When I was ages 5-8, my mother took my brother and me to evening classical music concerts at Grant Park in Chicago. My brother and I spent little time listening, preferring instead to play around the majestic Buckingham Fountain. (Back then, parents did not care as much about letting their kids out of sight for awhile.)

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Buckingham Fountain at night. Grant Park, Chicago

I was a month shy of my eighth birthday when we moved to Los Angeles, where the evening classical music trips continued with visits to the Hollywood Bowl. That time around, however, it was just my mother and me.

My mother never learned to drive so we took the bus down Santa Monica Blvd. to the corner of Hollywood and Highland and walked the last half mile or so up Highland to the Bowl.

We did this three or four times each season for a few years. On those trips, the music started to catch on and I spent equal amounts of time exploring the Bowl and sitting in my seat listening to the concerts.

Our seats cost 50 cents each in 1965. Today, those Bowl seats cost $1.

I loved and love being at the Hollywood Bowl, so much so that when I got my driver license at 16 and had a larger selection of jobs available to me, I chose to work at the Hollywood Bowl and stayed there for three seasons.

In my first year, I was an usher, the standard entry-level position. The next year, however, I was promoted to ticket taker and was given a parking pass at the Odin lot which is just across Highland from the Bowl. If you are not a large donor, the conductor, a musical guest, or a member of senior management – those folks parked behind the bandshell – the Odin lot was where you wanted to park. I had it better than most members of the orchestra.

The ticket taker job was a dream. I had to report to work two hours before the start of the performance and stay for one hour after. Once most of the patrons had entered, our supervisor, Dave, cut us loose and we were free to do what we wanted, as long as we stayed out of trouble. I chose to listen to the music.

It was a dream job. From time to time, my girlfriend would attend performances and we’d sit way, way up in those 50 cent seats. As a teenager, it was as close to heaven as I could get.

The music wasn’t all classical. I saw performances by Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper – still one of the best rock shows – James Taylor, and many more.

On July 25, 1974, I had time to kill and arrived way early just to sit and read in a box seat that I could not afford. When I got to the Bowl, I discovered that the evening’s performer, Stephen Stills and his band Manassas, were conducting their sound check. So there I was, in the second row, listening to the music, the only person in the audience.

As much as I enjoyed the pop and rock shows, it was the classical music concerts that were my preference. The sight and sound of 80-plus musicians playing woodwinds, brass, strings, and percussions in perfect unison is still, to me, one of life’s most powerful experiences.

This summer, I will make the trek to the Bowl at least twice.

I listen now to classical music more than ever because I have found that it greatly increases my concentration: There is no doubt in my mind that my best work has been created while listening to classical music. For the past 10 years or so, that work has been created to the sound of one piece, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which I settled on after many experiments with other classical pieces.

In a typical workday, I will listen to the Fifth 10 times.

Getting to the point

I thought of all of this as I get ready to buy my Bowl seats on Sunday. I started thinking that if it helps me as an adult, maybe it helped me as a child, even by osmosis as I ran around Grant Park.

I’d heard of the so-called “Mozart bounce,” which purports to give a temporary IQ boost when listening to classical music. There is study evidence either way.

My research continued beyond that to the effects of classical music not on the IQ but on concentration, as that is what works for me. Turns out, there is a lot of reliable evidence connecting classical music and concentration. There are also tremendous benefits for teachers due to the ability of classical music to assist in classroom management.

Here are a couple of excerpts from online sources. This is from Chris Brewer, who specializes in creating programs for schools to add classical music to the classroom:

“Baroque music, such as that composed by Bach, Handel or Telemann, that is 50 to 80 beats per minute creates an atmosphere of focus that leads students into deep concentration in the alpha brain wave state.” 

And this is from Smart Classroom Management:

“Having classical music playing in the background when students enter the classroom can reduce tension and anxiety, making them less inclined to act up. It also builds a subconscious association between the sound of the music and behavior that is conducive to learning.”

This evidence is not new. In fact, much of it is really old. By now, you’re probably wondering why, with so many tremendous benefits, the N-MUSD is not using classical music as a learning and concentration tool in select classroom environments.

The reason is simple – it’s the same reason why so many of the challenges faced by the district are challenges at all… It’s because the leadership – starting at the very top with the superintendent – tends to be less proactive than reactive in their leadership.

It’s Whac-A-Mole: Problem comes up, just beat it down with a task force or community meeting or whatever is necessary to get it out of the public eye.

Classical music would not have prevented the red cup video. That had a better chance of not occurring if we had proactive leadership that recognized the rise in hate activity over the past couple of yars and chose to address the issue before it reared its ugly head in and out of our schools.

What makes this leadership failure all the more tragic are the recent comments by Trustee Karen Yelsey, who said, “I did not know [hate incidents] was so prevalent in our schools” and “This has been happening for a long time – 25-30 years.”

If Yelsey didn’t know, I’d bet her colleagues through the years also did not know. And why didn’t they know that hate incidents had been happening all this time? Because the leadership did not tell them.

The failure to report years of hate incidents is the most irresponsible conduct I have witnessed in 20 years of covering district affairs. It’s a deal breaker and should cause the Trustees to wonder what else they have not been told.

A proactive approach to learning would test classical music by starting with an investigation into the best practices of other schools where it is or was being used. The N-MUSD would not be the first district to try this: Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. But we don’t know because the district staff is not inspired to take the bold step of advancing this experiment.

This much I know: Classical music has been one of the great joys of my life. It has helped me learn and focus and when I see and hear it live, it inspires me and gives me hope.

Thanks, mom.

Steve Smith