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"Keeping The Cows Happy"

How a musician's encounter with an unlikely orchestra fan served to focus perspective.

by Holly Mulcahy
August 6, 2007

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"Keeping The Cows Happy"

This isn't the article I had prepared to publish this month but a recent event has compelled me to post this article now, before the summer season is over. Performing as a violinist in the Grand Teton Music Festival Orchestra for the past seven years has allowed me to encounter the most interesting listener. He drives 85 miles, one-way, along with his enormous black lab from Pinedale, WY purely to experience our live symphony concerts.

Dressed in denim and plaid shirts this seemingly ageless man, a real-life cowboy, follows a well worn routine: after arriving at the hall he sets out a bowl of water and a thick blanket for his dog, secures the dog's leash, and then patiently waits for the doors to open so he can take his seat. During intermission, he checks on his dog and talks with the players who are able to get outside. I have never known a listener quite like him. The devotion this man shows with his four-hour round trip drive to hear us perform is particularly touching.

From the performer's perspective, audience faces blend together over the years. As a result, I had stopped wondering why people come to the concerts and noticing individual audience members in general but meeting this man at our concerts has somehow revived my outlook on performing.

Recently, I asked him why he endured such a long drive to come listen to our concerts.

He looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and responded,

"I work about 80 hours on my ranch, these concerts take me out of my body and brightens the soul," he said. "And besides, it keeps the cows happy when I'm happy."

I don't recall expecting any answer in particular but that caught me a bit off guard. Nevertheless, intermission was nearly over and it was time for me to get my instrument ready for the second half of the concert.

But after that brief encounter, my outlook was different.

Having someone in the audience come to revive their own soul, escape their week, and "make their cows happy" made playing more fulfilling. I don't know when I started to lose site of the importance of audience enjoyment but thanks to the conversation with this man, and his trusty dog in tow, it's as if I have revived my own soul.

On my way into the hall for last week's concerts, I caught sight of the black lab enjoying the comfort of his blanket and it brought me great joy. I knew the man was somewhere in the audience and I knew he was going to get a soul-brightening experience but I also knew that I would be receiving the same benefit. Having an audience full of listeners like this man helps make this profession worth it.

This year I have encountered other interesting and unlikely orchestra fans that come to the Grand Teton Music Festival: fishermen, hunters, biologists, and pilots for Fed Ex. Each individual has their own story and their own reason for attending which, in turn, gives me more enjoyment in sharing the music. Having such a diverse audience gives me hope for the future of classical music.

After last week's concert, I caught sight of the cowboy pulling along his very sleepy dog while humming the last bits of Tchaikovsky's Symphony 5. The man will never know the importance of our brief conversation, but I am forever grateful.

For me, this encounter has reaffirmed one of the most important elements in classical music: the audience.

Comments (2)

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Kati Guerra from Hope, MO writes:
August 6, 2007
What a delightful and inspiring article! I was expecting to read something about the salubrious effects of classical orchestral music on cow herds, but this touching story of a cattleman being moved and transported by classical music did the trick! And, if the cattle benefited from an inspired cowboy, all the better.

But while we're on "happy cows," I know of a dairy, Radiance Dairy, near Fairfield, Iowa where Indian Classical Music is played in the milking barns to raise the level of contentment of the cows. The by-product of this is apparently a richer, creamier milk! (I can vouch that it is derned good milk!) I'm all for bringing happiness to cows after all they do for us!

From the wilds of central Missouri,

Kati Guerra

Ron Spigelman from Springfield MO writes:
August 7, 2007
It looks like you are widely read in Missouri! Great story, it is so important to consider that perhaps one of the big problems we face is that we try so hard to herd our audiences like cattle (sorry I couldn't resist the reference) into one way of thinking or feeling. There is so much focus placed on having them be "knowledgeable", to "appreciate" the music, to "understand the music", and that from this then they will come and then donate! This is what breeds the perception (and reality) of elitism and boxes us out of so many people's lives preventing them from coming. There should be no pre requisite for an audience member when it comes to how they receive what we do. We should try harder to bring value to people's lives instead of this insane attempt to turn people into mini-musicologists and arts advocates! Your experience is a great example of bringing value to someone and to you also.

The funniest thing I have seen as an audience member at an outdoor concert was last summer when the Fort Worth Symphony was brilliantly going hell for leather through Capriccio Espagnol and a man sitting in front of me was attempting to put ketchup on his hot dog. His attempt was proving fruitless literally and figuratively, but I noticed that his feverish flailing was in perfect sync with the rhythm of the section that was being played!
My first thought was: in Pittsburgh, do they allow this in Heinz Hall?

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