The New York Times recently ran an article titled “How to Become a ‘Superager.’” It was written by Lisa Feldman Barrett who is a psychology professor at Northeastern University. Barrett contends that “superagers” are those who continually push their bodies and minds to their limits – regardless of the discomfort that may occur. “This means,” she says, “that pleasant puzzles like Sudoku are not enough to provide the benefits of superaging. Neither are the popular diversions of various ‘brain game’ websites. You must expend enough effort that you feel some ‘yuck.’ Do it until it hurts, and then a bit more.” She urges us to, “make a New Year’s resolution to take up a challenging activity. Learn a foreign language. Take an online college course. Master a musical instrument. Make it a year to remember.”
I think Barrett has a point. In addition to reading books that challenge you, try learning about classical music or opera – music that might takes you way out of your comfort zone. I also encourage you to read about music, and to learn about the fundamentals of music theory. That’s right, music theory. For example “Music and the Brain” from The Great Courses will fascinate you while exposing you to facts about music that most certainly never occurred to you. The lecturer, professor Aniruddh D. Patel, talks about one fascinating study after another, and is never boring – though he will challenge you at times.
But what music should you listen to if you’re new to classical music? Well, each year WQXR, one of the greatest classical music stations in the United States, counts down a list of the 100 classical selections that are most often requested by the station’s listeners. You can use that, if you like, as a starting point for choosing what you might listen to and learn about. You can find the entire list at the WQXR website. I’ll list the top 20 selections for 2016 just to get you started.
- Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 “Choral”
- Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67
- Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, “From the New World”
- Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92
- Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68 “Pastoral”
- Holst: The Planets
- J.S. Bach: Brandenburg Concertos
- Mahler: Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, “Resurrection”
- Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18
- Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-Flat Major, Op. 73, “Emperor”
- Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 in E-Flat Major, Op. 55 “Eroica”
- Mozart: Requiem Mass in D Minor, K. 626
- Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 43
- Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D, “The Titan”
- Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue
- Copland: Appalachian Spring
- J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations
- Handel: Water Music
- Faure: Requiem, Op. 48
- Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61
I have a copy of the lists going back to 2010, and every one has Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 as WQXR’s most requested piece of classical music. And to think that it was composed by a man who had been totally deaf for many years. Notice, too, that the list includes Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, and George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (two of my favorites that are quite accessible). Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 also appear near the top of WQXR’s list each year.
Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 is one of the most beautiful pieces of music you will ever hear. And each time I hear it, I remember that it almost didn’t exist. Rachmaninoff found himself unable to compose at one point in his life (something similar to writer’s block). He was so distraught that he consulted a physician for help. The physician finally convinced him to keep trying, assuring him that his ability was still there. The result was this gorgeous piano concerto. That music is a reminder that we must never give up. The best (and that was his best as far as I am concerned) may be ahead of us, but just barely out of sight.
Another type of music that will stretch your mind is opera. And one of the best ways to learn about opera is by listening to the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts from New York City. They can be heard on the radio and over the internet every Saturday from December through May. In fact, the Saturday Matinee on January 14, 2017 will feature the work that I recommend to opera neophytes: Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème. You can learn a lot about this opera from the Wikipedia article about it. You can also learn about it and the other operas presented by the Met at the Met Opera website. There, you will also see that live radio broadcasts of evening performances are available live (and free) approximately once a week during the Met season. Live Met operas as well as operas from the Met’s vast archives are also available 24/7 if you have Sirius XM satellite radio. And finally, Met performances are now available in theaters throughout the United States a few times each year. It’s the next best thing to actually attending a performance at one of the greatest opera houses in the world.
WQXR, which I mentioned above, also has an opera channel that presents highlights from the world’s great operas all day every day. Those highlights are a great way to become familiar with opera.
I’ve given you a few ideas about how to become a superager. The rest is up to you, so get busy, and don’t give up.