There are fewer places better suited for forced social interaction than the cabin of a commercial airplane. Where else do you find yourself required to remain seated within inches of a total stranger for a significant length of time, reluctantly enduring such unusual predicaments as delays, turbulence, and spilled apple juice? Such a situation has the potential to cause considerable tension between you and your seat mate, but more often that not, it sets the scene for a lively conversation. This past Friday, I was fortunate enough to experience the latter variety while flying from Rochester to Chicago for spring break. I had just settled in next to a quiet gentleman for what I thought was going to be a peaceful and uneventful flight when he suddenly reached into his carry-on bag and pulled out the thick, blue Barenreiter edition of The Marriage of Figaro.
My eyes widened.
“Are you a musician??” I asked excitedly.
“Oh-oh yes,” he said, seeming surprised; after all, it’s not very common for United Airlines patrons to know The Marriage of Figaro.
“Well, so am I!” I exclaimed. “I’m a cellist, I go to Eastman!”
His eyebrows raised, and he quickly told me that he had also been at Eastman for the past couple weeks as a guest professor. Our conversation snowballed from there, and we ended up spending the entire flight talking about his career, my career aspirations, and the positive and negative aspects of the current field. After we parted ways at O’Hare, it struck me how rare it was that I had actually been seated next to a reputable classical musician. True, I was coming from a city home to a prominent music school, but all the same, it was certainly an unusual occasion. As I chuckled at the coincidence (and wondered whether the alleged “law of attraction” might actually be a reality), I started to reminisce about the many plane flights I’ve taken during my college years, and the many interesting conversations I’ve had with non-musician seat mates. More often that not, the conversations would be started when I’d awkwardly clamber into the row with my cello, which I always have to buy a seat for. Sometimes, I’d be greeted with a look of wonderment (“Is that…a bassoon??“); others, I’d be met with a look of suspicion (“How on earth did you get that on board? They made me check my bathroom bag at the gate!”); but regardless of my soon-to-be seat mate’s initial reaction, an animated conversation would always ensue. Most of the time, they would know a thing or two about classical music, and be aware of the difficult career path it represented. After I’d walk them through a typical audition process, they would often shake their head in amazement.
“You must really love it, then, if you’re willing to go through with all of that.”
“Yeah, well, it’s what I want to do,” I’d respond.
Many times, we would get into a conversation about the various genres within classical music. They would know about orchestras, but the concept of chamber music would be completely foreign to them. I would explain about things like string quartets and piano trios, and they’d often be fascinated, especially when they realized that there were professional groups dedicated solely to performing works written for these particular genres.
“So it’s like a rock band, only with orchestra instruments!” they would realize.
“And a lot less screaming, I can assure you,” I’d nod.
At some point, we’d get into my favorite topic: the relevance (and frequent irrelevance) of classical music in popular culture.
“It seems like people don’t really know about it,” they’d observe.
“Well, it’s true that it doesn’t have great visibility,” I would acknowledge. “But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, there are a lot of musicians out there who are working to change the ways our music is presented, breaking down conventions and searching for new ways to bring it into people’s lives.”
I’d go on to explain about the concept of entrepreneurial musicianship, the types of innovative performances I’d participated in and the growing contingent of outreach organizations. This discussion would always generate much interest on the part of my fellow passenger.
“Seems like the field still has a lot of potential then,” they would muse, as the flight attendants would patrol the aisle with trash bags and the plane would begin its initial descent.
“Well, I certainly think so!” I’d reply excitedly.
After we’d land, I’d shake their hand and thank them for talking; they’d wish me the best of luck with my endeavors, and perhaps make a joke or two about what a great seat mate my cello had made (“so quiet and polite, wasn’t he?”). And then, it would be time to disembark, and I’d soon find myself engulfed in the swarm of busy travelers scurrying about the terminal, perhaps never to speak again with the person I’d just spent two hours talking to about the meaning of being a classical musician.
Coming home from O’Hare the other night, it occurred to me that these “airplane conversations” can actually teach us a lot about ourselves and what we do, because they force us to think about our artistic activities from the perspective of a non-musician. This holds true for any profession, of course-whenever you find yourself in discussion with someone outside of your realm of expertise, you’re bound to take a figurative “step back” and see your work differently-but for musicians, it is vitally important that we acquire such perspectives, because they are essentially the perspectives of our audience, and more significantly, the audience we’ve yet to attract. If you do not take the time to consider the purpose of our art from the point of view of those who haven’t been exposed to it before, it’s as if you are giving someone a gift merely because you like it, and not because you feel they’ll profess an equal appreciation for its qualities. Pandering to their current tastes is not the solution, either-you should give them something that you know about which you feel they would find likable, based on their demonstrated interests. That’s what we have to gain from talking with non-musicians: an understanding of what they value artistically, what they want to experience in a concert, and what they want to gain from it. The ultimate product doesn’t change, but the interest and appreciation of it does.
So, the next time you find yourself on a long plane trip, don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation about something other than the abysmal weather conditions or the lackluster beverage offerings. You could learn quite a lot about the perspective of a potential arts patron, and if you’re lucky, you’ll learn something about yourself as well.