Take That Cellphone And…


After all of the hubbub from a recent concert where a cell phone was out and recording a performance, there has been an amazing amount of commentary ranging from shaming the person with the phone to shaming the artist who reacted to the situation.

To me, neither of that matters because it’s after the fact; it’s all reactions turning into individuals getting on personal soap boxes to proclaim their opinions about what the artist should have done, or what the cell phone user should have known.

Neither point is productive and neither moves the actual conversation to a positive solution or solutions.

I have asked several people in the classical music field to share an idea or thought that will hopefully get the conversation moving towards productive and creative solutions. Each person I asked very much understands the relationship and hospitality orchestras have with audiences. They are each on the frontlines of keeping classical music accessible and welcoming. Their thoughts and suggestions are a teamwork effort as we understand and adjust our 21st century audiences and vice versa.

If you would like to comment, please keep in mind that this is a forum of ideas and solutions and won’t be a rehashing of what who did where in whatever concert hall. This conversation is a complete team effort for all of us who love our live orchestra experience and want to see it thrive into the next decade and century. Enjoy!

Garrett Harris; columnist San Diego Reader and founding editor Classical Rebellion

It’s a simple answer but one that I don’t think many organizations will do. Someone from the organization needs to engage with the audience and take them through a sharing moment at the top of the concert with the orchestra. It’s my belief that a concert should start with a celebration of the audience. Very few organizations thank audiences for attendance. Even fewer engage the audience. Classical music organizations make proclamations before the concert. What would happen if they skipped the lecture and replaced it with a community moment of sharing? Pretty simple stuff. “Hello and thank you for attending this wonderful concert! I assume you all have cell phones? Well, take them out and let’s take all the pictures and videos you can in the next 30 seconds. Now, share them and use the hashtag #ILOVECLASSICALMUSIC. Now, put those phones away until the applause at the end of each piece. Again, thank you for supporting classical music in the great city of ______

Arleigh McCormick; Former Marketing & Public Relations Manager Wichita Symphony Orchestra

The reality is that 99% of the audience is following the rules, so speaking pedantically to a largely obedient audience does more harm than good. Before the orchestra tunes at every concert, we greet the audience with doctored composer quotes that request cell phones be turned off and talking stops during the performance. Our goal is to get our point across without tension, and oftentimes a laugh. This helps relax the atmosphere, especially for newcomers.

Tiffin Feltner; Director of Ticketing, Walton Arts Center & Walmart AMP

While there are suggestions ranging from locking up cell phones to jamming their signals at concerts or banning them altogether, I think it’s important that we allow guests to maintain autonomy over their cell phones. So, for me, the question isn’t “how can we prevent cell phones in the concert hall?” but rather “how can we adapt to cell phones in the concert hall?”

I believe that technology will help us answer this question in the near future. For instance, Apple was awarded a patent in 2016 for technology that would allow the use of infrared signals to disable phone cameras in certain spaces, displaying a message to the user. Whether or not Apple develops that technology, it’s not difficult to imagine how concert halls and performing artists could utilize this technology during concerts. What I like about the possibility of this technology is that it doesn’t disrupt cell phone service, but simply disrupts the ability to capture video or photo. An additional benefit is that the technology could be easily turned off in case of emergency, allowing users to regain control of their phone’s camera.

Thanks to the growing prominence of geofencing technology, many performance spaces and organizations now have the option to push notifications to ticket buyers based on their proximity to the concert hall. Perhaps this technology, which is already available and widely used, could be utilized to send notifications to concertgoers at strategic intervals prior to the concert, reminding them to silence their phones, refrain from video or photography, and be present for the experience. Of course, it’s important to use this technology responsibly, and with proper consent from ticket buyers. Respecting everyone’s right to digital privacy is something we should all take seriously.

Regardless of how we proceed to adapt to cell phones, I think we need to be consistent in the message of what it means to truly be present for a concert or experience. We simply need to remind our guests of the magic of live entertainment.

Daniel Hege; Music Director, Wichita Symphony and Binghamton Philharmonic, Principal Guest Conductor, Tulsa Symphony

Cell phones….everyone has them…..well, not “everyone”, but about 96% of Americans own one. Face it, cell phone ownership and use is already part of the fabric of our way of life. Of course, just because the vast majority of Americans possess cell phones, does that mean “anything goes”?

No. Just like nearly anything else, “just because we can, doesn’t mean that we should”.

