Why You Should Think of Classical Music Like Basketball


When I started dating my husband Ryan back in 2005, we had a problem. A big problem. A potentially relationship-impeding problem.

I knew nothing about basketball.

Ok, not nothing. But as it turns out, Space Jam didn’t teach me enough to enjoy watching multiple games a week on TV with my new beau.

I went into our relationship a sports fan, but I only watched football, baseball, and curling (#canada). So, when I discovered just how badly Ryan wanted to watch basketball like, all the time, I was happy to watch along with him. But – I’ll be honest with you – at the beginning, I found basketball boring as hell. Everybody would run to one end of the court, shoot, shoot, miss, grab, then run to the other end. Repeat for fourty-eight minutes. Of PLAYING time. AT LEAST 2 HOURS OF TV TIME. Back and forth. Back and forth. Kill me now.

But I was obsessed with my new man, so I was resigned: I would learn to love basketball. Or, at least, learn enough about it to seem like I liked it to get Ryan to fall in love with me (because I was an 18-year-old #coolgirlfriend).

So I started asking questions while we watched. I now know that my husband must have already loved me at that point, because he put up with endless queries like, “What does that word mean?”, and “Wait, what’s going on?”, and ENDLESSLY: “Who’s that guy?”. Eventually, I started to learn the basics (which thankfully aligned with what I remembered from high school gym class), so I moved on to more sophisticated questions, like “How tall is THAT guy?!”, “Why don’t they just dunk it every time?”, and (one I still ask), “Why are there only lady dancers?”

As we watched and I learned, a remarkable thing happened, and shockingly fast: I became a basketball fan. By the end of the season, I knew all the famous players’ names, I had picked a team to cheer for in the playoffs (the Suns, because: Steve Nash), and I knew (almost) all the rules. More than that, I could now follow the players back and forth across my screen. I could see the plays develop. I knew what the f*** was going on.

When I started watching, everything was just a blur of movement and words and points and players. None of it had any meaning for me, so I couldn’t appreciate when a player or team did something really amazing. I couldn’t tell if a superstar was better than a rookie because I didn’t know what about his playing should tell me he’s the best in the world. I didn’t know a good play from a bad play because I didn’t even know what a “play” looked like.

Nowadays, I would call myself a pretty devoted basketball fan. I still watch multiple games a week during the season, but now I also watch and read sports news, follow the careers of players and coaches, and I’ve learned much more about the history of the game. I even took a class in law school on sports law, which gave me a way deeper understanding of the cultural, contractual, and political forces at play (BTW, it was perhaps the single greatest class I ever took in any subject for any degree). In short, watching and following basketball has become a huge hobby for me, and I get a ton of enjoyment out of it.

My journey from basketball ignoramus to fangirl has opened my eyes about becoming a fan of anything. You see, the more I understood the game, the more I enjoyed it. And – you know where I’m going with this! – this has me thinking about classical music. When arts organizations and advocates talk about cultivating future audiences, they’re usually talking about getting “bums in seats”; in other words, getting people into the hall, and surely then they will see how awesome the experience is and become life-long classical music aficionados. But, isn’t that the same as dropping someone in a seat at a basketball game and assuming they’ll become a raving fan?

The missing piece, I believe, is knowledge.

And I’m not talking about university-level, stuffy knowledge about what year a composer was born or what key a certain symphony is in. I’m talking about the level of understanding that corresponds to the level of enjoyment a classical music newbie is seeking. There’s a reason even amateur musicians get so much out of a symphony concert: they know what to watch and listen for. They know when they’ve witnessed something really special because they know what ordinary looks like. They know how to hear a particularly moving, devastating melodic phrase because they know how a tune of that type that would normally go. And this stuff isn’t rocket science – I’m not talking about even being able to read music. I can’t play basketball! But I have the viewer’s level of understanding, and that’s what you need for classical music as well.

You know – maybe basketball’s not your thing. So, just in case, let’s use a different example to prove my theory. A very smart, serious example.

When I was in law school, a group of my girlfriends and I would get together once a week to watch The Bachelor (or The Bachelorette, or Bachelor in Paradise). A couple of times, a friend tagged along who had never seen the show before, and, inevitably, that friend would clearly be having a miserable time half-way into the episode. Why? Because (1) they didn’t understand the format of the show, and (2) they didn’t know any of the people on the season. The rest of us would squeal in delight when two arch-rivals got a date card for a two-on-one. Our friend would blankly stare at us in amazement and horror at our extreeeme reaction.

When you don’t have a basic level of understanding about something, you can’t really enjoy it.

Sure – if you’re a positive, curious, fun-loving human being, you can get a little joy out of just about anything you’re dropped into. But, in order to really enjoy something, we need to understand it. We don’t need to be experts, but we need at least a little bit of knowledge to engage with what we’re seeing, hearing, and feeling.

So if you’ve ever been to the symphony and you fell asleep or zoned out or kinda sorta enjoyed it but didn’t really get what the big whoop was about, don’t blame yourself. If you looked around and wondered if you were missing something – rest assured that, ya, you actually were missing something. And that’s okay.

Let me be your boyfriend.

Okay, that sounds weird. What I mean to say is, I want to teach you all the stuff you need to really, truly enjoy classical music. And not the fancy stuff that you’ll find on the internet from classical music enthusiasts or in the program once you’re at the concert – you’re probably not there yet. But you do know more than you think you do, and the basics are really easy and interesting. Just like the basics of basketball.

So let’s turn you into a raving superfan! It’s wayyy easier than you think.

(And gooooo Raptors!)