It’s that time of year again when I start chewing my nails and stop caring about what I look like when I leave my room. For me, the gap between Thanksgiving break and our winter siesta is undoubtedly the worst three weeks of the entire year, and fall 2011 has certainly delivered.

It’s one of those days that has been scheduled down to the hour. As I curl myself into the fetal position while perched on my computer chair, I realize my overworked brain needs a little time to sit back and lose itself before beginning the grind all over again. I’ve been told that Christmas is sometime in the near future, so only the Kirov Orchestra’s rendition of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” will do.

But heck, who am I kidding? Classical music is a subject I’ve always tried to avoid bringing up in my columns since people tend to have entrenched opinions regarding this often-ridiculed art form. You either already listen to it or avoid it like the plague.

I understand. Classical music gets a terrible rap nowadays, and hearing about classical music before you actually get a chance to hear it ends up sabotaging the process that allows a person to truly appreciate the work of a good composer.

And don’t get me wrong — some classical music is downright boring for the average on-the-go student, and I wouldn’t expect much of a workout were you to powerwalk to the dulcet tones of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” Slower symphonies were simply not built for the average antsy pop listener, who wants the entire duration of his or her musical experience to be jam-packed into a three-minute long packet of dance-tastic, repetitive sound.

But adding a bit of classical music to your collection is worth the extra megabytes, and if you’re looking to escape for a while during these last few weeks of brain pain, then I challenge you to give this soundtrack a listen.

I always enjoy watching people listen to the music of “The Nutcracker,” a ballet they may not know they already know. Songs like “Waltz of the Flowers” and “Dance of the Reed Pipes” are staple classical melodies familiar to anyone who has ever ventured into a department store or endured television advertisements.

While people may not know their working names, songs like these have become a permanent part of our unconscious musical memory, leading to inevitable déjà vu moments for listeners who make the sudden connection between the music they know so well and its place within the iconic “The Nutcracker.”

And as with all truly great compositions, Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” is a drop-everything-and-listen affair. If you’re willing to let yourself be swept away for the story, then the music will happily oblige. Music like this paints such vivid mental pictures for me that I had to permanently remove it from all of my homework playlists – Maroon 5 can blare through my headphones through all 12 pages of my latest essay, but a battle between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King demands that I sit back in my chair, close my eyes and enjoy.

One of my most embarrassing memories as a young and awkward classical music aficionado occurred when I listened to my beat-up copy of “The Nutcracker” on my clunky Walkman as I took the middle school bus home. I would hide in the very back seats, closing my eyes and swaying as the crescendos of the “Pas de deux: Intrada” swelled to a rich and thunderous roar. I will never forget the moment when the bus driver found me oblivious in my seat after noticing she had an extra passenger when returning to the bus garage.

While my experience may have been humiliating, it highlights a crucial characteristic of classical music: It can only be fully enjoyed when a passive listener agrees to become an active participant in the experience. The more effort you put into listening, the more fully developed the story becomes, as it’s woven bar by bar.

This story within a song sets the classical genre apart from music today. Without words to convey ambiguous emotions and actions, music has to shape a tale that develops much like the plot of a movie. And just like a movie, you can’t tune in for a few minutes only to become frustrated when events don’t play out within the span of a few minutes. Classical music is an investment of time and imagination, one that rewards commitment with a truly one-of-a-kind journey across the auditory imagination.

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