Sean Gillia

On Concerts, Smashing Cellphones and Bananas

December 7, 2010 12:50

So last night I attended a student recital at my daughter's music school.  It was a casual event, designed for fun and  to work out kinks before formal evaluations. The performances were varied and wonderful, but they were most decidedly not the most memorable aspect of the evening.   

My daughter (15) is performing Bach's Sonata in Gm and the Corigliano violin sonata for her evaluation. Last night she played the first movement of the Bach for the first time. It was to be an interesting performance, since she's changed some fundamental aspects of her playing in the past few months. For one thing, she abandoned her shoulder rest for a piece of foam (she forgot her rest at a lesson, and her teacher gave her a sponge he had handy -- and the result (for HER -- not trying to start anything here) was instantly better posture and greater freedom of movement.  She also began to learn and use arm vibrato.  She has a wrist vibrato that she uses with great control, but her teacher wants her to learn arm vibrato for a number of good reasons. Among other things, when my daughter uses it, it has a noticably positive effect on her hand position/posture.  She has also altered her bow hold in the past few months. So...well, lots of stuff.

But that's not the point of this post.  The point is the audience member who sat in front of me.  Or sort of sat.  Throughout the concert, she never stopped adjusting and readjusting herself. But in all of her varied and never-ending movements she never once managed to adopt a position facing the musicians --- oh, except for when her daughter played. At all other times, she sat sideways with her feet in the aisle in a fidgeting pose reminiscent (in my imagination) of an incredibly sensitive romantic poet in the throes of great emotion....despair...or artistic inspiration...or constipation...not sure....   

She fiddled with her cell phone throughout the concert, sighed deeply and loudly from time to time, and during an especially soft passage of the Bach double 2nd movement, she dropped the phone on the hard wood floor, where it shattered loudly, causing the back and battery to shoot out in different directions.   

In between performers, she turned fully around in her chair and spoke to me as if we were old friends, though I'd never seen her before. That in itself wasn't the problem; I'll talk to anyone. But NOT generally during a performance, and, yes, she kept talking into the performances. She asked me if I was driving back to Brooklyn -- I wasn't -- if I wanted to take the subway with her and her daughter.  I shrugged -- uhm, sure.  When my daughter sat next to me halfway through the concert, after having gone off briefly to warm up (it was a long concert), the sideways-sitting fidgeter asked (as she reached) if she could see my daughter's violin and before I knew it, she was examining it, holding it up and squinting to see the label.  As another performer was tuning, she praised the maker and wanted to know where I'd bought it, how much it cost, did my daughter like it... and would have kept going if I hadn't whispered that I would speak to her after the concert. 

After my daughter's cellist friend played (brilliantly, I might add) a Martinu trio, the sideways woman leaned back to speak with her own cellist daughter two rows back (my daughter between them), remarking in a loud (condescending) whisper that it was a "cute" piece. "You could play that," she said. "You could sight read it."  

In another brief pause in the proceedings, she asked me how long I'd lived in Brooklyn.  Since the performers were about to start, I grudgingly and quickly mouthed the words "since I was three" and held up three fingers. When she realized I was talking about myself and not my daughter, she found this funny and touched my leg...and appeared to be bounding into full-blown conversation, which I only managed to stop by pointedly shifting my gaze and nodding toward the players.

After a quartet performed a contemporary piece called "Volcano" by composer Christine Southworth -- a really cool and driving piece for amplified string quartet, piano, and electronics with actual volcano sounds and some other stuff -- she turned (well, she didn't really have to turn because, like I said, she'd never been facing forward, so she  tilted her head slightly in my direction) to ask me why the piece had to be amplified (I told her I thought maybe it wouldn't have had the same driving rock quality otherwise), and then announced that it was too loud and she didn't like it.  (The dad of one of the players was sitting next to her.) I was still trying to be polite (if mildly passive aggressive) so I told her to get ready because my daughter was playing the Bach amplified and with a digital delay (okay, i said it, but it was a fib)...

During the next performance, she pounded out text messages to her daughter on her own phone, and then passed it back two rows to her daughter, using my daughter as helpless and uncomfortable intermediary.  My daughter looked at me for assistance, and I shook my head, indicating that she place her hands in her lap and cease all messenger duties.  Which she did.  Hey, I'm no prim and proper librarian but (as I found out later) she was bugging everyone in the room, including the players. It's a small recital hall, and movements and talking are noticed by everyone.  All I wanted to do was watch the music.

My daughter's performance went without a hitch. She seemed pleased, and I know I was.  I'm the dad (and so therefore biased), so I'll just say that the specific things I was looking to see were all happening.  When she returned to her seat, she looked at me questioningly and then looked at her arm.  But before I could get a single word in (a simple "great job" whispered before the next performer was my goal), the fidgeting violin-snatching, cell-phone dropping, sideways-sitting loud-whispering mother leaned herself far over the back of the chair (plastic back bending with her weight) and grabbed my daughter by the arm as she was sitting, pulled her in close and then launched her attack...oh, no, I mean "helpful advice." I don't know how it works at other places, but at this school, parents tend not to offer up unsolicited negative performance critiques, and they sure as heck don't do it during the concert, inserting themselves between parent and child to deliver the first post-performance reviews before the child has even sat down.  Even the teachers generally begin with positive comments (after the concert) which are followed by constructive comments, often at the next lesson.  I don't know if this person meant to be helpful or not (later discussions with others characterized her as a newly arrived hyper-competitive parent who delivers criticism in the guise of helpful comments). 

In any event, she skipped all pleasantries and, grim faced, hand clamped on my daughter's arm, told my daughter that she looked nervous and did she take B vitamins or eat bananas before a performance -- because she should definitely eat bananas because they really work, really  -- and a slew of other rapidly uttered observations that my daughter took in, wide eyed, until I finally held up my hand (the next performer was starting), making a clear stopping motion.  I knew the impact that her words would have on my daughter, even though she would never show it publicly.  After the concert, she politley thanked (though dismissed internally) the students and parents and teachers who sought her out to praise her performance.  My insistence that  her playing had not been marred by nerves meant nothing to her -- well, not until I showed her performance to her on my Flip.  She had been convinced that her performance must have been horrible.  "Oh my god, Dad, was she trying to psych me out?" 

Who knows? The whole experience was so strange.  I don't know if I've managed to convey how disruptive she was, and how her ill-considered words caused my daughter unnecessary distress.  Okay, it wasn't the end of the world, and this woman wasn't the devil or anything.  She does appear to have some boundary and courtesy issues, though.  

I chose not to ride the subway back to Brooklyn with her and her daughter. I did learn one thing, though.  I don't know about my daughter, but I do know that I'll be eating a banana before her next concert.  Maybe two.


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