Written by Karen Rile
Published: October 26, 2014 at 2:25 AM [UTC]
Should you take your children to classical concerts? Maybe not: you might risk expulsion and public humiliation.
Just last week at the New World Symphony Michael Tilson Thomas halted the orchestra in the middle of a performance because a little girl in the front row was distracting him.
The story went viral when a popular classical music blog reported Tilson Thomas had booted a child and her mother from the concert, although later he claimed he merely asked them to relocate to the side of the hall.
Eyewitnesses say that the girl had been lying quietly on her mother's lap watching a movie on an iPad during the performance—miserable concert etiquette, since bright screens are painfully distracting in a darkened hall. But was that more of a disruption than the conductor's action?
Some online commenters accused Tilson Thomas of prima donna behavior, pointing out that he's prone to meltdowns. (Last year he lobbed a fistful of cough drops at a noisy Chicago audience.) Others blamed the hall management: ushers should have known not to seat a 7-year-old directly in the conductor's sightline. There was plenty of vitriol for the mother, too. "That's why there are children's concerts," said one.
When my kids were little, our family had 4 season opera tickets for a family of 6. Our daughters bargained with one another over who would get to see which opera. Once, as we were taking our seats, the woman in the row in front of us turned around and hissed, "I hope those children behave." Funny, because I'd be willing to bet that at ages 9 and 11 they knew The Elixir of Love better than she did.
My own kids were well-behaved, maybe because they learned concert decorum from one another. In fact, I went out of my way to purchase seats where they could see well. We were often front row center (I remember Joshua Bell winking from the stage at my daughter, an avid violin student, when she was 11.)
It's not that we didn't have some heart-stopping incidents. My youngest kid got a sudden nosebleed during a performance where there was no escape because we were seated in the middle of a long row. And me with no spare tissues. (With regret, I handed her my silk scarf.) At the 2002 premiere of Jennifer Higdon's Concerto for Orchestra our family bought tickets for a box above the orchestra so the kids could watch the action close up. When our 8-year-old leaned over the rail for a better look at the percussion section, her program slipped precariously from her fingers. She clapped her hand over her mouth in horror as we watched it flutter down between the timpani.
I am happy to report that no musicians or drums were harmed; a friend of ours watching from the center of the hall told me that the orchestra members seemed to not notice. Later, when I was interviewing the composer for an article, I mentioned the dropped program and she laughed. "I remember your daughter!" she said happily.
The thing is: musicians know we need kids to love music if there's to be a future for the classics.
Last night at her birthday dinner I asked my oldest daughter what she felt about being a very young concertgoer. Here's what she said:
As I got older, I could see that bringing us to concerts and plays was your investment. You trained us to be audience members by doing it over and over again and teaching us how to behave.
I remember going to see Carmina Burana when I was 11; I closed my eyes to enjoy the music and you later gave me feedback later that I looked like I was sleepy, which could be distracting for the performers, since we were seated towards the front.
By going to concerts and plays repeatedly, we learned how to be respectful, and how actions that might seem natural to us—like wearing t-shirts and jeans, or yawning, or reading our programs during the performance—are not respectful.
We also learned that live performance is part of our cultural identity. And aside from teaching us to love music, there was another critical lesson that will serve me throughout life: how to sit respectfully through something that you're not engaging with. That skill is going to come up again and again in adult life.
The first time I went to a live rock concert, I had a culture shock in reverse: I was offended when they searched my bag on the way in, and I was shocked that there was nowhere to sit or put my bag down. When people sang along with the band I was horrified at first. I didn't understand the culture.
If Western classical music is to continue, everyone who is part of this cultural practice needs to respect the training that goes into creating the next generation's audience. That requires a certain amount of toleration on the part of audience and performers, but also thoughtful cooperation from parents.
It can seem like a lot less fun and a lot of work to bring your kids to performances rather than just leaving them home with a sitter. Any adult who brings their kids and expects the concert, or an iPad, to be the babysitter is missing the point—and not making a good investment.
When I was little, we didn't have digital devices, so iPads and smartphones weren't an issue. It was too dark to read a book in the concert hall, so we were all forced to engage, or at least to pretend we were engaged with the performance.
An iPad doesn't teach kids to engage; it teaches them that it's okay to show up and be rude. These etiquette rules, concerning emerging technology, are so new they're being written as we live it.
I play in a community orchestra that has a family concert every year. We just learn to deal with the distractions of the kids talking and babies crying; there are even sometimes toddlers toddling up to where the orchestra is playing. I find that I like the immediacy and honesty of that experience. There's nothing that we are playing or doing that is so delicate, or so fragile, or so subtle, that a little distraction such as that will ruin it.
I do agree about leaving the iPads at home, though, it's a distraction for everyone else, and if you're going to be on the iPad you really might as well not be there at all.
