Monday, October 29, 2007

Sweet Caroling Time

Since the classical blogosphere is preoccupied with nothing so much as the endangered status of classical music, and since I try to teach a history of Western art music to non-music majors, I find myself thinking a lot about engagement - what it is, when it is, why it is that music pulls (or fails to pull) a listener into its orbit. There's nothing I want more from teaching such a class than to have students be drawn in, pulled apart, tugged at, etc by what they hear. This also has me naturally thinking more about other engaging subjects, especially as I've been more preoccupied with box scores than Bach's scores at this time of year.

Last Thursday I was lucky enough to be at Game 2 of the World Series which, remarkably, is now over after the Sox finished the sweep last night. (Yeah!) The whole experience of being at the game was spectactular, largely because of the sense of occasion; but aside from the excellent game, a couple of things stood out. First, walking through a huge Fenway souvenir store before the game, it's astounding to see how many people who've already paid unimaginable amounts for tickets are deliriously looking for ways to part with more cash in order to get the latest team merchandise. I saw a kid who didn't seem too enthusiastic about the options have his father (already holding lots of other stuff) suggest that he pick up one of the $50 replica jerseys hanging nearby. The kid wasn't even asking for it - the father wanted to spend that money! I'm not saying classical music should expect exactly this kind of engagement from its fans, but it's extraordinary to see what happens when people feel like they're part of the the experience and not just passive viewers.

Speaking of not being passive viewers... It was a terrific game, and I remember a lot about the gameplay fondly, but the other thing that's stuck with me the most is the crowd's singing of Sweet Caroline. This is now a cherished Fenway tradition - to sing along with Neil in the middle of the 8th inning. (If Wikipedia can be trusted, this song is also a singalong favorite at other sporting events, including English soccer matches, but I think Boston's taken it to a new level.) It's not a great song, but it turns out to be perfect for this sort of situation.
The song begins in a lazy, low-key way and then features the simplest of melodic ascents ("Hands, touching hands, reaching out, touching meee, touching youuuuuu") that leads up to the big chorus. What's spellbinding is the way the song sneaks up on the crowd, especially if the crowd has been cheering wildly, and the infection spreads through the "hands, touching hands part" until probably more than half of the 36,000 fans are belting out "Sweet Car-o-line, Ah, Ah, Ah, Good times never seemed so good, SO GOOD, SO GOOD, SO GOOD." My ten years as a church music director reminded me again and again that we're not really a singing culture, so even when the music is SO BAD, it's fantastic to hear this many people singing together.
I don't get to that many games, but I remember at least once when the PA system shut off the music halfway through because the game was resuming, but the fans managed to keep singing several more lines a cappella. That was really amazing. So this time, caught up in the euphoria of a fantastic game (Papelbon had just picked Matt Holliday off first in a huge play), I even sang along. And let me emphasize again, I'm no fan of Neil Diamond. I mean, he did this! (John Rutter fans may be equally scandalized by this.) But, this is just another indicator of how music is not just the music - it's also what the performers/listeners bring to it and what the Red Sox fans do with Sweet Caroline is pretty sweet.
Two other quick tangential notes from the mouth of my 8-yr-old daughter. Last weekend she had a friend over for a playdate. I was talking about baseball, and the following conversation ensused:
DAUGTHER (to friend): Who's your favorite Red Sox player?
FRIEND: I like Johnny Damon. He's not on the team anymore, though. [Actually, he's been a hated Yankee for two years now, but girls still dig the long hair he sported when he was one of ours.]
DAUGHTER: (sympathetic tone) Yeah, I used to like Johnny Damon too; (voice brightens) but then I found Mike Lowell.
Somehow she managed to sound just like someone on a commerical for detergent. "I used to think spotless whites weren't possible. But then I found All-temperature Cheer."
Then, a couple of nights later, we were playing the ever-popular "Guess Who I'm Thinking About" at the dinner table. As it happens, the person I'd chosen was Mike Lowell. Daughter of MMmusing had already made several guesses to determine gender, grown-upness, famousness, etc. Then, she said, "Is he a composer?" I said, "No," to which she responded, "Oh, that's right. You said he's living. All the composers are dead."
And indeed they are, but meanwhile Mike Lowell came through again and again and was named MVP of the World Series, so my daughter knows how to pick'em. AND, true story, I looked for a Mike Lowell jersey for her at the game and I would definitely have dropped the $50 if I'd found one in her size. (On the other other hand, I was slightly relieved not to find one. They'll probably be a lot cheaper in the off-season, especially since Lowell might not even be back next year.)

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