Children and Concert Etiquette: Just a Thought

On the 27th July I attended Prom 18, an featuring the indomitable Chloë Hanslip as soloist in Michael Berkeley’s new Violin Concerto, involving pairing the classical instrument with both tabla and at one point switching it for its electric counterpart. The work was book-ended by Dukas’ La Péri and Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, two stonking examples of the evocative power of the orchestra. Truly exciting stuff. Unfortunately I was utterly frustrated in my efforts to enjoy at least half of La Péri and the majority of Berkeley’s Concerto by goings on in front of me that simply should not have been happening in that space.

A lady had brought her two young children to the prom. Directly in front of me sat a small boy of five or six years, and on the other side of his mother a girl of about eight or nine. The small boy was extremely quiet throughout, perfectly behaved, although due to his small size his feet stuck off the seat at an awkward angle and so he shuffled occasionally, and his head sometimes wandered around the hall as the music was playing. How distracting. It was far too much for the lady sitting next to him, one before me and to the right, and my goodness did she make it known.

Holding her Proms programme plastered to her right cheek, effecting a visor between her and the child so that she wouldn’t have to see his occasional small movements in her peripheral vision, she huffed and periodically shifted the programme up and down so that the mother of the boy could be in no doubt as to how disgusting her squirming offspring was found to be. At one moment near the end of the first half the young boy leaned close to his mother’s ear and whispered something to her. Despite being positioned directly above him I would not have known had I not been alerted by the violent shushing, accompanied by an aggressive across-the-armrest lean, that the child’s neighbour performed before slamming her programme-visor back to her face. I was seething.

The lady in the row in front of me shamed the children’s mother as if the children were running amok in the aisles. In reality at no point in the concert did I actually hear them, and I probably would not have noticed them at all if it were not for the drama made of out of it by the honourable concert-police. Although I believe this would have happened to some degree regardless of the additional fact I’m about to raise, I feel that the shaming may have been more pronounced and free-flowing owing to a difference in ethnic/racial background between the lady and the young family. Madame Concert Police had paid a meagre £15 for the honour of sitting at the very top of the Rausing Circle in the Royal Albert Hall. She was not being disturbed in a lavish box at the Met (boxes, by the way, were originally for socialising, not for paying any attention to the concert). So too the mother and her children had paid. They had every right to be there as everybody else and they should have been treated that way.

It is particularly appalling that this happened at The Proms. The Promenade Concerts were founded with the sole ambition of bringing classical music to a wider public, for everybody regardless of class, age and background to enjoy. The Proms exist precisely to counter the view that classical music and art music concerts are the reserve and the right of the privileged, the wealthy, the knowledgeable, those who learned to play Chopin’s Nocture in E flat as a fifteen-year-old on the piano in the front drawing room. The Proms exists for that young family and the spirit of that mother. Why else would The Proms’ organisers arrange strategically placed ‘Family Workshops’ before evening performances? Children are a priority, target audience of The Proms and rightly so. Children belong at concerts. That is precisely the point.

I can’t refrain from alluding to the often-forgotten truth that silence and high-brow ‘concert etiquette’ is a very recent and localised Western European phenomenon. Certainly I welcome and prefer it, especially when after months of practice and preparation an audience sits as quietly and comfortably possible to listen to and consider what I as a musician might perform. However live music, as aleatoric composers of the 20th and 21st century have intentionally exploited, necessitates and engagement with humanity. Humanity in all its coughing, shuffling, sneezing, programme-rustling glory. Of course it is somewhat inconsiderate to performers and fellow ticket-holders alike to attend a serious performance if you are suffering a terrible bout of flu, and are liable to be spluttering loudly every few minutes for the duration of the concert. However I was (only mildly) disturbed by quite a few coughs from the audience at the Albert Hall in July, all of which were louder and more distracting that the child in front of me. I wonder by what practice of restraint the lady in question didn’t stand up to chastise every cougher in turn.

If your connection with the music you’re attending to hear is so deep, profound and untouchable that you can’t bear the thought of another’s humanity marring its peripheries, perhaps you should listen to music lying alone in a darkened room, in the comfort of your own home or prison cell. I can’t resist offering the view that such folk may have missed the point of music as an expression and engagement with all types of humanity, and therefore perhaps should be referred to as truly tone deaf.

I approached the mother in the interval and thanked her for bringing her children to The Proms as a show of support and solidarity – however she was so badly frightened by her neighbour she looked terrified as I approached her and I’m not convinced she really heard me properly. I was glad to see she returned for the second half, although she put her slightly older daughter next to the Concert Police, who appeared mollified by this exchange.

One of those two parties shouldn’t have been at The Proms that evening. I don’t think it takes a great genius or too much of a hippie to work out which one I’m referring to.


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