13 thoughts on “Why is Watching Classical Music on TV so boring?

  1. Jennifer Foster says:

    The thing that blows classical concerts on TV for me right off the bat is the lously sound quality. It’s like listening to an orchestra over a Dixie Cup and string telephone. Why bother? And why can’t producers find something better to do with their cameras than cut from winds to strings to brass and back?

  2. Frank Dominguez says:

    I used to think it was sound quality. But I’ve got my TV hooked up to play through my stereo system, and most of the PBS classical concerts are broadcast in stereo. They sound as good as listening to the radio. I’ve proven it. Switched back and forth between the radio signal and the TV signal during simulcasts. No difference.
    So for me, at least, it’s not the sound quality. I think it has more to do with the cutting back and forth you pointed out. It’s as if the TV directors are out to recreate everything that’s boring about the live concert experience, instead of translating it into their own medium.
    Much as I like live classical concerts, there’s no denying they could use more theatricality, especially in this day and age. When I caught Evelyn Glennie last year, I was struck by what a different experience that concert was. It was more than the instrumentation and seeing her whirl around the stage. They used colored lighting and pin point spots and compelling effects like that for her part of the show.
    In the second half, when they played a symphony, it was back to the dreary yellow stage lights. No wonder folks were falling asleep left and right.

  3. Jennifer Foster says:

    You are right. That Glennie concert was exciting, thanks to Evelyn mostly, but also thanks to her sparkly, skin-tight ruby pants (think Dorothy’s slippers), wildly dramatic lighting and lots of motion from the front to the back of the stage and back again.
    And absolutely–the camera work on those broadcasts is one big, old-fashioned yawn. How stale can you get? Successful broadcasts of classical music are produced like music videos. The most stunning I’ve seen is at the link below. Click on “Gallery” and have a look at the environment in which Maxim Vengerov is playing his violin and so on. This broadcast made me cry, Isabel Bayrakdarian’s singing of a movement from Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony in snowy a doorway at Auschwitz, in particular:

  4. Rachel Stewart says:

    Maybe classical orchestras should consider getting into the music video business because, besides the mediocre sound quality, there’s not enough visual drama in a classical concert for the cameras. The most animated thing is the conductor, who, when he/she is good, can provide visual stimulation. But it’s usually not enough to overcome the rather confined motions of the players (timpanists being an exception). And it’s all so darned predictable. The music’s great, but you know where it’s going. You know you aren’t in for any surprises, unlike the better pop/rock performances on screen or off.
    I agree with Frank that the live classical concert experience is much better. Something about being in the moment with the music and players as things happen just doesn’t translate to the screen. Or maybe the tv directors and producers are just stuck in a rut. At any rate, to me, it ain’t entertaining, and it’s a sure fire way to get me to change the channel. Of course, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to say I do the same when the doo-wop shows come on.

  5. Perhaps the effect is at least in part do to the conditioned brain shutdown most humans have with TV. After all, the vast majority of television programing is finely calculated to capture the viewer by inducing an intense low level brain wave trance, and keeping the viewer perpetually in that state.
    After my only TV was stolen, I never replaced it and this miraculous separation has completely changed the way I react to these devices the seldom instances I might happen upon them. (I now react with a most foul taste welling up in my mouth, followed by an uncontrollable desire to flee, and all just at the sight and sound of TVs in Wal-mart).
    Fairly recently I have been buying many Classical DVDs, and I play them through my computer on a large monitor. I pull up the couch, turn on the stereo, and have never come close to losing interest, let us not mention falling asleep.
    Of course I tend to prefer historical performances as far as these DVDs go, but I have a few fine modern performances which I enjoy as well. But, I must say I have seen a few new DVD performances featuring some of the ‘super stars’ of the present classical world, which tend to be heavily over produced with all their nausiating quick camera cuts and cheap post-MTV tricks. However, these tend to also be performances I don’t tend to appreciate in the first place.
    I would recommend some good historical DVDs, the older the better! After all, these are performances you are never going to see live. (And perhaps try watching them on a computer monitor)