However, if we are to categorize where live orchestral concerts fall in a consumer’s financial choices, they most likely fall into the category of entertainment, even though many classical musicians reject that easy categorization. Many classical musicians prefer their chosen field be considered high art, ennobling rather than entertaining, edifying……but not “entertaining.” There is nothing wrong with thinking classical music is all of those things rather than entertainment…..but it is important to understand how most consumers of our art form categorize us….and because we understand it’s not as much about how we see ourselves, but rather how others see us, I think we can understand why cell phone use can and should be permitted during concert performances.

One of the unique differences with classical music concerts from other, more boisterous entertainment activities is that it is quiet, except for the music itself, and the sedate focus is very much on the performers, with very little interaction among audience members with each other, nor between performers and audience. Therefore, indiscreet use of a cell phone is obtrusive and annoying to many other concertgoers. This is an issue that will continue to morph as we go along, but for now, I think I know what we should not do:  we should not punish or shame someone for use of their cell phone.

However, I think to get out in front of the issue, we should give guidelines to the audience about how they can discreetly use their phones, stopping short of “mandating” how they should be used. If a person feels respected when spoken to, he or she will likely do the right thing.  If it can be emphasized to the audience the type of concentration the performers require, and that fellow concert-goers wish to enjoy the music in their own way, free from the obtrusiveness of a number of people standing, moving about, or drawing attention to themselves, I think this issue will sort itself out. As I mentioned, this is an issue that is in transit, and hasn’t settled yet, so I may adjust my opinion as we go! For now, I say to permit, give guidelines in a good-natured way, and trust people to find their best selves.  The bright side is that they are fans of your art!

Scott Silberstein; Co-Founder/Executive Producer at HMS Media

My friend Sara Bibik, a founding dancer of River North Dance Chicago, always reminds performers that audiences come to shows to fall in love with the people and ideas on stage. They go to a lot of efforts to be here, to be changed, charged and empowered. They might not always get what it means to perform live, but they’re not stupid and they’re not the enemy.

To demonstrate our appreciation of that, why not “Yes And” the reality of cell phones in concerts? Audiences are often unaware of how adversely cell phones can affect performances; why not, as part of a greeting, tell them, both graciously and generously?  This acknowledgement constitutes the “Yes.”

For the “And,” why not provide a moment in the program, a short opening number perhaps, where people are not just allowed to shoot video and stills and but also encouraged to share them with friends and on social media, tagging the artist, the venue, the orchestra, etc.? There are some great grass roots marketing opportunities there.

And then say, great, now let’s put those phones away and be here together, just us, for a once-in-a-lifetime performance that only we can share because we’re here, together, this room, this night.

To some this is a concession. To me, it’s an invitation – to the performers, to embrace the times and the audiences more fully; and to audiences, to connect more deeply, respond more presently and share their experiences more enthusiastically.

This is a time for more “could” and less “should.” Win-win opportunities are rare; let’s not throw this one away.

Tito Munoz; Music Director of Phoenix Symphony Orchestra

I do believe that an artist’s intellectual property is important to guard, which is why I believe the rules for not recording a performance are in place and are valid. There are certainly other valid reasons to not use your device in a concert that have more to do with broader etiquette practices.

I think that there’s an opportunity for presenters/artists to invite the audience to participate in this idea of respect for the artist’s work. Instead of a monotone disclaimer at the top of the show, perhaps something a little bit more creative will help the audience understand the reasons behind the rules in the first place and give them buy-in to supporting the artists on-stage. The airlines have done a great job in trying to communicate the importance of all the rules and regulations on a flight… fastening your seat-belt, turning off your devices, obeying crew members, etc. The use of interesting and humorous videos, as well as the occasional enthusiastic flight attendant presentation, have helped humanize the policies.

I think that orchestras could learn a thing or two from them in that regard. However, I strongly believe that allowing/adapting for disturbing audience behavior for fear that you will alienate part of our audience is a misguided idea. The majority of the audience (young and old) understands and respects the rules already. We are doing a disservice to them if we pander to the small subset who (as in other situations/industries) has trouble following the rules. We should strive for an inclusive atmosphere, but one that still maintains whatever aesthetic that the artist believes in, which is not one-size-fits-all.

Ceci Grasso Dadisman; Arts Marketer, Nonprofit Communicator, and Public Speaker

Complying with not making recordings during concerts? I don’t think that there is a way to do that. People have phones. People use phones. People are taking photos and making videos on their phones everywhere all the time. That is the nature of human behavior at this moment in time.

