The Sacredness of the Concert Hall

I have read two recent articles about trends (or just culture) in the concert hall and what’s acceptable, what’s considered “polite,” or expected or appropriate, for either newcomers or the long-time patrons, and I have thoughts.
As a regular concertgoer (virtually no concerts happened over the summer, but after this week’s first concert, I’m going to be lots busier at the concert hall), I have personal opinions about what makes or breaks a good concert experience not on stage. Read this.

The first of the two articles I saved, I set aside for later, didn’t look at until just recently, and I agree with some of it, and not with the rest of it.
For one, it gives a great explanation of the challenge some people might face when trying to warm up to a concert, no matter what the program. Have you ever watched a movie in a foreign language that you don’t understand? What about without subtitles? It’s nearly impossible to stay awake. The human voice (most of them, anyway) has a naturally soothing quality, and if you understand nothing, there is nothing to focus on, nothing to keep you engaged; ultimately it’s just a two-hour drone of noise, and it’s very easy to go to sleep.
If you don’t understand music, it is the same way. The writer in the above article makes the point that any concert, a recital, chamber orchestra, or even big Mahler symphony, is not a visual affair. There are things to watch for (perhaps for someone who knows what to look for, but it’s not like the opera, which was meant to be, intended to be watched, not just heard. A concert is all about listening, and if you have no idea what to listen for, or can’t get the ‘big-picture’ of structure and contrast and all the rest, it can be just like that Hungarian film that eventually puts you to sleep. But this is not a fault of the symphony; I don’t see this as a problem to overcome, to make the concert hall more friendly or welcoming. It should be friendly and welcoming, but that does not equate to casual and rude.
That brings me to the second point brought out in the article, that of the device-free sanctuary. I think it will be a sad day in history when WiFi is available on airplanes, because it’s one of the last bastions of non-connectedness. We are all equal on the airplane, more or less. It doesn’t matter how important or how busy or how interesting you are (or are not); put your phone away and don’t make loud conversation. Strap in to your seat like the rest of us and watch a movie or something. No one wants to hear you talking about pretty much anything. But the interwebs are encroaching on that sanctuary.
The concert hall, then? It’s also that rare place where everyone has a purpose. No one is on a plane by accident, or because they have nothing better to do (although that could be the definition of a vacation). Everyone is going somewhere, even if your final destinations aren’t the same. “We’re all in this together.”
The same is kind of true of a concert hall. No one accidentally buys a ticket and wanders in expecting a picnic or a party or coffee house. It’s a concert hall, and you go there to hear music; isn’t there kind of an unspoken agreement that we’re all here to do the same thing? So for the courtesy of others, stop sipping your tea, stop doing your tinfoil origami, stop looking
at your phone and do what you came here to do: listen to the music without disturbing others. And no, there is nothing wrong with the symphony; if you’re bored or you think it’s too long or strange or hard to follow, maybe it’s your fault; there’s nothing to ‘fix’ about the art or the experience. If you understood it more, it’s likely you would appreciate it. And no offense, but if you have attention span problems, maybe the symphony isn’t for you.
Yes, some works are long and drawn out and not the most interesting thing on earth, and as stated, they’re not visual works of art, so at times, my mind wanders; the music washes over me and it makes me think of something I probably never would have thought of before, because in that context, it’s interesting. There is nothing else to focus on but the music, so let your mind wander a bit; what does it make you think of?
I’ll also say that watching a piece live makes me notice certain things even about the aural experience that I might not otherwise: when a certain instrument kicks in, when a certain line is doubled, how the composer leads the orchestra and shapes phrases. Some of that would be just as obvious from a score, if you can read those, but some of it is inherent to the live performance.

The Second Article

Secondly is the above article, one that I read and enjoyed, probably nodded my head or even mouthed a few ‘amens’ throughout. I posted it on our Facebook page mostly to bookmark the link.
If nothing else, read her seven points at the bottom of the article. She succinctly states the main tenants that everyone should abide by when enjoying a concert. She and her other seasoned professional friend were humiliated by some wench who likely thought enough of herself th talk down to someone she thought didn’t ‘get’ this highbrow form of upperclass art. Stuff it, lady.
While I agree with Gillian Moore about her seven points, leaving a good impression, being considerate and polite, I must say I am not a fan of head-bobbing. I get it, the music moves you, you feel it, it’s intoxicating, but I find your movements distracting. That being said,

  1. I would never in my life bring it to someone’s attention that I find their head-bobbing distracting.
  2. It beats the hell out of foot-tapping. There’s a student at one of the local music schools who I’ve run into a few times at concerts who insists on conducting through the program, which is infuriating. I don’t care how well you know the piece (or not, apparently) or what you’re trying to prove or how much you love it. Sit in your chair and do your conducting at home.
I will say I have given some nasty stares to people doing horribly inappropriate things. Some people don’t know how to whisper, or think that opening plastic candies and wrappers or whatever is totally fine, but it isn’t, and I will stare you down until you feel that weird ‘being watched’ feeling and look my way, and I’ll give you the universal ‘finger over the lips’ “shut up” gesture. I’ve done it.
I’ve also gone ahead and tapped people on the shoulder who insisted on talking throughout the program if they were within convenient tapping range, but never have I scolded them, no matter how much I wanted to.
One lady even apologized to me after the program for ‘whispering’ to her young son during Dvorak’s ninth. He was actually quite well behaved, no older than five or six, so I don’t know what mom was whispering. I felt bad when she apologized after the program was over, so I commended her for having such a well-behaved son and said it was nice to see someone of his young age paying such attention to something some people have no patience for. And then I felt better.
But in general, I agree very much with the content of the two articles. There’s another (mildly similar) article coming out in a few weeks here about sharing the symphony with newcomers, but from a musical standpoint, not an etiquette one. But Moore makes the salient point: don’t be a jerk. Realize that the stuff you do in the hall (checking your phone, digging through your purse, commenting to your neighbor) is almost always unnecessary, and can only disturb others. Be considerate, polite, and everyone will enjoy the concert (at least more than they would with your contribution). Think about other people: if you need to say something to someone about something, do it before or after; if you need to unwrap your cough drop, do it before and keep it ready; if you need to send that email, then sorry. It can wait. You’re not the only one here.
Thank you, and enjoy your concerts.
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