How to get into orchestral music using YouTube

francisco-bricio-erQQ_Po66CE-unsplash.jpg

One of the things I think we’ve all gotten wrong about “arts appreciation” for a long time is the idea that, to do it right, you need to see it live. This is because most talk about arts appreciation comes from arts organizations who need to sell tickets, and arts advocates who want to do everything they can to ensure artistic organizations don’t go under and leave cultural wastelands in their absence. Because arts administrators and advocates are people who really truly know how essential the arts are to our wellbeing, our society, and our very existence, they do everything in their power to protect the institutions that safeguard and present art to the people.

And I know some people are going to misunderstand me about this, possibly forever, so I want to be very explicit: those people are doing GOD’S WORK. Arts administrators, advocates, activists, donors, board members – you are the backbone of the world of art. You are what allows the collective body of art to live and flourish. Without you, we have no living, breathing system. We have nowhere to go, nothing to see. You are champions.

But, the problem with arts appreciation being tied to the support of institutions for the sake of keeping them alive is a bit complex. My overall theory is that the barrier to entry (that thing in your head that goes “oh boy, that seems too hard/expensive/scary for me”) for getting started with arts appreciation is too high for most people. That’s often because, when arts appreciation education is presented by an institution, it’s linked to their current offerings. Which is great! I love it! Please, please don’t stop doing this! BUT. If you don’t know anything about theatre, it’s not going to help to go to a panel discussion about aesthetics in Oscar Wilde’s plays. It’s just not.

Which brings me to classical music. You guys, my husband is a professional orchestral musician. I go to the symphony more than once a week. I go see other orchestras when I travel. I’m a raving fanatic for going to the symphony! If you’ve never been, go go go! But, why don’t we also try lowering your barrier to entry. Which is why, today I want to tell you about how awesome watching orchestral music on YouTube is.

Fun fact about professional musicians: they watch a lot of YouTube (and other streaming services, which I’ll get into later). When a classical musician is preparing a new piece – be it a new opera role, a new symphonic work they’ve never performed, or a new solo piece – .they go on YouTube. It is a frickin’ miracle age to be alive for a musician. You can sit down and not only hear, but watch the greatest players of your instrument perform exactly what you’re trying to prepare.

I used to do this to prepare opera roles when I was singing, and it was such a gift. Now, I just watch for fun. And honestly, that’s even better. 

Here’s what I love about watching orchestral music online: you can actually see everything. When you’re at a concert, and you’re out in a big hall and the musicians all look really small on stage, you don’t get to see the individuals as clearly. Online, especially in the new, really high quality videos big orchestras are putting out, you get to see close-ups on players when they play solos, you can feel the momentum of the strings as they all dig in and absolutely shred a rapturous, virtuosic section together, and you can see what the conductor is giving the players in terms of energy and emotion. You get to feel what the music is like on stage.

Plus, it’s way easier to follow the music with your ears when you also get to use your eyes a lot more. “Oh, an oboe solo! I know that’s what instrument is playing BECAUSE THE CAMERA IS ON THE PERSON.” It won’t be long before you’re like, “Oh ya, there’s a great timpani solo in that piece” BECAUSE YOU CAN SEE THE TIMPANIST WAILING ON THE DRUMS AT THE BACK! I’m telling you, it’s fun, it’s easy, it’s exciting.

So, as with everything in the arts, the question is “where do I even start?” As you can imagine, the amount of orchestral music (remember: that’s classical music written for a whole symphony orchestra) on YouTube is positively staggering, and it can definitely feel overwhelming if you’re not sure what you’re trying to find.

So here’s how musicians do it. The easiest way to start down a fruitful YouTube rabbit hole is to start with composer, orchestra, or conductor. And because you might not know many of those yet, here are five of each to get you started. Search ‘em up and just click around. My personal favourite way to take this in is of course to put on good headphones and really zone in for a complete piece… Ok, that’s a lie. My favourite way to take this in is actually to open a window in my browser while I’m working, make it smallish, and put it up in the corner of my screen while I’m working on something mundane. No one questions a little classical music on your screen– look how smart and classy you are! But in all seriousness, it is a lovely way to perk up a couple hours of billing, making spreadsheets, doing calendar entries… that hum drum stuff we all have to do at some point in our work day. And when you hear something really interesting, pause it and go back. See what instrument was playing, and soon you’ll be having revelations like, “Oh, so that’s what a bassoon sounds like!” or, “Wow, that violin at the front (the Concertmaster) plays a lotttt of solos.”

Damn. Look at you go!

Ok, ready? Here are 5 composers, orchestras, and conductors that have lots of videos on YouTube for you to get started with. You’re looking for videos that are: at least 10 minutes long (shorter will be promo videos for the concert, like advertisements – still good, just not the whole piece), and live recordings (the thumbnail image should be of the players or the stage, not the cover of an album – those videos usually don’t have any video, just audio). Hope you enjoy!

5 ORCHESTRAL COMPOSERS TO CHECK OUT ON YOUTUBE

(search for the word “orchestra” + the composer’s last name)

  1. Gustav Mahler

  2. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

  3. George Gershwin

  4. Ludwig van Beethoven

  5. Igor Stravinsky

5 ORCHESTRAS TO CHECK OUT ON YOUTUBE

  1. London Symphony Orchestra

  2. Chicago Symphony Orchestra

  3. Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

  4.  Cleveland Orchestra

  5. Philadelphia Orchestra

5 CONDUCTORS TO CHECK OUT ON YOUTUBE

  1. Riccardo Muti

  2. Marin Alsop

  3. Leonard Bernstein

  4. Valery Gergiev

  5. Michael Tilson Thomas 

And once you’ve gotten into the groove (pardon the pun) with YouTube, check out three of the biggest streaming services musicians love: the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall, the Met Opera’s On Demand site, and, “the world’s leading classical music TV channel” Medici.tv. You’ll feel like such an insider!