I’m not saying that we should make it a free-for-all and have everyone in the audience on their phones all the time. However, it will happen. It does happen. We need to stop being so gosh darn touchy about it.

I’m realizing that it probably comes down to a couple of things:

  • Cell phone footage user-generated content (UGC). In marketing, UGC is more powerful than any marketing message anyone can put out. Why? Because it is more authentic. It isn’t faked or heavily edited — you know what you are seeing is real. (I talk a lot about how arts organizations should use more UGC.)
  • As performers, we are constantly chasing the dream of perfection. We want every show to be perfect, every note to be the absolute best it can be. But this is never the case — there is always something that we deem “not perfect” every time we go out there. God forbid someone captures us not being perfect on video. Quelle horreur!

Donato Cabrera; Music Director of the California Symphony and Las Vegas Philharmonic

If I take a step back and try my best to look at classical music concerts through the eyes of someone who may have never played an instrument, or who doesn’t know much of anything at all about classical music, I am convinced that we are, unintentionally, alienating and making EVERY new audience member feel stupid. This must be true considering that upwards of 90% of first-time concertgoers don’t return.

Audience members are going to capture video/audio snippets of orchestral concerts, whether we want them to or not. It’s how we decide to respond that matters, and whether or not we choose to use this as an opportunity to connect with an audience that we have traditionally been so poor at capturing. I recently attended an open dress rehearsal where a staff member tried to give a very stern, rude, and Draconian speech to the very excited audience that they were to NOT, under any circumstances, take any photos or videos. This was the orchestra’s welcome message to this wonderful group of folks! If I hadn’t been a guest of this orchestra, I would’ve left at that point. However, someone showed up a few minutes late, sat in the front row, promptly pulled out her phone and started taking photos and videos, clearly excited that she was there for something very special. This made me smile from ear to ear, mostly because she was having such a great time, but secondly because I was interested to see how the organization, on stage and off, was going to handle it. She was kindly asked by that same staff member to stop using her phone. She put the phone away and still had a great time.

We must do so much better at communicating with our concert goers, during and especially leading up to a concert experience. The lady with the phone will return because she had a direct and kind interaction with a staff member and didn’t have to be subjected to the schoolmarm speech by that same staff member just 15 minutes earlier.

Stephen Marc Beaudoin; Executive Director, The Washington Chorus

I believe that our positive impact will only increase by inviting people TO use cellphones in our concerts and programs.

Wait, wait; don’t shout me down yet! Hear me out…

While I agree that cell phone use can be distracting, problematic, and just plain old rude, I do feel we have to move in the way that much of the rest of live entertainment has moved. The way to navigate this all – venues, unions, musicians, content, copyright, etc. – is tricky indeed, but if we don’t evolve and find more ways for more audiences to respectfully and STRATEGICALLY engage with us via cell phones in our live performances, they’ll continue to flock to other live entertainment with fewer barriers and restrictions.

So here are three concepts I’d be interested in road-testing:

  1. The All-Cell Concert: select one (or more) concerts in the season expressly as an all-cell-phones open-play concert. Choose musical content appropriate for such an endeavor. Gamify it through promotions, hashtags, contests. Then ID influencers that rise to the top to help promote your brand.
  2. The Phones-Out Finale: pro-actively encourage the phones to come out for a short special finale or encore.
  3. The Cell Cell: if cell use behavior is bad or worsening, create a “cell phone cell” that is a holding room outside the hall itself into which the concert is live-streamed, so that those with urgent cell needs (new parents? Doctors? Tweens?) can attend to their phones while engaging with the music in a live way outside the hall.

Sang Shen; Violin Pedagogue in San Diego and former section violinist with Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra

We are living in a tech era; we cannot avoid the use of cell and other electronic devices. I feel that the younger generation thinks a cell phone is “part of their body.” One of my 10-year-old students has her own phone and Instagram account! In my opinion is too young to have that, but it is a fact. I have seen posts of my lessons (pictures and videos on Facebook posts, which I can NOT even remove. I was so surprised! But what can I do? Daily social media posting for what’s for lunch, school activities and violin lessons, their youth symphony concert etc., is a new way of living for younger generation. I think artists need to adapt to the tech culture. But also, younger generation or just general people who use electronic devices should be considerate how they use the device. But again, you can NOT make people obey every rule in concert halls. The rules are made by people, also broken by people.

