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NEO CLASSICAL
Rules To Live, Er, Listen By
Some straightforward advice on how to become a courteous listener.

by Drew McManus
February 5, 2007

I don't usually use this column as a personal soap box but a series of bad concert experiences have pushed me over the limit. In most circumstances, I am among the first group of people to stand up and declare that the typical classical music concert environment is too stuffy, oppressive, and elitist for its own good. I think the business of shushing people who want to clap between movements is silly and dress codes at everyday concert events, implied or explicit, only serve to keep people away. 

Nevertheless, it seems as though I've attended a veritable gauntlet of concerts since the onset of the 2006-2007 season where fellow patrons have pushed the extremes of my tolerance. As such, I have gathered the transgressions which need to be addressed in order to offer some simple solutions before things get out of hand.

Borrowing from the enormously successful book by Robert Fulghum, I have assembled a list of rules I am calling All I Really Need To Know About How To Attend A Classical Music Concert I Learned In Kindergarten:

1) Share Everything, Especially The Arm Rests

A sure fire way to spoil a concert experience is when you end up sitting next to a patron who takes a 1930's German approach to the arm rests: what's mine is mine and what's yours is mine. Most reasonable people realize that it is quite possible to share an armrest by simply having one person use the rear half of the rest while the other person uses the front half.

Yes, this means that your arms will likely come into contact with each other but that doesn't mean your seat neighbor has any personal interest in you. At the same time, in order to prevent muscle cramps, have the decency throughout the course of the concert to switch positions every now and then.

A good example on how not to behave is allowing your elbows to slide over the arm rest and into your neighbors seating area. Not only are you depriving them use of the arm rest altogether but you force them to either take suffer the business end of your elbow or contort themselves into an entirely uncomfortable seating position in order to avoid the aforementioned elbow.

Finally, behaving like a spoiled child and shoving your neighbor's arm off of a rest in order to acquire the entire space is simply rude. Such behavior is usually reserved for a pig sty at feeding time rather than a concert hall.

2) Don't Hit People: Be Aware Of Your Surroundings, Especially Your Feet

A number of people are inherently fidgety and I'll be the first to admit belonging to that group. Nevertheless, that doesn't give me, or anyone else, the right to distract concert neighbors. For example, I spend most of a concert with my legs crossed, but only if there is enough room to do so.

Compared to modern concert halls, many older halls have narrower seats. As such, crossing your legs, even tightly, will likely result in kicking your neighbor. Granted, even though I show up to most concerts wearing jeans, that doesn't mean I think it is acceptable for the person sitting adjacent to me to rub mud or salt (a common nuisance in Chicago during winter months) all over my pants when crossing their legs. And ladies, those wonderfully stylish pointy shoes you wear can hurt like the dickens when jabbed into an unsuspecting leg. If there isn't adequate room to cross your legs then simply cross your ankles.

One final thing, if you do accidentally kick someone, apologize. Say you are sorry when you hurt someone, a nod toward the offended with a soft "pardon me" is sufficient. Don't cause a greater distraction by using a voice level above a whisper (and if you are one of those people who can't whisper – you know who you are – then just mouth the words "I'm Sorry").

3) Taking A Nap In The Afternoon Is Good, But Not During A Concert

I will never forget a particular concert I attended in New York's Carnegie Hall back in 2005. The Chicago Symphony was performing Bartok's Concerto For Orchestra and I was lucky enough to have an ideal seat for the performance. Unfortunately, the 350lb. gentleman sitting behind me decided his was an ideal seat to catch up on some sleep. About a third of the way into the piece I was treated to the sounds of what was the unhealthiest sounding snore I ever had the displeasure of being disturbed by.

Attempts to wake the man were fruitless (after all, if the Chicago Symphony sawing away at full volume wasn't doing it already, what more could I hope to accomplish). I think it is also poignant to call attention to the fact that the gentleman in question was also breaking Rule # 1 above. I suspect most rule breakers are guilty of multiple transgressions though the course of any given evening.


4) Don't Take Things That Aren't Yours, Especially My Program And My Seat

It is no secret that most concerts aren't sold out events and many patrons make a habit out of moving to vacant seats during intermission. In fact, I do this all the time and highly recommend it to others as a way of enjoying the concert at a different level.

Nevertheless, there is a right way and a wrong way to go about moving to a vacant seat. First, make sure it is, in fact, vacant. Ask patrons standing around in that area if they remember someone sitting in the seat just to be certain it isn't being held for a late arrival. Nothing is more embarrassing than plopping down in a new seat only to have someone with the corresponding ticket show up and demand that you remove yourself from their temporary property.

As a courtesy to other patrons, if I like where I am sitting and want to return there after intermission, I'll usually drape my concert program over the seat in an attempt to let any would-be seat migrant know that it is unavailable. This unwritten practice seems to be universally accepted throughout most North American concert halls as it sends a simple, clear message: "this seat is taken."

Speaking of programs, if you see a program draped over a seat before a concert or during intermission, that doesn't mean then owner has abandoned it. Let it be. Even if you showed up at the last moment and the ushers ran out of programs, it is simply unacceptable to take one that isn't yours without asking first.

5) Flush

This should be self evident; nevertheless, recent experiences compel me to mention something about this. Yes, most concert halls don't have enough toilets and most people have to wait longer than they should. Regardless of this inconvenience, no one appreciates the fact that you vacated your stall a quarter of a second sooner by skipping over this critical procedure.

On a related note, if you have children with you attending the concert, it is not a bad idea to take a moment and stick your head in the stall just to make sure your progeny properly implemented the above rule.

6) Use Your Indoor Voice

Although this subject was already addressed in Rule #2, it applies to all noises in general. We all hate it when the ubiquitous cell phone or pager goes off during a concert but even at their worst, those are temporary intrusions.

What's worse is the seemingly growing number of patrons who suffer from hearing aid feedback (commonly referred to as acoustic feedback). Personally, this is the singularly most distracting and frustrating annoyance an individual can have the misfortune to experience during a concert event. Simply put, it is the nuisance with staying power.

Acoustic feedback is the high pitched squeal you hear but can't immediately place where it emanates from. Regardless of how loud an ensemble is playing, this ear piercing screech punches through to ruin the listening experience. Unfortunately, most offenders aren't even aware that they are the source of the feedback. As such, in circumstances such as these it is the responsibility of a concert companion to inform their partner that their heading aid is ruining the concert for everyone around them (and God help you if you're sitting close to the stage because I can guarantee you're driving the performers mad).

At the same time, if you are sitting next to someone who is certainly the source of the feedback and they are attending the concert without a companion, or their companion is seemingly unaware of the feedback, it is entirely acceptable to point out the feedback problem at the first opportune moment.

7) Clean Up Your Own Mess, This includes Body Odor And Breath

This is a pretty straightforward rule and I am glad to say it is not usually a problem, but when it is, it can be an outright show-stopper. More often than not personal hygiene isn't the culprit; instead, that wonderful Italian dinner loaded with garlic or anything from a Korean restaurant with fermented bean curd is the source of a distracting odor.

I wouldn't go so far as to tell people what they can or can not eat prior to a concert but I would recommend that everyone apply some common sense. There are a variety of over-the-counter products sold to help cover strong breath odors; all you have to do is remember to bring one along that works for you.

There you have it, seven easy-to-follow rules that will make any concert environment more enjoyable. I'm sure that I've missed some nuisances readers out there have encountered so don't feel shy about sending in a letter to the editor so we can all benefit from your experience.




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