my thing.

The album that changed everything. (source)

So how did I overcome this classical contumacy?  For starters, I began welcoming recommendations.  My sister, who had been trying — desperately, for years — to get me to listen to something with words and bass and a beat, checked a Fleet Foxes CD out of the library and left it on my bed with a Post-It note: “I think you might like this.  It’s sort of classical-y.”  She was right (as she often is): the folksy vibe reminded me of Bartók or Kodály, but it was also nothing like their music — it was new.  And isn’t that such a special feeling?  The thrill of discovery — of listening for the first time, of finding something unlike anything you’ve heard before, and enjoying, for no reason other than that it’s music.

You can curate that feeling with Bernstein conducting an exhilarating Mahler 2, or with Fun. spinning a nostalgic narrative on their debut album.  As long as you keep your ears and your mind open, you’re sure to experience something fresh and exciting and beautiful.


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