Those are just a handful of positive thoughts, productive and creative ideas, and realizations that we need to acknowledge the day and age we live in. Please share some positive and creative ideas of your own. This is an ongoing conversation with a genuine goal of keeping people engaged and welcome in the classical music world!

About Holly Mulcahy

After hearing Scheherazade at an early age, Holly Mulcahy fell in love with the violin and knew it would be her future. She currently serves as concertmaster of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra. She spends her summers at the celebrated Grand Teton Music Festival. Believing in music as a healing and coping source, Holly founded Arts Capacity, a charitable 501(c)3 which focuses on bringing live chamber music, art, artists, and composers to prisons. Arts Capacity addresses many emotional and character-building issues people face as they prepare for release into society. Holly performs on a 1917 Giovanni Cavani violin, previously owned by the late renowned soloist Eugene Fodor, and a bespoke bow made by award winning master bow maker, Douglas Raguse.

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8 thoughts on “Take That Cellphone And…”

  1. I like the idea of allowing people one piece to record, then putting all cell phones away. Personally, I find it annoying when people bring out their cell phones during a concert, especially if it’s just to check Facebook or emails.

    • Yes, checking Facebook or emails during a concert, or movie theater(!!) is annoying for fellow audience. Our society has a phone addiction problem, so perhaps we should lean into that and spin a concert or theater experience as time to check that addiction and try a two hour separation or control.

  2. Mobile phone use in the hall is definitely not a generational issue, as some might argue. I recently sat behind a woman who appeared to be in her 70s at an early-music vocal concert who held her phone high in the air, filming an entire piece.

    I see both sides of it: Artists don’t want their mistakes and bloopers preserved on YouTube. Yet audiences are now accustomed to having their phones as part of their daily experiences. The “phones out finale,” or “all-cell concerts,” described above, might be a couple ways to try and manage this.

  3. Some good points here but I’m surprised that no one has mentioned the A.F. of M. Surely, every orchestra’s C.B.A. has prohibitions about audio/video recording, the main reason being to prevent someone from possibly “profiting” in some way by re-broadcasting it without the musicians getting paid. If orchestras are going to let people record concerts, surely the Union is going to have to agree to this. The same can be said for the guest artists.

    • Those are really good points and thank you for commenting on what a lot of people are likely wondering.

      In the spirit of what Scott Silberstein brings up in his offering, the “Yes, And” approach, and to keep this post about positive solutions, I believe there are some creative ideas and collaborative ways to keep within a Collective Bargaining Agreement (C.B.A.) and keep the American Federation of Musicians’ Union (A.F.M.) happy.

      Without going into a great deal of explanation, but just to give an example of solutions, some orchestras have in their CBAs a limit to how long a concert/piece can be recorded. Some I know of limit it to a few minutes.

      The possible profiting by rebroadcasting without a musician getting paid is a valid concern, so in the spirit of “Yes, And” , do you have any creative solutions you would like to share?

  4. Creative solutions? I’ve been a card-carrying member of the A.F. of M. for 48 years and an arts administrator for the past 35. (Strange, considering that I’m only 39 years old.) (LOL). I still can’t figure it out.

    I also should have mentioned that many concert halls have strict prohibitions about recording. Having produced many orchestra concerts at Lincoln Center, I can tell you that those folks are fanatical about the subject.

    The A.F. of M. does allow recordings for archival and/or grant application purposes. Perhaps that could help start a new precedent for cellphones. I don’t see how you could place a time limit on recording, to follow up on your comment Holly, unless someone is literally standing next to the patron with the cellphone.

    With guest soloists, I always add a paragraph to the contract: “Mr./Ms. ‘X’ agrees to permit the recording of the concert to possibly be used for a one-time only non-commercial broadcast on [insert name of your local public radio station] within a period of [insert number of days] following this performance.” This is not negotiable.

    • Thank you for your reply….and as a card carrying member myself, I’m happy to see many union members work through various agreements to make modern tech work for the orchestras in the best win-wins possible. A nice example is how the Integrated Media Agreement (IMA) is being applied by orchestras that choose to ratify it. You may recall the recent International Musician Highlights back in July where Deborah Newmark had some clarifying statements about what IMA involves. Primarily: Another new provision allows for capture by audience members at outdoor concerts and the ability for the audience to share material on social media in limited circumstances. There is also a provision to allow capture by audience members at up to two formal indoor concert programs and up to four informal indoor events per season. The employer must come to the orchestra committee in advance for approval.

      And just in case you missed the whole article, here’s the link.


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