Last night I attended a wonderful concert with the Memphis Symphony at their Downtown venue. Karen Gomyo was the guest violinist and she performed Barber’s Violin Concerto, one of my personal favorites. When I arrived at my seat, I looked around at the patrons surrounding me and was pleased to see a thirty-something year old mother with her two sons in the row in front of me; one child looked to be in middle school and the other was a toddler. I thought it was wonderful that this mother was trying to expose her children to classical music at an early age.
Unfortunately, those warm and fuzzy feelings were soon replaced by extreme discomfort. The toddler decided to be very talkative during the performance, despite his mother insisting “shh!” every few seconds. It became very distracting to the people sitting around her. I started to feel uncomfortable because I have been to enough symphony concerts in my life to know what happens next.
After the excellent performance of Barber’s Overture to the School for Scandal, the young toddler was not taken out of the concert hall. I could feel the tension mounting in the patrons around me. The patrons clearly held out during that ten minute piece hoping the mother had enough sense to remove her son. But alas, she was uneducated in the rules of the Symphony audience and stayed there. I assumed she wanted her older son to see the soloist. Perhaps he was learning violin at school, or perhaps she paid good money for those seats, but I am only speculating.
We were enjoying a particularly beautiful performance of Barber’s Violin Concerto when the young toddler seemed to get worse during the first movement. When the movement was softest, the child was loudest. The mother’s insistence to silence her child grew more desperate, and I could tell she was struggling and feeling very self-aware. Patrons around her started shifting around or leaving the hall to find an usher to complain to.
Finally, Maestro Mei-Ann Chen paused between the first and second movement so that Ms. Gomyo had a chance to re-tune. When the child continued to speak, the whole hall heard a loud, gruff male shout out, “Take the baby out!”
There was a chorus of “Yes!” all around the concert hall, and then, much to my horror, many patrons in the hall started clapping.
I’m not sure if I was transferring my feelings to Ms. Gomyo, but her face seemed to fall when the audience mutinied, as if she and I both knew we potentially ruined classical music for this family forever.
This woman had to get out of her seat with her toddler and do the walk of shame all the way from the middle of the floor up to the exit door behind her. She probably passed a few hundred people giving her glares. Her older son followed her soon after, and all I could think was that he would likely never be encouraged to learn classical music seriously. How could he ever love classical music when classical music goers shamed his mother out of the concert hall? When the mother passed me, I asked her if there was anything I could do to help. She politely declined, and it surprised me that she was taking this public humiliation better than I was.
Maestro Chen smiled apologetically from the stage and waited until the disruption was alleviated. The family was gone, and I was filled with tears — partly because the second movement of Barber is so beautiful and partly out of frustration. That little boy would have ruined the second movement. As a musician, I knew it, as an audience member, I knew it. I was glad the disruption was gone, but I was torn about how this woman was treated.
To any experienced Symphony patron, it’s clear that the mother should have known to remove her son, but she did not. And she’s not the only one to experience public shaming in a concert hall due to unintentional ignorance. This time of year two years ago, an elderly man’s cell phone went off during the quietest moment of Mahler Symphony No. 9 at the New York Philharmonic. Maestro Gilbert had to stop the performance and ask the patron to silence his phone. Can you imagine the humiliation that patron must have felt?
“But the ringing kept on going, prompting increasingly angry shouts in the audience directed at the malefactor. After words from Mr. Gilbert, and what seemed like weeks, the cellphone owner finally silenced his device. After the audience cheered, the concert resumed.” — New York Times quote from “Ringing Finally Ended, But There’s No Button to Stop Shame“
I don’t think the patrons are out of line for expecting to enjoy their musical experience with minimal interruptions. A lot of them paid easily over $50-$100 for their seats. That man who spoke out at the Memphis Symphony did everyone a favor, and he was too far away to locate the mother or I bet he probably would have approached her directly. I don’t think Maestro Gilbert was out of line for asking the patron to silence his phone. These disruptions were clearly affecting audience members and the musicians.
This situation frustrates me because this woman was the epitome of the demographic the Memphis Symphony tries so hard to reach! She was likely in her early thirties, she had children, and she was African American — which is the racial majority in Memphis, and largely under-represented at the Symphony.
Enough about the problem, let’s talk Solutions
Based on my experience with the Symphony world and its patrons, I’ve identified a few reasons why people in the desired but nonexistent patron demographic are not attracted to the Symphony:
- They don’t want to conform for 2 hours to the unstated rules, or they’re scared they’ll break the rules and get heckled. (Rules: don’t talk, don’t move, don’t cough unless between movements, don’t do anything with your phone. Breaking these rules will result in pain of death by usher.)
- They did not grow up with Classical music, so they do not care to listen to it now when they could spend the money on something else that’s relevant to them
- They can’t afford 2 Symphony tickets + a babysitter for 4 hours
Solution to Reason 1: We can educate concert goers on the existing rules, or we can begin to adapt and change the rules. Since a disruptive child is hardly something a parent can control unless they leave the room, I suggest we be more proactive about giving parents who bring kids to concerts a discounted aisle seat. It’s worth mentioning that one of the ways the Memphis Symphony changed the rules is to introduce a modern music series called Opus One. It is targeted to a contemporary audience, and they are encouraged to talk, text, and move around during the performance. I would love to see all orchestras adopt a similar series to entice younger patrons.
Solution to Reason 2: Parents who don’t grow up with Classical music are unlikely to break into that world unless their children are involved; children are unlikely to remain in it unless their parents take an active role in developing their interests. One thing I love about the Memphis Symphony is their $5 Student/Child tickets and their numerous free or cheap education/community performances. We should encourage parents to bring their children to “young child friendly” performances; older children who can handle sitting still and listening quietly for a few hours should get deep discounts on tickets.
Solution to Reason 3: After last night, I really think symphonies should start offering free or extremely discounted professional child care during the performances, just as churches do. Most concerts take place in a large concert hall with plenty of secure space for a dedicated Children’s room. The symphony can hire one or two babysitters depending on how many ticket holders “opt in” to child care. I bet orchestras would see an increase in young parents who attend the performances. The parents would in turn model a love of classical music to their children.
I say all this because there have been a lot of articles going around about the relevance and health of classical music in this modern world. Young professional musicians are ever so aware of the dying orchestras, and with it, their fading career prospects. We need to adapt to the world around us and find solutions for our audience members rather than perpetuating the same problems. Instead of forcing the younger audience members to conform to the out of date rules, let’s set up win-win situations where adults can act like adults and not have to worry about variables out of their control. And above all, let’s NOT encourage public shaming of our audience members when they make a mistake. Otherwise, we’ll end up driving away the people we are trying to convince to stay and support the arts and our livelihoods. Let’s work to make the symphony experience an overwhelmingly positive one for all people. This pattern of audience shaming needs to end.
Have you ever experienced public shaming of a Symphony patron? What’s your take on the audiences’ reaction, and what solutions would you propose to prevent this from happening in the future?