This week the BBC SSO tweeted out a poll about concert hall etiquette – should audiences be allowed to tweet during concerts?  There are already a whole host of rules about how to behave during classical music performances – some more obvious than others, and it appears there are “etiquette police” in some audiences, who take it upon themselves to scold other audience members for trivial things like moving too much.  Where does social media fit into the rules?

70% of respondents said “no”, tweeting should not be allowed during concerts – so I want to look at why this might be, and invite you all to share your thoughts in a discussion on this.

I recall this article by Kate Molleson, addressing the unspoken rules of the concert hall.  She notes a key decider in these practices – it’s the level of distraction that determines acceptable behaviour.  Looking for other discussions of concert hall etiquette, I simply got angry reading some of the comments in response to this article.  I am not okay with being told how to enjoy music or how to respond to it.  If there is a performance of such a piece of music where clapping in between movements would disrupt what should be a smooth transition, then feel free to make an announcement requesting that the audience wait until the end of the work, but don’t expect your audience to know these things in advance – classical musical performances are not secret members-only events.

At a time when concert halls and orchestras are working to widen access, expand their audiences and not be exclusive, I wonder whether social media has a role in engagement with performances, during performances.  Looking at some of the reasons given for voting “no” in the BBC SSO poll, it seems a lot has to do with the idea of how you should engage with classical music:

  1. Classical music should be listened to with full attention – tweeting/using your phone in general means you are not giving the music your full attention.  It could be perceived as rude towards the performers and the music.
  2. Dark concert hall + phone glare = not good.  Tweeting involves using a phone, ergo “no”.   In any theatre/concert hall, the glare of a phone can be distracting to both the performers and the rest of the audience – again runs the risk of being rude.  However, it doesn’t take much to be discreet – dim the screen brightness, keep your phone under a jacket/programme, etc.

While I appreciate where these arguments come from, I do think we need to look at this control over how we are expected to engage with music.  Why does classical music demand this level of concentration?  What happens then when someone doesn’t want to concentrate?  Should they be excluded?  Must you already be schooled in how to engage before you are allowed to attend a concert?  What about falling asleep during concerts?

Comparing the concert hall to other music performance contexts, I’m not convinced that discreet use of phones (or other devices such as tablets) is such a bad thing.  Is it possible to view social media engagement as separate from standard use of phones in the concert hall?  Can an exception be made if it encourages engagement and dialogue?  Is it disrespectful to do anything except listen to the performance?  It’s one thing to tweet because you are bored, but should it be treated the same as tweeting an impulsive reaction to a specific moment in a performance while you are still experience?

Humour me now, here are some reasons why tweeting during concerts could be a good thing:

  1. Lots of orchestral players are on twitter – there’s a real opportunity for audience members to engage during and after performances. e.g. “hey @principalflute that wee solo there was #amazing #fluteenvy #flutegoals” – and if they have 200 bars out they might even tweet back before their next entry! (ok, ok, maybe this is encouraging bad behaviour on-stage but does it matter if done discreetly? Or at least they might get back to you at the interval!)
  2. It gets audience members talking beyond the group of people they went with/are sitting near, sharing experiences in real time – “Did you hear that chord?! #beautiful” – what’s worse? Saying it out loud?  Tweeting it?  Keeping it to yourself and never experiencing it in an explicitly shared way?  Tweeting can allow a silent discussion of the performance while it is actually happening.  No more waiting until the interval then having to explain in 10x more words what you wanted to say half an hour earlier.
  3. Could tweeting during a concert provide a wider number of people with a glimpse of the classical concert experience?  Could this potentially contribute to widening audiences?

I get that some rules have been established over a very long period of time, but have we become so caught up in it that we can’t conceive the idea of change?  That these rules and traditions are beyond evolving?

How would you have responded in that poll?  What are your reasons?  Let’s have a discussion about concert hall etiquette – what’s acceptable and what’s not, and why do we think that? Tweeting aside, what should/shouldn’t we be doing in concert halls?


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