  6. I’m very disappointed by the sentiments I see expressed in this thread. Why? Let me quote from something I wrote on my blog a few weeks ago:
    “I ran across this quote several weeks ago:
    Boredom is a sign of satisfied ignorance, blunted apprehension, crass sympathies, dull understanding, feeble powers of attention, and irreclaimable weakness of character.
    James Bridie
    My kids learned very early on in their lives that if they wanted to see me get really angry, all they had to do was tell me, “I am bored.” Now, I know I’m guilty of uttering this phrase more than once in my life but I have grown over time to believe that this little three word statement encapsulates the entirety of our vast human capacity for selfishness. To say, “I’m bored” is the same as saying, “I am the center of the universe and all of creation fails to entertain me!”
    Boredom is a product of attitude, not circumstance. Even in a silent, colorless, windowless room, we have the oft forgotten blessing of IMAGINATION – a wondrous gift from God. The most incredible organic multimedia supercomputer ever conceived is between our two ears. Its potential has not yet begun to be tapped.”
    Where is your IMAGINATION, people? This music wasn’t written for our eyes. It was written for our hearts and our minds. Blindfold yourselves and use the intelligence and imagination that lays dormant and is about to be bred out of our species!

  7. Ray Riska says:

    For me, there is no substitute for seeing a good live classical performance, but if I want to watch one on TV, I’ll usually use my Blockbuster Online account and rent a concert DVD encoded in Dolby Digital, or even better – DTS! The sound quality makes a huge difference between being entertained and nodding off to sleep, especially if you own a decent home theater system. Multiple camera angles and artist expressions don’t hurt much, either.

  8. I don’t agree with James Bridie’s assertion that boredom is always tantamount to a character flaw on the part of the person who’s bored (although I can see that sometime it could be). And I’m relieved that I’m not related to Mr. Roberts; long car trips with him must’ve been tough.
    But I couldn’t agree more with the other sentiments expressed, and I think that’s actually what we were getting at in our comments about classical music on television. Of course the music wasn’t written for our eyes! But something for the eyes is exactly what the visual medium of television demands, and what some of us find lacking in the presentation of classical music on the “boob tube.” A little more imagination is precisely what’s needed by television when it’s dealing with music that is this rich and evocative.
    At a live concert, where my attention is not being manipulated by a television director choosing the point of focus and perspective, my imagination is free to respond to the music as freely and creatively as it can. By unimaginatively aping the physical realities of the live concert, televised concerts prevent us from the full exercise of our own imagination and experience of the music, while simultaneously also depriving us of the television director’s own intuitive reaction to the music (which, while it would be subjective, would at least have the advantage of being unique and personal).
    Perhaps my understanding of the phenomenon of boredom is shaped by my background. I am a performer by nature and by training, and the cardinal rule of performance is “Don’t Bore The Audience.” Ours is not to pass judgment on the audience, but instead to communicate with them using the most effective means. If we fail, the fault is more than likely our own. Sure, there are always folks who don’t meet you halfway: who don’t “suspend disbelief” at a theatrical production, or who come to a classical music concert grudgingly and prepared to hate it. But in general it seems best to give every member of the audience the benefit of the doubt, and push ourselves to find the most creative and effective means of expression to reach them. To blame bored audiences for what may well be our own failings seems too easy.

  9. The constant potential for boredom is not to be denied but our failure to recognize it for what it is (a lazy mind or a weak personality) robs us of our ability to overcome it immediately. How? Engage your whole heart and intellect with the performer and performance. Failing that, leave.
    It is not necessary to become a tyrant on long car rides with the kids. Most people have allowed themselves to become so enslaved to the ideas of others that they no longer seem to be able to create an original idea of their own. (Witness the innumerable remakes and sequels in the entertainment industry.)
    It is a parent’s responsibility to nurture the natural imagination in children. When they were “bored” (i.e. – a naturally active mind being allowed to atrophy), I challenged their thinking in areas they loved — “What have you been reading?” “Do you think the ending of that movie we saw last night made sense?” “What would you have done differently if you wrote the story?” “Have you made it through level (x) of “such & such” video game? How did you do it?” It wasn’t a quiz. It was a conversation.
    Both of the kids are grown and out now – one a professional musician, the other a chemist who enjoys dancing the ballet for her avocation. They both write with great imagination, have broadly ecclectic taste in music, can converse intelligently on many topics, love the movies, love to read, etc.
    Bad video presentation of the type to which this thread originally referred is a shame, to be sure. But are the musicians playing to their potential? Is the music coming alive in the hands of a skilled conductor? If so, stop watching and enjoy listening.
    I agree with Mr. Bridie.
    If a performance is poor, I’m sorry for the performer. If I’m bored by it, that’s my own fault.

