Listening 'With New Ears'

Jewish musician Rob Kapilow reveals why we love the music we love.

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The cover of Robert Kapilow's What Makes it Great? Credit: Wiley.

(Click photo to download. Caption: The cover of Robert Kapilow's What Makes it Great? Credit: Wiley.)

Jazz. Classical. Rock. Klezmer. Country. All of these genres and many more are beloved by millions around the world. But ask any one person why they love the music they do, and they may have a difficult time explaining it or convincing you they are right.

That’s where educated musicians like Rob Kapilow set things straight.

For nearly two decades, Kapilow helped people find new music to love and new reasons to enjoy the music they already do. Even the most educated audiophiles find themselves having “aha!” moments at his What Makes it Great? (WMiG?) presentations. In September, Kapilow released the familiarly titled What Makes It Great?: Short Masterpieces, Great Composers.

Having started as a short radio segment, WMiG? has expanded to an internationally touring live performance piece that allows Kapilow to play and discuss the music he loves while helping listeners unravel the basic core elements that qualify a piece to be called “great.”

“The series grew out of a program that I did for a decade,” Kapilow explains. “Each week, I would take a small segment of great music…and try to get at what made it great….I thought that if I could get people to really hear 10 seconds of music, I could change the way they listen.”

Though Kapilow admits to not being an “expert” when it comes to Jewish music, he has worked rather extensively in the genre. Past performances have also covered the compositions of, Gershwin, Bernstein, and Golijov and an original composition based on the award-winning book Elijah’s Angel.

From Beethoven to Bernstein and Sondheim to Strauss, Kapilow learned to turn 10-second snippets into 10-minute investigations, and now into hour-long explorations.

“After 10 years and more than 100 radio programs, I decided to try and redo the experience live and spend an entire evening taking apart and putting back together an entire piece of music,” he says.

A typical performance includes both demonstration and discussion and involves the audience, taking them simultaneously by the hand and the ears as Kapilow guides them through the pieces’ basic elements and what might appeal to a given crowd.

Each live presentation ends with a complete performance of that piece that is “hopefully heard with new ears,” Kapilow says.

In his 17 years of shows, Kapilow has delved into nearly 150 pieces and played for at least 500 audiences.

“I have two requirements in choosing a piece,” Kapilow explains. “I must believe that it is a great piece of music…[and] I must believe that taking the piece apart will enable the audience to appreciate the piece more deeply; that it will add value for them, and help them enjoy the piece in a new and richer way.”

Though he tries to educate the audience and usually speaks from a stage, Kapilow hopes that his performances do not remind his guests of college seminars. “I believe that all good teaching is…entertainment,” he says.

“If it feels like a lecture,” he says, “I have failed.”

Kapilowinsists that the most novice music listener can enjoy and benefit from a WMiG? show.

In addition to having descriptions of some of the “great”-est pieces in musical history, Kapilow’s latest book is tech-savvy, equipped with an accompanying website where visitors can hear and see the musical examples, and can download the music to an iPod or iPad.

“It is all downloadable,” Kapilow says, “so no reading knowledge of music is required…If you read it on an iPad, you can see the musical examples in notation, touch them on the screen, hear them, and watch a scrollbar moving over the music in real time.”

No matter what kind of technology you have, Kapilow suggests that the level of listening required to truly appreciate a piece (what he calls “real” listening) is not so simple.

“Real listening, whether to a piece of music, a colleague, spouse, or child, is an intense, full-contact, deeply rewarding experience, and something we rarely do with full commitment,” he says.

Among the pieces that Kapilow will be exploring on his latest tour are Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata, Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat major, Duke Ellington’s “Such Sweet Thunder”?and special shows dedicated to the Great American Songbook masters Richard Rodgers and Cole Porter. The tour begins Oct. 2 and ends May 6 (see full list of dates and locations below), with a world premiere of a commissioned piece that will be performed with the? Marin Symphony? in San Rafael, Calif.

No matter who the composer or what the genre, Kapilow suggests, if you listen carefully and appropriately, you will find what makes that piece great or at least appealing. After all, the title of his first book was All You Have to do is Listen.

“It is my deepest belief that that is all that is required to get great music,” Kapilow says.

Upcoming performances for What Makes it Great? in 2011-12 include stops in New York; Washington, DC; California; Boston; North Carolina; Tennessee; and Toronto. For the full tour schedule visit

Posted on September 20, 2011 and filed under Arts, U.S..