The fine arts are a roadmap for living an inspired life – you just have to know how to approach them.
Classical music, dance, theatre, and the visual arts can be intimidating. All those terms, all the hype… and where do you even start? Plus, lots of people feel a little sheepish about the arts because they feel like they aren’t smart/classy/rich enough to “get” them. Ridiculous! Generations and generations of human beings have loved the fine arts, and damnit, so can you. Let me show you how.
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So… I have good news and bad news. The good news is that I’m so pumped to teach you how to love the fine arts more than you ever knew you could. The bad news is that you have to put in the work to get there.
Sorry! (And sorry for the “sorry” – I’m Canadian, I can’t help it.) The fine arts take time to understand. Sure, there are lots of effortless ways to start being a fan of the arts, and I love to share those here and through social media. That stuff is gold, for sure. But to get to the real juiciness that is loving the arts, you’re going to have to put in some effort.
To my mind, at least, that’s a good thing. A lot of things that are quick and easy to understand and derive pleasure from are shallow. They’re not the interests, hobbies, and passions that sustain you and colour your whole life; instead, they’re reality TV and snack food (which have their time and place, but man cannot live on Love Island and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos alone).
So, what exactly do you need to learn before you can truly appreciate the fine arts? Three things. For each of the fine arts – to be a true fan – you need to develop three areas of knowledge…
I’m currently reading an incredible book about, in essence, releasing the ego and stopping the voice in your head from messing everything up. It’s called Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself, by Joe Dispenza (the bleakest title ever, I know), and it is extremely woo woo, but extremely good. And it’s got me thinking about performing artists, and the biggest skill everyone could learn from them.
Dispenza’s work is essentially about visualizing the type of person you want to be in such vivid detail that you feel it in your body. To do this, one of the essential skills you need to learn is how to be master over your thoughts and quiet down that voice in your head that talks to you all day...
There was a time, not too long ago, when a LOT of the blockbuster movies that came out were actually adaptations of plays. I think that this was extremely beneficial for theatre (and theatregoers!) because it made the line between “high art” and “popular art” a lot more blurry. If you saw the movie version of a Tennessee Williams play and liked it, you might have been a lot less hesitant to try seeing another of his plays on stage.
Well, never fear, because I’m going to make that line blurry again for you! Even some really great recent films are actually adaptations of wonderful, hugely celebrated plays, and you might not even know it. Plus, there are a bazillion classic films that were also originally written for the stage. Ready to discover (or reignite) your love of the theatre? Why not start with one of these exceptional films based on plays!
My whole jam, if you’re new here, is giving people the actual information they need to enjoy and get all the life-changing awesomeness from the fine arts. That means learning to look and listen like a pro, and it also means learning bits and bobs of terminology, history, and technique so you can actually understand what you’re taking in.
So in that vein, today I’m going to teach you all the instruments of the orchestra! (Don’t worry – it will be easy and, dare I say, fun). Orchestral music is my jam, you guys (and not just because my husband is an orchestral musician). Music written for a symphony orchestra (that’s what “orchestral music” means) is the flippin’ backbone of the classical repertoire. The greatest symphonies are some of the most important human achievements of the past couple hundred years. And to really love them, you’ve gotta know the orchestra itself.
So, without further ado, here is your overview of all the orchestral instruments…
The classics get such a bad rap these days. Most fine arts organizations currently seem quite eager to program new works, as well as newly discovered old works, and there SO MANY good and important reasons for this (the most important of which is the slow dismantling of the patriarchy and colonialism). Amen to all the artistic directors out there who are making room for historically underrepresented artists. I will literally NEVER argue with that.
What I will argue FOR is continuing to celebrate the classics right alongside these fantastic, previously uncelebrated, new works. And if you’re not a musician or actor or artist yourself, perhaps you’re like, “well, of course!” But, that’s not how everyone feels...
Ballet plots can be RIDICULOUSLY convoluted… but that doesn’t mean they have to be complicated. Here are fifteen of the greatest ballets of all time, boiled down into two sentences each. I mean, it’s really all you need to know!
