How (Not) to Ruin a Classical Music Performance

Advice from a performing musician

Part 2: Please refrain from talking or other disruptive behavior during the performance.

I recently saw someone pose the question, “Why do we applaud after a performance?”(ie, why that has become tradition).  This  is a question to which I admittedly do not know the answer, and one which I am at this writing disinclined to research. An interesting thought, though – many people have posited that it’s our way of showing appreciation for the artists’ efforts, regardless of whether the performance resonated with us personally or not. I’m sure there’s a whole sociological dissertation in there somewhere.

Answers or no, I can tell you oodles of stories that illustrate how not to show your appreciation for a performance: unwrapping noisy candy during an aria. Getting up for another drink during an Andrew Bird concert in a legit theater (as opposed to an outdoor, free-for-all concert venue). Loudly discussing the plot during a play. It never ceases to amaze me just how capable we as a society are of being oblivious to those around us.

Classy surroundings for a classy audience.

Earlier this year, my trio had a performance in Baltimore at a relatively ritzy retirement community. It was a nice gig, all in all: we got paid to play, the chapel in which we performed was absolutely beautiful (see above photo), and what’s more we had a pretty decent guaranteed audience, between the residents of this particular community and a number of folks that were bussed in from another community that’s located about 40 minutes away and is managed by the same company.

The risk, though, of playing to a primarily older crowd is that they can be a little…unpredictable. This was more of an active adult community than an assisted living facility (although I’m sure that component exists somewhere on the grounds), so the likelihood of a dementia-ridden woman waking up and screaming because she didn’t know where she was or who was trying to get her to be quiet in the middle of the performance was comparatively low. That example, by the way, totally happened during my big moment in the fall play when I was a freshman in high school. I will never forget the feeling of abject terror that poor, confused woman roused in me as I hoped I didn’t forget all my lines while she yowled incoherently. But, lingering trauma aside, my trio had high hopes for a well-behaved, appreciative (if not captive) audience.

Those hopes were dashed to bits during the third movement of the first piece on our program. The slow movement of Brahms’ first piano trio elicits this ethereal mood; it’s one of those pieces of music that somehow expresses the hopes and fears of existence without words. It’s sublime.

Or it should be.

The piano and strings alternate between hymn-like passages that eventually lead into a cello solo, and then back to the serenity of alternation, only with the piano twinkling above the strings the second time through. For me, it’s as if you’re sitting outside on a cloudy day, but every so often the wind picks up and the cloud cover for a brief time exposes the sun in a literal ray of hope. The piece feels glacially slow. Just as I was settling in for my long winter’s nap to the pace of the movement, I heard this small noise. I dismissed it, and turned my attention back to my upcoming entrance and the taffy-pull of a harmonic progression going on. But then there was the noise again. Every ten seconds or so (which, again, felt like a veritable eternity), there was a tiny, but incisive metallic click that reverberated through the whole echo-chamber of a sanctuary in which we were playing.


Did I mention this is the quietest movement in the *CLICK* entire concert?

Even though the room was pretty big and, as I’ve said, extremely *CLICK* resonant, I could tell exactly where the offending sound was coming from. Around the fourth “CLICK” I placed it: diagonal from my piano bench, about 6 rows in. Thinking perhaps it was somebody hitting their walker or doing something innocent, I channeled the balance of my mental energy into trying to plead telepathically with this woman sitting there to stop whatever she was doing.

But she didn’t. And that was when I realized what was causing the sound.

In what was clearly a premeditated move by someone who is either blissfully unaware of what’s protocol at a classical concert or has reached a stage in her life in which she just doesn’t care anymore, this elderly woman was sitting there, in our concert, clipping her fingernails. 

Go ahead, let that sink in.

Now, try listening to this movement, imagining intermittent punctuations of fingernail clippers, particularly in the quietest moments. Maybe Old Lady Oblivion was trying (in vain) to be conscientious in spacing her clips out so liberally. Or maybe she had 43 fingernails. Whatever the case, that noise lasted the entire movement. Let’s also remember that she was in a church. Because I don’t think she remembered that fact. After the performance, we looked for a pile of clippings on the floor, alarmingly to no avail.

The cellist’s girlfriend happened to be sitting in front of the Fingernail Fiend, and here’s a great “what would you do” moment: do you turn around and shoot her the skunk-eye or ask her to be quiet? Or do you just sit there, praying, as everyone else (including performers) surely is that the noise will just stop of its own accord? Well, the cellist’s girlfriend chose the latter, and I can’t blame her really, because as she pointed out, this criminal clipper looked pretty mean. And who knows if saying something would just result in more distracting noise?

So, my dear cultured friends, I ask this of you: cut your nails; it’s good personal hygiene. But for the love of all things good in the world, and for the mental health of the performers, clip outside of the concert hall, ok? Don’t be another fingernail fiend.

This entry was posted in Gloriously awkward moments, Music. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to How (Not) to Ruin a Classical Music Performance

  1. Sig says:

    was my mother at this concert?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s