Music to Our Ears Anyone Can Enjoy the Classical Sounds of a Symphony -- Especially with Our Guide to Preparation and Proper Etiquette

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Byline: Nicole Johnson McGill, Times-Union staff writer

Most of us have been exposed to classical music all of our lives. If you celebrate Christmas, then Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker has entered into your consciousness at one time or another. If you've ever gone to church, especially a Protestant service, then you're undoubtedly familiar with Bach. And the last time you watched a cartoon or a feature film, you probably heard classical music in the background, setting the tone and punctuating the action.

Yet classical music and the symphony have reputations of being highbrow art best appreciated by the well-to-do and well-educated, said Scott Speck, who co-authored Classical Music for Dummies .

"The problem that I've encountered as a conductor of classical music is that they [audiences] think that they have to have a certain amount of knowledge or upbringing or even worse, a certain amount of money to appreciate classical music," Speck said.

But classical music was once the music of the everyday people.

"The great composers of music were mostly poor but happy and were writing music for the purpose of nourishing the spirits of everyone around them," Speck said. "It was absolutely not considered something for the rich or the elite. It's only in the last half century or so that classical music has acquired this mystique of being not for everyone."

So maybe you have an interest in classical music, but you've never bought a CD or stepped foot into a concert. Perhaps you don't know how to pronounce the composers' names, and maybe you're not sure of what to wear or when to clap. We'll do our best to walk you through it, and who knows, maybe we'll even see you at the next concert.

BEFORE YOU GO

Before you buy a ticket to the symphony, determine what kind of classical music you like. There's no point in sitting through a performance featuring Baroque music if you like Romantic. (Bach is Baroque, Schumann is Romantic, in case you want to sample.)

The Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra's concert season includes several types of programs, from the Masterworks Series, featuring world-reknowned classical soloists, to the Discovery, Pops and the Family series. The concerts typically have themes, so take the time to look over the programs and choose a performance that you think you'll enjoy.

Once you've bought your tickets, there are two schools of thought on how to prepare for the performance. One is prepare, and the other is don't bother. Those who don't want to bother, skip to the end of the article and hope you enjoy the concert.

But while doing a little homework is not required, it will make your concert experience more interesting. You'll be familiar with the music and know what to expect. Speck suggests buying a CD or checking one out from the library and playing it throughout the week as background music.

Reading is helpful, too, but no book will ever replace listening. Nevertheless, books can tell you more about the roles of the instruments and the lives of the composers.

The symphony's Masterworks Series includes a 30-minute pre-concert lecture called Words on Music. The conductor talks about the program and provides interesting historical context and insight into the composers' minds when they wrote their pieces. He also prepares the audience for important cues to listen for in the music and answers a few questions.

No one enforces a dress code at the symphony. You'll see some of everything, from the occasional blue jeans to pearls and formal attire. However, most people fall somewhere between the two extremes, opting for the dressy-casual to dressy category. A dress or pantsuit is fine for women, and a jacket and tie is acceptable for men.

WHILE YOU'RE THERE

Arrive early. Besides, if you arrive after the program has started, you may have to wait before you're allowed to sit. If you have children with you, make sure they've gone to the bathroom before the concert begins. …