Interview with Ben Lansing

Yesterday I posted my review of the wonderful new music history guide, Bigwigs of Classical Music. Today, author Ben Lansing joins us on Music Matters Blog for an exclusive interview.

Music Matters Blog (MMB): What is your musical background?

Ben Lansing (BL): As an instrumentalist, my music training includes piano from middle school to college and trombone in high school. As the author of a music history book, however, I also include music listening and music appreciation as part of my musical background. When I was twelve I bought my first classical music recording, a collection of excerpts from Beethoven’s most famous compositions. I knew absolutely nothing about music when I bought this recording. I didn’t know how to pronounce Beethoven’s name and had no idea what a symphony was. I didn’t even know that “classical music” was considered intimidating or “high brow” by a lot of people. I just liked the Beethoven sound and immediately became fascinated with classical music. Over the years I discovered more composers with even wackier names and was amazed at the diverse sounds and styles that were included in the category of “classical music.” Some of my favorite courses in college were music history courses because they helped to fill in the gaps for me.

MMB: What compelled you to write Bigwigs of Classical Music?

BL: I finished writing Bigwigs of Classical Music last year at the age of 22, but the book has roots that go way back to when I was a freshman in high school. Throughout my teenage years I collected a vast library of classical recordings, always searching for new composers and new styles in the seemingly limitless category of “classical music.” I quickly found that keeping a mental record of hundreds of composers from a period of over 1,000 years was a bit taxing, so I started jotting down the names of the composers in a notebook. Taking inspiration from my baseball card collection, I dedicated each page of the notebook to a composer and jotted down a few “career stats” under their names (like nationality, famous compositions, etc.). (Sure, it was different from the hobbies of most kids my age. But I didn’t watch much television so I had a lot of time on my hands.)

At the same time I was sharing all of the amazing music and fascinating music facts I was discovering with anyone that would listen. At first, I think many of my friends thought I was a geek. But slowly, they recognized that when the snobbish, high-brow facade is brushed away, classical music can be as meaningful, moving, and relevant as any other kind of music – and often even more so. As a result, a number of my friends began their own classical music collections.

I enjoyed sharing classical music so much that I eventually began a process of turning my composer notebook into a full-blown book that would introduce others to the joy of classical music. I wanted it to be fun and accessible for all ages, with not a hint of snobbishness. The result was Bigwigs of Classical Music, a music history book that traces classical music’s amazing history from ancient times all the way up to the 21st century.

MMB: How does Bigwigs of Classical Music differ from other music history books?

BL: There are a lot of good classical music books, but I don’t know of any classical music history book quite like Bigwigs of Classical Music. Most classical music books are humorless and dry. They assume that the reader is already familiar with names like Ockeghem and Stockhausen and terms like monophony and neoclassicism. Bigwigs covers scary-sounding names and terms, but it approaches every aspect of the classical music history with a spirit of discovery and fun. Each era of classical music contains fascinating anecdotes, cartoons, and novice-friendly information.On a deeper level, Bigwigs looks at classical music not as an isolated historical phenomenon, but as a product of the cultures, times, and events of the society in which the composers lived. Each composer’s life is examined in the context of those who came before and how the composer’s life influenced those who came later. When we listen to the music of Beethoven, for example, we’re not just hearing the music of some German guy that lived two hundred years ago. We’re hearing the emotional, spiritual, and artistic impact of the revolutionary period of the 1800’s that profoundly shaped our world into what it is today. When we look at classical music in this way, Stravinsky is no longer just Stravinsky, he is a representative of the war-torn 20th century. Hildegard, similarly, embodies the spirituality of the Middle Ages and the era of the Crusades, etc. History, after all, is the product of the struggle for ideas, and these ideas are expressed in no more compelling way than through classical music.

MMB: Do you have any specific ways you could envision a teacher using Bigwigs of Classical Music in their teaching?

BL: This book can be used in a lot of different ways. I have used it to teach high school students in a classroom setting, but it also works well for a self-guided study.

Whether the teacher is a music teacher, a home school mom, or a classroom teacher, they can use Bigwigs of Classical Music as an introduction to students who are new to classical music or they can use it to expand the interest of young folks who have already developed a taste for classical music and want to know more about it. I think it is also a great way to flesh out a general world history education. Classical music is literally the soundtrack of history. It’s one thing to learn about Napoleon Bonaparte, for example, through a textbook. However, when you can hear the great music of Napoleon’s time you gain a unique connection to how people of the Napoleonic era expressed themselves and their ideas about life. An entirely new dimension of history can open up.

MMB: Do you have plans to write any other music-related resources?