I do think that repeated exposure teaches people how to behave. Children's concerts and family concerts are a different environment than adult concerts.
For adults, it's an important life skill to be able to control ourselves when not engaged.
A couple years ago I went to see a performance of the Barber concerto at the NY Phil with Gil Shaham. I was with my daughter, some of her friends from school and another mom. Right before the lights dimmed, a college age couple plunked into the seats in front of us and started making out.
The went at it acrobatically for the *entire* concerto (to the horror of the man sitting beside them with his 12-year-old daughter). I was really annoyed because I couldn't see the soloist.
We decided it was because they honestly did not understand that a live performance is different from a movie screening. (They did not return after intermission.)
Anyway, if their parents had exposed them to live performance as they were growing up I don't think that behavior would have happened.
And yes, of course, parents need to know their kids and what they are capable of. When my kids were growing up we were occasionally in a situation where there was another child (a friend) along for the concert. I learned that when the child had not had previous exposure to concert situations it could be a disaster.
And while not fair, a Community Orchestra isn't on the same level as an organization like the New World Symphony. There's obvious differences in both how they're perceived and how the audience interacts. One wouldn't tell say, the New York Philharmonic to just deal with kids talking or crying all throughout a performance, or expect any major organization to just deal with the parents inability or unwillingness to show any control over their younglings. On the same side, just because it's an amateur orchestra still doesn't mean people should forget manners.
I took my kids to concerts...but we always sat where an exit (if required) was easy to undertake.
I have also sat through concerts where toddlers were running up and down the aisles...falling down, crying...mothers picking them up and audibly comforting them...the entire time hoping SOMEONE would step in and escort the mother and child out of the hall...
In another concert, I missed an entire movement because I couldn't hear past the crinkling of the chip bag that the 12-year old beside me was eating from...
When I take the time to plan to go to a concert, pay for the tickets, drive to the concert...etc., I reasonably expect to be able to hear the concert...
My solution (for what it's worth): children's concerts for young children to expose them to the genre...and 'easy exit' seating for older children at concerts...
...and finally...for all concerts...Ushers who aren't scared to ask someone to be quiet or to leave until the disruption is dealt with (ie. coughing fit...which happens to the best of us...)...
With regard to the "turn of your cellphones" announcements that are so ubiquitous no one really hears them anymore-- I've been thinking about these prohibitions came about in the 90s, at the time that we had sound-only phones. Many or most people actually simply turn off the sound function of the phone without bothering to shut down the whole thing. I see people checking their silent screens (or worse, browsing messages) during concerts and it's maddening. But I think these rules of etiquette are in constant flux as technology develops.
There are plenty of examples of conductors who take their work seriously enough to demand excellence in themselves and their musicians and blow fits when things aren't optimally to their liking. I see nothing wrong with that and I certainly don't see conductors as being "prima donnas" when such moments happen. What I see....is an artist who is super serious about his profession and the music enough that he also demands that the musicians and the audience in turn, also show the same such respect...in my opinion, that's a good thing.
Having said all that...I certainly agree that children should definitely be welcome at concerts for the reasons mentioned in the article. Where else can a child learn the love and respect of symphonic concert hall music and orchestration if not in an actual concert hall with live performers ? ..... but....please use your better judgement. If you "know" your child will have a difficult time sitting through one....have some consideration for the other folks in the hall and sit near the back or someplace where it will be easy to remove yourself and child if necessary. I happen to like the idea of a parent..ever so quietly...explaining to their child what's happening in the music as the concert is going on. Hopefully you will be sitting next to or near folks who understand what you are doing and will be gracious about the quiet whispers if heard. If not...oh well....as long as the conductor can't hear you and gets distracted....the other "adults" nearby will just have to get over it. :-)
These are the same parents that drive their kids to the bus stop one block away because they are afraid the kid will get stolen. It's all related. It's antisocial narcissistic neuroticism.
Karen, regarding the college-age couple making out acrobatically during the entire Barber concerto:
I doubt more exposure to live performance while these kids were growing up would have prevented such behavior. That's a bit like running 100 yards in order to leap a 1-foot ditch. Basic home training is key -- and far less pricey. I can't speak for the others here, but my parents taught me -- at home -- from a very young age that there are certain things you just don't do in public.
18.104.22.168 said, "If his [the conductor's] music is not good enough to grab a child's attention it means classical music is doomed!"
Not so. My three siblings and I heard the same classical music many times -- and at the same time -- in our growing-up years. It grabbed my attention. But my brother showed no interest. My two sisters had mixed responses. One seemed to like it; the other showed little or no interest at first.
John said, "Your darling little angel may be perfect to you, but to others around you they're most probably not so cute."
Agreed. Some kids at age 7 are ready for the concert hall. I was. Others at 7 aren't ready. The ones who aren't -- well, you have no right to subject the rest of us to them. Hats off to the performers and theater management -- and fellow-patrons -- who are willing to stand up and push back against such an imposition.
