Bases and Basses: The Case for Baseball Fans in Classical Music


Last week, the Chicago Cubs recaptured the title of World Series Champions for the first time since 1908. As a Chicagoland native who incidentally spent most of last month performing in the Windy City, it was impossible not to be swept up by Cubs Fever.

Admittedly, I’m not savvy when it comes to baseball culture. Watching the World Series and the preceding Playoffs helped me learn a good deal about who watches these games.

It didn’t take long for me to notice how similar baseball fans are to classical music fans.

The view of an fairly full baseball stadium from the Center Field bleachers. It's a day game. There are fans talking with one another, fans watching the game, and one man is walking up the aisle facing the camera carrying concessions. The team in the outfield is wearing white uniforms, and the umpire is in Center Field.

Concentration and Delayed Gratification.

Classical music performances and baseball games often require these attributes for the viewer.

It sometimes takes over 30 minutes to perform a love scene in an opera. At least that much time passes in a baseball game before a single run is scored. The lovers don’t instantly embrace. Inning after inning finishes before any runs are scored.

But eventually after moments of ebb and flow, the lovers are united. And at least one person gets back to home plate.

Ability to Identify Nuance.

At both an orchestra concert and a baseball game, you know the format of the evening.

The lights go down. The orchestra tunes. The conductor and a soloist walk onstage. A concerto is performed. Everybody takes a bow. 20-minute intermission. Repeat everything, but this time without a soloist. A symphony is performed. Everybody takes a bow. At some point, there might be an encore.

There are nine innings. The visiting team bats first. Each half of an inning has three outs. Halfway through the seventh inning, we sing. If the home team is winning after the top of the ninth inning is over, the game is finished. If it is tied at the end of the ninth inning, the teams play extra innings until there is a winning team.

But you don’t know how the players and their leadership will decide to play things out. And fans at these events tend to be excellent at picking out those details.

What tempos will the conductor choose? How expressively will the soloist play? What kinds of sounds will the orchestra make?

How long until the manager pulls the starting pitcher? Will certain players steal bases? What are the tendencies of each batter?

I noticed this first-hand from my brother last month. Baseball has been, and continues to be, a very passionate interest of his. Last month, he attended Das Rheingold at Lyric Opera of Chicago, which was incidentally his first time at the opera.

So I suppose it should come as no surprise to me that this avid baseball fan was able to pick out specific details. After the performance, he made a point of telling me that he enjoyed the rich harmony in the brass section about 20 minutes in. (And indeed, Wagner wrote some velvety passages for the brass at that point in the opera.)

Civic pride.

Throughout the 108 years that the Cubs went without winning the World Series, they never lost their immense local following. “There’s always next year” became one of the most commonly spoken catch-phrases among Cubs fans.

Dedication to one’s local institutions is demonstrated time and time again in classical music.

Across town from the Cubs, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has its own “die-hard fans”.  Such people can be found in the Edward F. Schmidt Family, who co-commissioned a piece that, just weeks before the World Series, received its first performances. CSO Trombonist Michael Mulcahy and his colleagues presented the world premiere Five Hallucinations for Trombone and Orchestra by Carl Vine.

For decades, the Edward F. Schmidt Family has supported Chicagoland’s arts organizations, often specifically funding initiatives showcasing brass musicians. After all, just as baseball fans have their favorite home-team players, classical music patrons have theirs too.

A view from the top balcony of La Scala, house left. An orchestra is onstage with a piano, but no conductor or soloist. There are five balconies with the lights turned on. It is almost a packed house.

Empathy for the Players.

As the Playoffs progressed, I kept wondering. If baseball fans and classical music fans have this many similarities, what would keep a baseball fan from coming to a classical performance?

My first thoughts were the more commonly mentioned reasons. Namely, that at a baseball game, there aren’t as many “rules”.

At baseball games, unlike most performing arts venues, you’re allowed to bring food and drinks to your seat.

At baseball games, you can return to your seat while an inning is in progress, or at the very least, in between batters. At classical music performances, you’re lucky if there’s any late seating at all.

At baseball games, you can applaud when you wish. There are no “rules” for when you’re “supposed” to clap.