BL: There are a number of projects I am considering right now, some of which are music related. However, they’re all in the very preliminary stages right now, so I’ll wait until later to toot those horns.

MMB: Any other comments you’d like to add?

BL: Thanks for this opportunity to talk about my book and my love for classical music. I hope all of your readers find the same joy that classical music has given me throughout my life. Happy listening!

Bigwigs of Classical Music – A Review

On its back cover Bigwigs of Classical Music promises the reader a unique, easily accessible, humorous, illustrated presentation of the fascinating story of history’s greatest music. And amazingly, author Ben Lansing delivers on every count! If I had to sum it up in two words, I would call my journey through this 310 page music history guide Engaging and Memorable. (Thankfully I don’t, though, so I’ll continue. 🙂 ) I found myself quickly drawn into the overview of each musical era and the subsequent composer biographies, understanding more completely than ever before the context for their lives and the times in which they lived (and not at all overwhelmed by any of the dry, cumbersome facts that often accompany music history texts).

From Ancient to Contemporary music, Mr. Lansing utilizes his witty writing style to draw the reader into the pages of history and then give him a glimpse into the lives of the composers who both reflected and influenced the society in which they lived. Whether reading from beginning to end or randomly selecting composer biographies, readers of all ages and musical backgrounds will appreciate the down-to-earth, easy-to-follow story that Mr. Lansing weaves throughout his book.

Biographical sketches of 75 of history’s great composers fill the book, along with an illustrated portrait of each composer (drawn by the author, a professional cartoonist), a quote by or about the composer, and a creative byline like “The Nineteenth Century Rock Star,” “The Roly-Poly Opera Guy,” or “Stalin’s Pincushion” (wanna guess who any of those are?? 🙂 ) to capture the essence of each composer in a memorable way. The chapter for each composer (consisting of 2-3 pages) concludes with Mr. Lansing’s personal listening recommendations and a few brief notes to help the reader become familiar with each composer’s key contributions to the music world. (I absolutely love this about the book and feel like I have a road map to guide me in exploring the music of composers I’ve not been very familiar with up until now!)

In addition to these 75 composers, an additional 97 composers and their notable works are referenced and briefly described. The book’s three appendices include a Glossary of Musical Terms to define words printed in bold throughout the book, an alphabetically arranged Glossary of Composers, again with short descriptions of each composer, and a Complete List of Music Recommendations, organized by genre, then composer. An extensive bibliography with books referenced organized by composer is the second to the last entry in the book, followed by a brief biography of author Ben Lansing.

Formatted on 8½x11″ paper, there is lots of room to underline and make additional notes in the margins. The layout is consistent throughout the book and is typeset in a traditional Times font that allows for easy reading. Bigwigs of Classical Music is available as both a traditionally bound book and as an e-book. The e-book version is especially useful for teachers as Mr. Lansing has stated that although his book is copyrighted he has “no problem with a teacher printing several pages from their version of the book to distribute to their students.” This is a perfect way to help students get to know the composers of the pieces they’re studying! Just print out the couple of pages for the composer and send them home with the student to read as part of their assignment for the week.

I’m over halfway through this fun book and have already found occasion (okay, so maybe more than one!) to impart to my students my newly acquired knowledge of anecdotal information about these composers and I’ve got the biography of Dvorak printed out and ready to give to my highschool student who’s playing the theme of the second movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony and told me he loves Dvorak’s music. Between the easy-to-print e-book version on the computer and the traditionally bound version on my bookshelves I’m sure my studio will be overflowing with music history geniuses. 😀

Go grab your own copy of Bigwigs of Classical Music today and come back tomorrow for an exclusive interview with the book’s author, Ben Lansing!

Take a Walk…

…down Piano Street!

Wow! If you haven’t yet, you should head right over to take a walk down Piano Street! “Get instant access to the 1,512 greatest classical piano pieces (over 12,000 pages) as high quality printable PDF-files as well as acoustic recordings of the most common piano pieces.” On top of that, the website states that you can expect them to add an additional 1,000 pages a month! You can view their complete list here.
What an incredible wealth of music available for only $3 month. You can opt to sign-up for recurring payments, where the $3 is withdrawn from your bank or PayPal account each month or you can pay for a whole year ($36) up front. If you opt for the recurring payments, you can cancel at any time with no further obligation. The membership also includes access to all the forums and to a handy music dictionary translator.

I just printed out my first couple of downloads and am off to play through them. I look forward to taking a walk down Piano Street often so I can enjoy playing through a whole assortment of piano pieces I might not have otherwise taken the occasion to try. What fun!