Saturday, August 18, 2007

Audience manners

This is a photo Fiona took at the dress rehearsal for the Faculty Concert last week. I haven't been VSSM faculty for many years, but I guess like a couple of the others I get included by virtue of being a faculty member / organizer of one of the other weeks under the Valhalla Summer School of Fine Arts Society's umbrella.

Anyway, it's fun to play a more or less professional-level string orchestral performance once a year on two brief rehearsals, so I'm more than willing. But I've got all these kids. Recently some of them are happy to stay home alone, but that doesn't always work out, and certainly for many years there was no choice -- if they couldn't come along and behave well, I simply couldn't play.

They've all come along to rehearsals and performances since birth. I confess there's a reasonable contribution from temperament here. I think I've lucked into children for whom learning appropriate rehearsal and performance manners has been possible at quite a young age. But I also think that early, consistent, effective teaching has helped.

Many people are amazed by my kids' good behaviour at concerts. I've been able to leave them unaccompanied in the audience to perform short- or medium-length concerts from the age of 4 or so (a little younger with the younger two who could be supervised by their older siblings). I guess I'm so used to their dependable behaviour that I tend to take it for granted -- until I see counter-examples amongst other (often older) children, or even adults. But sometimes there are incidents that remind me. There was a concert last winter where Fiona and Sophie (newly 4 and 8 at the time) were sitting in the front row unsupervised. Just as the performance began, Fiona's paper programme slipped off her lap and did a lovely swoop on a cushion of air, landing six feet in front of her, midway between the front row and the performers (including myself). She loves to have her own written programme, Fiona does, and I just assumed that there would have to be a few seconds' delay before the downbeat while we waited for her to scoot down off her seat and grab the programme. But no, she sat there, wide-eyed and halfway between guilty smirk and mortified grimace, and neither she nor Sophie moved a muscle. The downbeat came as originally planned, and the concert proceeded. They waited through until the next applause break, when Fiona executed a discreet retrieval manoeuvre. Mind-blowing impulse control! Or there's an occasion like the rehearsal photographed above, when I happily abandon my three youngest children in the balcony of the community hall trusting them to their own good judgement with respect to behaviour, and get on focusing on the rehearsal, forgetting they're there. Then I recall the sign that was at the balcony entrance the previous week banning unaccompanied children from the balcony -- for plenty of good reasons, like the amplified noise of footsteps from that floor, legs dangling through the balustrade, things dropped on people below. At a dress rehearsal I don't worry about any of that stuff, because I know that my kids, alone up there, wouldn't do anything instrusive.

When people ask how I got my kids to be so well-behaved, I usually explain that I drug them beforehand. (I hope they get the joke.) But the real answer, beyond the temperament thing, is probably in clear expectations based in empathy for the performers, and speedy non-punitive intervention in case of transgressions. I have always been clear about exactly what behaviour is acceptable, and why. For musicians, noises, even loud whispering or rustling programmes, are distracting and annoying. Quick movements can distract the performers' eyes. Attentiveness is a sign of respect for the musician's work. Movement and whispering should occur only during applause breaks. Because my kids perform too, they understand how inattentiveness and distractions feel when you're on the receiving end.

Because they've attended so many rehearsals over the years, they've had a chance to practice good audience manners where it doesn't count quite so much. I wish all children were given the opportunity to practice being an audience. I think that with that skill nurtured, there would be a lot more interest in the performing arts by families, and less prejudice against children in the audience.

My kids know that they never have to hold out past the next applause break (or equivalent, in the case of rehearsals). If they can't be good listeners any longer, that's fine. We will leave, and I won't be angry. Sometimes there are itches, wiggles, conversations or frustrations that can't wait through an entire Haydn string quartet, and that's just fine -- that's what it is to be 2 (or 4, or...). If a preschooler swings her legs or flops down on her seat or starts a sotto voce chat with a sibling, they get one instantaneous gentle reminder (usually one finger and eyebrows raised), and if that's ineffective as soon as possible I will quietly and sympathetically swoop the child up and make a discreet exit. And outside, without a trace of annoyance (because when I think about it I am truly amazed at what my kids can do), I will explain that we can't do that while others are playing, and I try to help the child deal with whatever was interfering with "good audience manners." Biding time in the lobby or outside is always an option. But amazingly enough, my kids almost always want to work out the issue and get back in to the remainder of the program.

Thank goodness this is a skill that my children have gained. My life is so much more personally fulfilling for it.

No comments:

Post a Comment

This blog is moving to archive-only status. Please consider posting comments instead at the active version of the blog at

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.