These “rules” have the potential to keep first-time concert-goers from coming back. There is so much to say about this topic, and rather than try and discuss it here, I highly recommend reading When To Clap At The Symphony: A Guideline by Chattanooga Symphony Concertmaster Holly Mulcahy.

Recently, I was speaking with a friend of mine who is both a classical musician and an avid baseball fan. I asked him what he thought of all this, and he had a very different answer.

He said that with baseball fans, there’s a certain empathy for the players. Sure, they know the rules and how the game unfolds. But so many of them actually played the sport as kids, and perhaps still as adults. They’ve had first-hand experience with what it’s like to play in the heat of the moment.

The pressure of batting when your team has two outs. The strength it takes to throw the ball long distances. Catching the ball while the Sun is glaring in your eyes.

There is no doubt a large contingent of our audiences that feel that same connection with classical musicians. I have no idea how many times I’ve met someone who, upon learning I play the trombone, says “I used to play the trombone” and followed up with something anecdotal.

My brother played the trumpet for years as a child. And perhaps he appreciated the sonorities of the brass section in Das Rheingold not only because he is perceptive, but also that he can relate to the act of performing on a brass instrument.

I can’t help but wonder if my friend is on to something, here.

Could classical music draw in more people if audiences are exposed to the ins-and-outs of performance? And how could this be accomplished? More interactive pre-concert lectures? Providing more opportunities for adult music lessons?

I’m not just asking these questions to feel smart, I truly do want to hear your thoughts! I invite you, as always, to please leave a comment. I’d love to be a part of this conversation.

About Doug Rosenthal

No one told Douglas Rosenthal to give up playing music. Not even his patient siblings, who endured many early-morning practice sessions; even they encouraged their brother to follow his passion. As the years passed, that passion evolved from simply playing music to advocating for music, musicians, and music-lovers. Douglas is based in Washington, DC. He is the Assistant Principal Trombonist of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra/Washington National Opera Orchestra. He currently makes his home on Capitol Hill in DC with a pug named Jake, who serves as a constant reminder to relax, eat well, and sleep plentifully.

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11 thoughts on “Bases and Basses: The Case for Baseball Fans in Classical Music”

  1. One thing that I really appreciate about baseball is that the players are extraordinarily human. In the final game of the series, every player on both teams made ‘mistakes’–not errors, but simple humanity leaking out in small details. But the trust, the teamwork made both teams’ performances a thing of beauty. It’s the same way in an orchestra.

  2. love it, Doug! I’m always amazed by the non-verbal communication the catcher and pitcher make; it reminds me of how conductors and concertmasters lead the orchestra and even how a principal player communicates with his/her section during a rehearsal or concert.

  3. Loved reading your insight on the parallels here! As for your ending questions, I would love to see an interactive classical music performance. Probably much like something you would perform for kids, the occasional pause with an explanation and opportunity for dialogue with the audience would increase my level of engagement. Go Cubbies! And Dove Bars!

    • That’s a great idea, Lauren. When I was a New World Symphony Fellow, we did several concerts every season that were formatted just as you described. Almost like an adult children’s concert. In fact, a ticket even got you two free drinks in the lobby. The Washington National Opera will be doing something like this with Ruth Bader Ginsburg later this season. She’ll be curating “Justice at the Opera”, a discussion (with performed examples) about legal issues from operas. Could you see yourself becoming a regular patron at these types of performances?

  4. “After all, just as baseball fans have their favorite home-team players, classical music patrons have theirs too.”

    Oh, this is so true! I see this all the time in the Twin Cities. A friend and I are hatching a scheme to have little talks to help people understand the basics of concert-going, and especially how to choose concerts/music to hear. As for rules, I’ve written a lot about “how to attend a concert” at my blog. Here are some links for your readers also: Attending a Classical Music Concert, Part 1; Attending a Classical Music Concert, Part 2; and Eleven Obstacles to Liking Classical Music, Cinda

      • Yes, we do have quite a few in the Twin Cities. I attend concerts in Orchestra Hall in downtown Minneapolis, the Ted Mann concert hall at the University of Minnesota. I haven’t been to the Ordway Music Center in St. Paul, and the SPCO performs in a lot of venues — churches mostly, museums — around the metro. I don’t know anything about the other cities in the state that have orchestras, though.


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