When people call to sign up for Greg Hettmansberger's classical music seminars, he doesn't ask them if they have a music background. He asks them if they like cats.
During the seminars, held in Hettmansberger's Canoga Park living room, his five cats make themselves at home in listeners' laps. They brazenly sideswipe legs and demand to be petted.
Cats and music are Hettmansberger's two great loves, and teaching music appreciation in his living room is a way to lecture and pet his cats at the same time.
With his dark hair parted dead-center, making him look properly classical, Maestro Gregory (as he calls himself on his mailers) sits in his orange wingback chair and carries on relaxed, two- to three-hour discussions of the masters to a room full of eager but usually novice aficionados.
An electronics salesman Monday through Friday, Hettmansberger maintains a strenuous teaching load evenings and weekends.
A recent Saturday seminar on Beethoven drew 14 people. Director's chairs monopolized the walking space, a coffee-table book on music was opened to the appropriate page on the composer next to bowls of nuts and gumdrops.
Hettmansberger begins the class by introducing everyone by first name only (cats included). Next he reads selections from a book called "Lives of the Great Composers."
He manages to engage those whose classical music knowledge ranges from that of a woman who admitted to knowing "nothing at all" to a man who owns 600 compact discs.
As he plays selections, Hettmansberger passes every album cover so students can copy the information.
The class listens to the "Pathetique." "Here's the main theme," Hettmansberger points out. Then, "Here's the introduction again."
After reading a passage on Beethoven's love life and playing part of the "Eroica," the class breaks for lunch. Hettmansberger's wife, Carol, has prepared food in the kitchen, sneaking past her husband's chair to lay the dining room table with platters of bread, meats and cheeses.
'What's a Scherzo?'
A woman corners Hettmansberger in the kitchen. "What's a scherzo?" she asks.
He explains that the word literally means joke in Italian. "It's faster than a minuet. It replaced the minuet as a third movement in most symphonies, and Beethoven is generally credited with it."
Hettmansberger began teaching four years ago. "I had gotten my M.A. at New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and was hoping to launch a performing career in clarinet. I did the usual struggling musician scene. I was a waiter at an elegant Beacon Hill restaurant."
After marrying a Southern California woman, he moved to the San Fernando Valley and taught music at Sun Valley Junior High.
"It was very frustrating. One class had 55 to 60 students." He made a quick switch to temporary office work and then to a job with Graybar Electric in Van Nuys.
"My wife suggested I start teaching at Everywoman's Village. I was there 16 months. When we bought our house, I decided I'd rather teach at home, which the Village didn't allow.
Courses Cost $40
He now teaches three evenings and Saturday most weeks. His eight-week evening courses cost $40 and include instruments of the orchestra, introduction to chamber music, concertos, opera and the art of interpretation. The seminar topics ($12 with lunch) include All About Conducting and the Great Tenors. Hettmansberger has given a seminar called "Amadeus the Film: Fact and Fiction" four times, always to a full house.
"Many of my students have been with me for years," he says. The Beethoven seminar has drawn a fairly even split of regulars and first-timers.
The atmosphere at lunch is relaxed and friendly as old-timers catch up on news and newcomers are welcomed into the conversations around the room.
Ken Newson of Encino is one of the old-timers. He usually attends with his wife.
"My wife has always had the desire to understand classical music but never had the medium to do it. Until Greg. Now she loves everything from Mozart to Rodrigo. It's opened my wife up to the music I love. I came today because Beethoven is my favorite composer."
During the summer, Hettmansberger teaches two eight-week Hollywood Bowl Preview courses on Mondays and Wednesdays that focus on the following night's program at the Bowl. Upcoming seminars include "Divas: Great Sopranos of Today" and, possibly, Hettmansberger says, one on Bruckner. "I'm getting a lot of requests for him."