  10. Now I can’t help but to feel a little guilty for opening the doors to something that went beyond my point and into the realm of personal mental integrity jabs.
    So let me say this: I like the James Bridie quote, of course it is one of those quotes that should be taken as a grain of salt, but I myself have lived by this to some extent. However I do get bored. If I am watching a movie that bores me, for example, I walk out of it. It would be ridiculous, as another example, to wake up one morning in bed, lie there for a moment then think, “I feel a little boredom coming on, but I can’t let it get to me, I better stay put and think about something interesting like what meaning that spot on the ceiling has in my life.” You would never get out of bed, and if continued for too many days, you would one day wake up doing the same thing in a mental institution.
    Not to make fun of Mr. Roberts point or anything, but you see mine, about the salt.
    Now onto the point of Mr. Dominguez…
    To me, if a recorded musical performance is of VERY high quality, available in audio form, or audio and plain boring video. I will sometimes choose the one, sometimes the other, and be perfectly happy this way. However, if the video option is more interesting (nice perspectives, sound synced cuts, juxtapositions, etc…) then all the better! But if you start with a mediocre performance or worse, then no amount of ‘television magic’ will save it.
    So, to sum that up, I would love to see more creative, more daring and insightful visual techniques applied to classical music filming. I wish there was much more of that (I have seen a bit of it). However, if I have to choose between plain, basic classical video techniques, and poorly done, petty attempts at livening up the music (I have seen a lot of this); then I’ll take the plain, basic any day.

  11. Frank Dominguez says:

    Well, I feel a lot better now knowing the kids in the Roberts family car were engaged in conversation and not left on the roadside when they complained of boredom on long trips! I hope my parenting has been equally savvy when my kids and I have been in the same position.
    Now, at the risk of boring followers of this blog with the spectacle of beating a dead horse, let me respond again to the assertion that being bored is always the fault of the individual that’s bored.
    Mr. Roberts writes, “Engage your whole heart and intellect with the performer and performance.” I agree that that is essentially the responsibilty of an audience member, and if he or she hasn’t done that, he or she hasn’t played fair.
    But there is a responsibilty on the part of the performers, as well, to be engaged and spontaneous and (you should pardon the expression) entertaining. And the director of a televised concert is one of the principal performers in the concert, with as much power to affect the perception of the music as the conductor.
    Mr. Roberts also writes: “Failing that, leave.” Now, what is that but a tacit admission of boredom? Leaving is no better or worse than falling asleep or changing channels.
    It sounds as if what is really to be loathed is the tolerance of boredom. To permit ourselves to be bored is a waste of time and talent, and not to be endured.
    Nathan Shirley is on the money when he argues that a great performance trumps the video presentation. On that point perhaps we are all agreed. And I agree with Nathan that too many attempts to “spice up” classical performance on video seem lame.
    Finally, I’ve been thinking of the irony of my arguing for more creative production values in televised concerts. I remember the birth of MTV and music videos, which made their first splash when I was a teenager in New York City. I hated music videos right from the start, precisely because I felt they interfered with the work of my imagination in deciding what the song was about. If you don’t believe me, ask my friends from the old neighborhood.
    I guess what I’m saying is that everyone has a responsibility to be fully engaged in the artistic process: the artist as well as the audience. And that sometimes artists fail their audiences. I can “feel sorry” for the artist. But I don’t go to concerts (or watch them on TV) to feel sorry for performers, but to experience the fullest engagement with the music. For the record, if I’ve plunked down good money to attend a concert, I probably am going to take solace in the music and overlook the performers; that’s just frugal.
    But if I want to just listen, I can put on a CD at home, or turn on WDAV. That’s not what I go to concerts for, or why I might catch one on TV.
    That reminds me: a study by the Knight Foundation a few years ago showed that the number one source for the enjoyment of classical music was radio, far beyond CDs and live concerts. Perhaps the key lies in what we’ve been discussing. Radio has long been called a “theater of the mind,” where imagination is engaged to an extent that few other mediums permit.
    I guess that’s why I got into this business!

  12. Mark Seeley says:

    Last weekend, I attended Blossom Music Center to hear the Cleveland orchestra perform the works they are taking on the European Tour this month. Friday, I sat through Saariaho’s Orion and Bruckner’s 5th. Saturday was Debussy’s Printemps, La Mer, Prokoviev’s Suite from R & J and Mozart’s “Prague” symphony. I was NEVER bored. It was my first time to hear the “new boss.”
    But I do think our attention spans have been reduced with the age of television. We live in the culture of the sound-bite. I remember I had difficulty sitting through a live performance of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion — not a short work.

  13. Eric says:

    Wondering if some more research about this is done before. The effect from “live” or just TV is not only on classical music I guess.

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