My point was that sitting still and paying attention for prolonged periods isn't easy or natural for many people, and perhaps the more controversial part of my point is that I am not convinced that learning to do so is simple (you just need repeated exposure) or even desirable.
Just in the past few years as I've been teaching middle schoolers I've done more reading about how bad sitting still is, for both kids and even adults. Kids being forced to sit still in classrooms has been linked to all sorts of behavioral problems and even learning disabilities. Even for adults, the amount of sitting still every day that we do is being linked to obesity and other health problems.
Although of course there is a lot of diversity and range in the ability to do this--some people don't have a problem, and some are classified as "hyperactive"--I'm saying that it's not something that may reasonably be expected of everyone.
I applaud the trend in Children's Concerts and concerts in the park and on the lawn, etc, because I think that while there are children who can behave well in "adult" concerts, I don't think that just any child (or any adult for that matter) can be turned into one of these just by repeated exposure.
I love live music, but I only attend 2-3 of these types of big-darkened-concert-hall-sit-still-for-2-hours concerts a year, because that's all I can stand. I enjoy it, but doing so taxes my sitting still in a dark room abilities up to and sometimes beyond their limits. There are times even then when the intermission is not enough and I just can't wait to stretch my legs by the end. Most of the music I attend is outdoors or in small intimate, less formal, venues like coffee houses or churches.
I remember reading about the Globe Theater when studying Shakespeare in high school. Even it was not a dark, quiet, "respectful" place where everyone remained seated.
My daughter played in a mixed recital a few weeks ago and there was a tiny child in the front row, squirming and simpering in her mother's arms the whole time. Great to bring your four-year-old to hear her brother play the piano, but do you have to sit in the *front row* for the whole show? Do you have to allow your child to "go and sit with his friend" four rows away where you cannot correct him if he starts to make noise? Must children be allowed to hold paper programs, which a certain percentage of them will fold and crinkle endlessly?
These "lesser venues" should serve two valuable purposes -- they should help parents understand their kids' limitations so that they will know which of the "more serious" kinds of concerts they might be able to handle, and they should be training grounds for kids to practice and improve their "best behavior." I simply refuse to accept the idea that there's nothing anyone can do to shape their children's behavior.
I think the conductor's action was perfectly legitimate.
And no, it wasn't the child's fault, it was the parent's fault for bringing the iPad.
If the parent knew the child would not sit still for the concert without such a "pacifier", they should have left the child home with a babysitter. She certainly wasn't exposing her child to the wonders of live music by the way she approached this. She would have been better served to simply play some classical music at home on a CD for her child to hear while the child updated her Tweets and Facebook page, etc, etc...
Her excuse? "I can't watch choreography with flexed feet" Seriously? (talking about the "Rite")
Giving her another chance, I saved change for about a year and bought great tickets for their wonderful production of "Dracula" by Michael Pink, on Halloween, and dinner beforehand at the theatre.
So, giving her fair warning, I told her to drink coffee, do whatever she had to do, because if she fell asleep this time and started snoring, she was not going to like the manner in which she would find herself waking up!
Now, before anyone says this is a "classical snob thing", let me tell you: I went to the Cher concert this summer, and when that woman hit the stage, the entire audience at the Pepsi Center sat glued to their seats, in rapt attention, not moving, for the entire two and a half hours. One lone woman ran up to the front of the stage, forty minutes late, at which point Cher let her have it. "Do you show up late for your mother?" So sayeth our mother, Cher!
The bottom line is this: If people really want to, they can behave. But unfortunately in these modern times, a lot of people think that the classical theatre, and music, is not worth their best, or even good, behavior. And I think that's a little sad.
So, it seems that further clarification might be needed. This article starts out with kids, so I'll start there too: many kids have trouble sitting still and quietly paying attention. This has been going on since there were kids, but for the purposes of this post I'll focus on the recent era, past 10-20 years.
During this time, K-12 educators have been reporting that the "problem" is getting worse, especially in school. As a parent, and as someone who has started working in K-12 education in the past two years, I've now had some direct firsthand experience with the issue, and whether it's worse now or not is hard to say, but it's certainly a real concern. As reported in the Washington Post, there has been a jump in the percentage of young people diagnosed with Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder, commonly known as ADHD: 7.8 percent in 2003 to 9.5 percent in 2007 and to 11 percent in 2011. These are high numbers.
Angela Hanscom, a physical therapist, blogged in the same article:
"Fidgeting is a real problem. It is a strong indicator that children are not getting enough movement throughout the day . . . They need hours of play outdoors in order to establish a healthy sensory system and to support higher-level attention and learning in the classroom."
