This morning I was making soup and listening to Stephen Jardine‘s phone-in programme on BBC Radio Scotland, as I often do on a Friday morning. They were discussing whether parents should restrain their children from behaving badly in public places such as cinemas, theatres and restaurants. People had strong views on both sides. Some said it’s important to get children used to going to cultural events; others said that it is not fair to let audience members’ enjoyment be ruined by selfish behaviour.
At one point they were discussing the disapproving responses that people get from other audience members. The presenter said something like, ‘It still gives me the chills to remember the looks we got at a concert when my wife’s phone went off in the middle of a Rachmaninov piano concerto.’
My heart sank on hearing this because classical music is so often used to exemplify ‘the uptight audience’. So I thought it was just worth mentioning the difference between acoustic instruments and the amplified instruments that have become ‘the norm’ for many music fans.
If you are playing an amplified instrument, and you want the music to be louder, you simply turn up the volume. You don’t have to play differently. When the volume is loud, it doesn’t matter too much if the audience is making noise of its own, because amplification can easily compete. Not so with acoustic instruments like violins, cellos, pianos, flutes, clarinets – or indeed the traditional Spanish guitar. If you want to make more sound, you have to use your muscles and your physical effort. If you want to play quietly, you have to control the instruments with fine movements.
Players of acoustic instruments spend years learning to master their range of sound. The nuances of tone colour, from the most delicate whisper to the cry of pain, are the point of musical expression. In concert, musicians have to focus on making those nuances work. They really want audiences to notice all the gradations.
So if audience members are making a noise, eating, drinking, taking photos and obliterating the fine details of tone colour, it makes musicians feel that their work was pointless. Yes, of course we want people to come to concerts and feel comfortable, but we also want them to understand the nature of instruments played without amplification.