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Don't Care Much for Classical Music? Then Read This

Here's something that may change your mind.

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illustration of woman playing a piano, classical music
Jin Xia
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It was the summer of 1965, and our family was making the weekly excursion from our Chicago suburb to attend a Grant Park Symphony orchestra concert in the city. When we arrived, we spread out a blanket and got settled.

The minute the music started my dad, wearing plaid Bermuda shorts, yellow gym shoes and black ankle socks, took out his baton, stood up and ecstatically conducted the orchestra from our seats for the next two hours.

Both my parents were passionate about classical music. The radio at home and in my father’s Buick was always tuned to Chicago’s classical station. He had a huge record collection, and at the top of his list were the Beethoven piano concertos and the Bach Brandenburg Concertos.

My parents desperately wanted me to be a concert pianist even though my passion was ballet, and my ambition was to be a prima ballerina with the Bolshoi. This was a great plan except I was incapable of doing more than two pirouettes without getting dizzy.

When I started taking piano lessons, my mom sat in the car reading her book. She refused to accompany me because she said the lessons were far too stressful, particularly when my teacher would toss the music at me and exclaim that I was never going to be a true artist. My teacher was correct. I did not have what it would take to succeed as a concert pianist. But I did like to play.

So, as a backup plan, I went to medical school, as did a large number of other trained musicians. Notably in this group is Greek-born George Papanicolaou, whose pioneering specialty was diagnosing cells that could be a precursor for disease.

Papanicolaou was a skilled violinist with years of training whose parents pushed him toward a career in medicine. This was a fortuitous decision because Papanicolaou ended up inventing the Pap smear (an abbreviation of his last name), enabling the early detection of cervical cancer.

My 12 years of piano lessons were not wasted, as classical music has continued to play a key part in my life. I played through college and medical school to decompress when overwhelmed with studying.

My favorite pieces were the Bach Inventions, Mozart sonatas and Chopin waltzes, music I had played since eighth grade. When I first got married, we could not afford a couch, but I did buy a piano.

My children both played the piano growing up and when my youngest switched to violin, I accompanied her on piano until she got too good for me. I continued to take lessons sporadically in adulthood, though playing in front of anyone, even non-judgmental friends and family, became too stressful.

The last time I played in public was when my eighth-grade daughter and I were studying with the same teacher, and he convinced us to play Mozart’s Sonata for Piano Four-Hands in D major for the spring recital. I couldn’t sleep for weeks and practiced non-stop. The day of the recital I was a wreck.

This was at a time in my career when I was going on television regularly, as a researcher and author in my field of obstetrics and gynecology Though, appearing on morning news shows live in front of a million viewers was far less stressful than the prospect of playing in front of a handful of parents who were only interested in their own kid’s performance.

I made it through the recital, and shockingly, made no major mistakes. That was more than 20 years ago — and the last time I played in public. I still sit down to play, but only when no one is around, and only with pieces that come to me effortlessly, like Kuhlau Sonatinas and Grieg’s March of the Dwarfs (which I learned in the third grade).

Mostly though, I listen. Really listen. Classical music is not background music. And whenever someone tells me “I love classical music, it’s so relaxing," that tells me they probably know very little about classical music and are generally referring to elevator music.

Classical music is exciting. There is nothing more exciting than listening to the passion of Shostakovich’s 2nd piano concerto and it is almost impossible to not hum along with anything Mozart has ever written. If you doubt that statement, try listening to the third movement of Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos K 365 and not bop your head to the beat. YouTube is a gold mine of amazing performances.

I combine my love of ballet with my love of classical music, and it is no coincidence that most of my favorite music pieces are also my favorite ballets. I never get tired of hearing Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C (Balanchine’s Serenade), Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins (Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco) and Delibe’s Coppelia. And yes, I do picture the choreography as I listen.

Being an ob-gyn is a particularly stressful career path, and classical music has always been a way to escape to a place where there are no breech babies and no complicated surgeries. I've listened to Beethoven in the operating room.

When I go to a classical concert it is one of the rare times in my life that I am doing nothing else but being immersed in the music without distraction, and without feeling like I should be doing something else.

So, for me, classical music represents my family and my history. And yes, I still go to the Grant Park Symphony concerts every summer in Chicago, although I do not stand on the lawn with a baton, pretending I am the conductor. But I do picture my dad doing so, and it always makes me smile.

This special issue of The Ethel is devoted to music and how it shapes — and strengthens — our memories. For more on this topic from AARP, including videos, events and memory games, visit aarp.org/musicandmemory

Do you love classical music? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments below.

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