Kids are being asked to sit still and pay attention for longer and longer periods of time every day. They are getting plenty of repeated exposure to corrections, reminders, scoldings, and "high" behavioral expectations, and it's not working. If anything it's making the problem worse.
So, I understand Karen R's blog is talking about music concerts, not about school. But I am trying to extend the same principles that would apply to academic learning and school, to learning about, and appreciation of, classical or other concert music. I believe it is not a bad analogy. Karen R's blog ends with "it's up to us to educate the next generation of listeners," and I couldn't agree more. I also couldn't agree more with the title, to ban iPads and not kids.
What I am trying to say is that repeated exposure in childhood to what some people consider the standard (sitting quietly in a dark room) concert experience, perhaps coupled with parental corrections, is not going to be enough to raise the next generation of people appreciating classical music.
Some educators have been investigating creative solutions: standing desks, yoga balls, stools, movement breaks throughout the day. And they are finding that kids pay attention better in these environments than sitting still. Here's another article, which also refers to the trend in adult workplaces towards more movement and less sitting still:
" . . .the real question in classrooms is whether standing desks improve learning. Benden said he brought in Texas A&M’s educational psychology department through a special grant to study whether students were more engaged with the teacher and with their work when they were standing. The psychologists, who were blinded to the study, sat in classrooms for two years watching students and measuring their attentiveness and engagement using a series of markers like how many times students looked at the teacher, how often they wrote on their papers, and how often they were distracted by a neighbor.
The results of the study, to be published later this fall, were significant: students were more engaged in activity permissive learning environments than in traditional seated environments."
When music educators and others similarly try new things, I don't think they need to be dismissed as "lesser" venues. Perhaps more, not less, of this kind of creativity is needed.
(And if I have any more to say, I'll write my own blog. Sorry, Karen R.)
The mom has spoken and says there was no iPad, no phone.
What is the different exactly between the East and West that so so abysmal that you need funding to study the art of sitting still? The 1st grader I works with in my 4H's can't seem to still, while at the same time, I distinctively remember sitting in my desk, straighten back and quietly solve my worded math problems. I'm 16 now, so first grade isn't as far for me as it is for you.
Is it the culture? The food? The water? The fact that why the bloody periods does a kid need an iPad for entertainment? And why is it that the kid in this article is bloody SEVEN and can't sit still?Or is it the fact that no one seem to be looking at the plain fact that kids are what you make them to be. Discipline comes first, then freedom.
With regards to this point....I taught my kids at an early age how to sit still in church on Sundays. I had 3 at the time in age from about 1 to 8 and one day they were being particularly wiggly and distracting so after the service was over I talked to them about how they were distracting the folks around us and how important it was for us to be able to hear what the pastor was saying.....so.....I told them we needed to stay and "practice" sitting quietly while everyone else was leaving so that next week we could help our church friends by sitting properly in church. I wasn't angry with them, nor did I give them the feeling they were being punished....it all came from the point that it's a nice thing to do for the people around us. They were young enough to take my point without question and it took them about 5 minutes and the "second" they were still and quiet I gave them a big smile and and said "Wow ! nice job ! I know next week you guys are going to be great ! From that point on...all I had to do when they got edgy was to whisper 'nicely'...."do we need to practice today ?"
I call that "wisdom from God Himself" ! That's the only explanation I have for that little moment of patient brilliance ! And it worked for riding in the car too...(noisy kids in car...quietly pull over and explain that I can't drive safely with all that noise so we have to sit and wait until you guys can stop hollering and fighting so that I can drive safely...twinkle in eye and big smile :-D )
It can be done....you just can't wait until their 12 to start...you have to get them when they still believe you're the greatest thing in the universe ...EVER...and they still believe everything you tell them ! :-)
My 4 year old takes violin now and she wants very badly to be with me at every concert. That isn't possible of course and if I am playing the concert sometimes I need the separation to be able to center and find my own focus. But we have made a point of bringing her to concerts where I am comfortable and to my studio events when they are at the right time of day. My father took me to concerts when I was very young and he has taken to sitting with my little girl at concerts whenever he is there and he never seems daunted. The first time he did it I heard him ask her two questions as I was walking away to warm up.
1. "Do you understand that we need you to sit very still and quiet during a concert?" ( Her answer was yes...)
2. "Can you tap me on the knee when you are not able to do it anymore? We can just stay for a little bit and leave very quietly. I'll show you."
They then sat down together and she practiced tapping his knee and then leaving quietly. She got it and they returned to their seats. You could see by the look on her face that she understood the plan and would be fine. And she was!
We do this every time now. It works. And for whatever it is worth, my 4 year old is high temperament and very active. Of my three kids, she would be the one who would have the most trouble with sitting at a concert but she is also the one who wants to be there the most!
Ours went to lots of them. And lots of "family" concerts as well. But you don't have to do "family" only!
It isn't so difficult.
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