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.
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