A peasant girl falls in love with a disguised (and already betrothed) nobleman who, unsurprisingly, breaks her heart, so she goes crazy and dies. A band of supernatural revenge-seeking lady ghosts rouse her spirit, and despite her pleas to spare the bastard, they get payback.
2. Swan Lake
A depressed prince sets off to hunt some swans, but then one of them turns into a hot babe…
I’d like to return to one of my favourite topics that I affectionately call, “Plays: They’re just like Movies!”
All art forms have a kind of “psych out” factor – that intangible thing about them that makes people turn off their brains and go “whoa whoa whoa, the thee-yay-tur! I am not fancy or smart enough for that. I will definitely not get it, and it will be dumb, and I will be dumb, and I will fall asleep. Harrr har har har harrrr.”
Have you ever, ever had that reaction looking at movie listings? No? I didn’t think so. How about flipping through Netflix?…
First, let’s get one thing clear: I am not an art historian. I have very little formal education in art history, composition, and technique.
I am, however, an art fanatic. I love – LOVE – the visual arts. So over the years, I’ve tried to learn more and more and more about how to engage with works of art. How to read them. How to understand them. I know I adore gazing at a giant painting from a Renaissance master… but why? And how do I make the absolute most of my time with a great work of art?
As many of you know, I trained to become a professional opera singer, so when I take in classical music, I don’t have to think as hard any more – a lot of the processing is happening in the back of my mind, where I’ve tucked away all my knowledge of music history and theory. But with visual art, not having the advanced level of understanding has actually turned out to be such an interesting gift for me, because I get to actively learn how to love art as an adult.
My fundamental beef with most arts appreciation information (and not just visual art, but all the fine arts) is that it either (a) uses the assumption that you can enjoy the arts with zero knowledge base, or (b) starts way too difficult and intimidates the prospective arts lover…
I think part of what gets people hung up about embracing the fine arts is that they assume you need to be an expert to enjoy them. That you need to have taken a university class in it, or have studied it as a kid.
Let me level with you. I have a master’s degree in classical music, and it’s not like I sit in a concert hall thinking things like “ho ho! What a clever use of the secondary dominant in the passacaglia section. Clever bastard – he leans heavily on the Neopolitan, but it really works! It really works, by god!”
Out of all the musicians I know, only maybe two listen to music that way, and they’re composers.
Myth busting time! Classical musicians are NOT sitting there listening and seeing the music notes and chords and technical markings light up in their minds, like this…
One of the biggest challenges around bridging the fine arts knowledge gap is the concept of “dumbing down.” Have you heard that term used before? People who work in the fine arts use it a lot to describe bad attempts at arts education for the public. They’ll say a presenter or article or video “dumbs down” a great work or era or technical concept.
One of my greatest joys is explaining just about anything. I was perhaps the most talkative child you’ve ever met, and I can still be ridiculously chatty, especially if the topic is something I can teach or explain. Breaking down complex topics is what I enjoyed most about law – even the most outrageously complex cases or principles can be taken apart and communicated in basic principles and analogies. This skillset led me to my corporate position, where my job was basically to explain complex investment topics to very important lay people.
Which brings me back to “dumbing down.” When people with a high level of knowledge try to break down complex topics for “lay people” (i.e., people without little to no knowledge of a subject), the most common mistake they make is starting too high. They jump in at mid-knowledge, which turns half the crowd off the topic entirely. But they do this to avoid “dumbing down,” for which their colleagues might look down upon them.
The reason people with a high level of knowledge (including many fine arts professionals) often show disdain for “dumbing down” is that they know how amazing their topic is. They want to stay way up at the level they’ve obtained, with the context and the nuance and the interpretation, because it’s so good, so fascinating, so rewarding. So it irks them profoundly to hear only the soundbite about a piece of music, or a painting, or a ballet. They’re thinking “god, there’s way more to it than that!”…