Don’t Ruin The Concert


“…AND THEN SHE TOTALLY DIVORCED HIS STUPID ASS!” yelled one patron to another. Prior to that comment, the orchestra had grown louder and louder and the energy was robust, full, and palpable! That should have been a glorious moment of serenity after the sudden drop in intense volume. Instead, it turned into the orchestra, and much of the audience, struggling to resist laughter.

This happens more than we talk about. The talking, that is. People talk and talk and talk during concerts. I’ve preached often that there are no wrong answers for what to wear to a concert or when to clap in a concert. And I’ll continually challenge the perceived rules and traditions because they stifle the experience, especially for newcomers. But the talking has got to be addressed.

I have noticed, in my years of concerts as a soloist, orchestra member, and audience member, those who typically feel the most entitled to have conversations during a concert are not the newcomers. These talkers are very often ones who are regulars who feel familiar with the procedures, the perceived rules, and the protocols.

They will comment about when fellow audience members clap between movements, they will comment (mid-concerto) what shoe designer the soloist is sporting, and they will flat out just talk about anything.

One violin concerto I regularly perform starts off with just solo violin before the full orchestra joins. On one of those performances as I began, two audience members in the front row started talking. As performers, we are trained to play through anything, after all the show must go on. But what about the majority of other audience members who paid good money to hear the work?

I’ve felt this frustration as an audience member, too. A few years back there was a must-see play in Chicago, and we splurged for the coveted tickets. In the front row there were two talkers carrying on while the poor actor was going on with his lines. I thought to myself: Wow, good for that actor! Amazing skill to keep the concentration. But with my thinking about the ability of that actor, I completely missed his lines!

In the orchestra world, there are a lot of traps where people can get caught, like the story that opened this article. Concert halls can be brilliant acoustical amplifiers for the tiniest of conversations; and yes, we can all hear you, despite your attempt to whisper.

I had thought of including several of the most famous orchestral works which lure some talkers to think they can talk over the music, only to get the spotlight shined on them as the volume suddenly drops. But that isn’t the point. The point is, orchestra managements and boards need to find a way to do what movie theaters have been doing for decades now. This is in addition to the plea to silence all cell phones!

Slogans from AMC vary from: “Talking is disruptive, using your phone is distracting. Don’t ruin the movie.” to, “Please, don’t spoil the movie by adding your own soundtrack.” And, “Remember: Using devices takes us out of our world. Please post, talk, and text after the show is over.”

Even more clever is what Alamo Drafthouse movie theaters has done with their PSA messaging to audiences about talking. These are my favorites:

Perhaps a cheeky and fun way to make this point is to collaborate with orchestral audiences to create some UGC (user generated content) on TikTok or Instagram. Clever and short videos demonstrating the annoyances would be a meaningful way to engage with audiences while getting the message sent loud and clear.

Either way, this point needs to come to front and center of organizational messaging. As we invite newcomers to the symphonic experiences, we need to make sure the experience is about the music, not people’s conversations!

Please enjoy a few other gems from Alamo Drafthouse:

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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