Advice from a performing musician
Part 1: Turn off all electronic devices.
I remember the days when watch alarms were the only things one had to worry about silencing before a concert. But now the pre-concert announcements have gotten so creative and overarching, it’s to the point where you may as well just say, “if it has an ‘OFF’ button, turn it off now.” This has become something of a news item in recent months, what with Alan Gilbert stopping a performance to tell someone to shape up or ship out when a cell phone went off during a performance of Mahler’s Ninth. There have been other similarly unfortunate events, as well. I lived through one of them this past summer at a concert in Austria, during which an otherwise seamless and intricately-woven Lieder concert was interrupted not only by a cell phone, but by a cell phone whose ringtone was a musical excerpt (I have mercifully blocked the tune from my memory). Not only did this ringtone happen once while I was playing an especially quiet and crystalline piece, it happened multiple times. Not only did it happen multiple times, but at one point the owner of the phone answered the phone. In the room. During the concert. Trust me, if looks could inflict serious injury, I’m not sure that woman would still be around to tell the tale. In fact, there were SO many nasty glances (I know I was the sender of a few), I know for certain that she wouldn’t have survived the remainder of the song, much less the concert. And what’s more, let it be known that I never, never, ever want to have a livid Austrian hiss at me, “Bitte.” That single word contained within it “FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THINGS GOOD IN THE WORLD,” “Are you kidding?” and, well, some other choice words that I think are best left to the imagination. So, bitte. Turn off your phones.
But phones aren’t the only devices capable of inflicting concert-disrupting ignominy. Once upon a time (a year or so ago), I attended a voice recital in Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center by a personable, talented mezzo soprano. I was at the performance with a couple singer friends of mine, one of whom had sung an audition in Philly earlier in the day. I also played in her audition, and thus had my standard barrage of music-related paraphernalia in my bag: pencil, metronome, black binder. The black binder I’d left in the car prior to attending the concert, but as usual, I’d left my metronome in my purse, not because I thought I’d need it, but because I didn’t think to take it out. Usually, it’s no big deal, and heck, I’ve made it through numerous international airport security checkpoints with a metronome in there, so what’s the danger in carrying it around in everyday life?
The second half of the recital began with a sublime piano introduction to the first song; I honestly can’t remember what the song was, but I know it was heartbreakingly beautiful. A few seconds in, though, I started to hear this obnoxious mechanical high-pitched tone. Persistent, almost like the sound of someone’s hearing aid that needs to be adjusted. Invasive, like a mosquito whining its way around a hot room. Since I couldn’t swat this away, I instead shot my patented wide-range skunk-eye out from my balcony seat, largely because it was nearly impossible for me to tell where the sound was coming from. The pitch didn’t stop though. And to make it worse, it was just slightly not in the key of the piece being played. Juuuuust enough to make it really grating every few bars of music. After about 30 seconds (which felt like a small eternity), something prompted me to lean down, and I realized in horror that the sound was coming from something really close to me. When I leaned down again, my heart dropped to the pits of the earth. That obnoxious noise was coming from my purse. Apparently, some deadly combination of buttons had been inadvertently pressed that had done the follow things:
- set my metronome to “tuner” mode, thus activating a continuous pitch,
- set the tuner to not the standard pitch of A 440 Hz, but rather something slightly higher; I think it was set on Bb 442 or something like that,
- unmuted the metronome,
- and, the icing on the cake, turned the dang thing ON
However that all may have transpired, I made as little fuss as possible and silenced the thing, very cautiously avoiding eye contact with everyone seated anywhere near me. The shade of red on my cheeks probably nearly matched the bright red of the singer’s dress, and I quietly whispered to the friend I was sitting next to, “Oh my God, that was my metronome.” So, unnamed pianist and unnamed mezzo, I am so sorry. Even if I gave you a story to tell about the obnoxious audience in Philadelphia, that doesn’t excuse what happened, however out of my control it was. Thank you for not stopping the performance to embarrass the culprit, and thank you for not letting that stupid metronome ruin an otherwise fantastic performance. I’m not sure I could have mustered the nerves of steel to have done the same.
So please, people. Turn off your cellphones. And, absent-minded musicians (ahem), leave your metronomes out of the concert hall.