16 September 2016

The Sanctity of the Concert Hall

Twice a year I set a group of students, drawn from various faculties around the university but generally not connected with music, the task of attending four concerts and observing the way in which different audiences behave.

Largely unprompted by me they identify applause as the biggest issue; how people applaud and when they applaud.  Several of them came up with the categorisation of three types of applauder and three types of applauding which they found the most annoying:
  1. The "I Know Music" type who bursts into applause almost before the music has died away, determined to be the first into the fray, and who visibly - and often audibly - castigates any who choose to applaud at a point which they themselves feel is inappropriate.
  2. The "I Know Nothing About Music" type who generally refrains from applauding and makes more noise fidgeting during the performance than expressing any kind of reaction afterwards.
  3. The "I Want To Look Clever" type who looks all around before applauding to make sure they are conforming, but then becomes ever more vociferous as the confidence in their growing convictions grows.
  4. The "Monkey" who, keen to be seen both from the stage and from the auditorium, raises the hands to an impossibly high level as they applaud; in much the same way as an orang-utan might raise its arms when reaching for a high branch in the forest.
  5. The "Stander" who, like the Monkey is there to be seen, and leaps to their feet (often with a shout or two) irrespective of the quality of the performance.  The "Stander" invariably is the most vociferous in demanding an encore.
  6. The "Whooper" who does not applaud so much as indulge in football-stadium-like cheering.
The vast majority of concert-goers simply applaud to express their personal reaction to the concert, and my students wondered what prompted the others to do otherwise.  The answer may lie, at least in part, in the other key observation they made.

Bearing in mind that many of these students had never attended any kind of classical music concert before, I found this observation, frankly, very disturbing.  In a nutshell, they observed that music students and musicians in the audience were, in terms of dress, behaviour and response to the performances, a significant barrier to the enjoyment of others.

It concerns me that music students attending concerts behave in way which can seem quite intimidating to other concert-goers.  I now have impartial evidence to support my concern.  My student observers noted that the barrage of cat-calls, wolf-whistles and screams from music students which accompany the appearance on stage of fellow-students or professors, was alienating other concert-goers who felt they were intruding on some private event or were showing their ignorance in not recognising the brilliance of the performers before they had even performed.

My students supported their observations with photographs of music students sleeping, playing Pokemon Go, eating, texting and talking to their neighbours (and, in one instance on the phone), during a concert.  They asked why, when the performance so clearly failed to attract their attention, did they then respond with unbridled enthusiasm?

The answer is simple.  Music students and music students spend their lives in concert halls and no longer feel that sense of mystique which, for the rest of us, accompanies any formal concert.  They cannot identify the hallowed sanctity of the concert hall which is such a draw for other concert-goers. Sadly, it is almost a badge of honour among music students to treat live performances as routine and, unwittingly, create the impression that they are not involved with the music.

It may be understandable, but it is not excusable.  The priest does not shout and dance his way around the church (or, at least, they never used to) simply because that is where he spends most of his working life; he understands that the church is there for the benefit of those who only attend once a week (or less), and he must respect their expectations.

As a teacher I used to suggest that my principal purpose in teaching music was not to train the next generation of great soloists, choral singers or orchestral musicians, but to train the future generation of audience-members.  Musicians need audiences.  We must be careful not to let our familiarity with the concert-hall environment drive them away.

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