Extraneous noises

James R. Oestreich of the New York Times has a thought-provoking article about distracting noises from medical equipment during concerts. While sitting in the audience as the reviewer for a Mostly Mozart Festival concert, Mr. Oestreich’s concentration was ruined by the steady ticking sound from an oxygen cart attached to a man behind him, and he found himself unable to write his review as planned.

I’m sympathetic to the complaints of those who don’t like extraneous noises during classical concerts. When I’m in the audience, I have the attention span of a four-year-old, and I find it hard to concentrate on listening to a performance when someone’s making noises nearby. I also have a four-year-old’s self-righteous sense of justice, so I’m not at all shy about turning around and giving killing looks and, sometimes, little sermons on behaviour to talkers, eaters, fidgeters, texters, inappropriate coughers, and, worst of all, the v-e-r-y s-l-o-w unwrappers of cellophane-wrapped cough lozenges. Before anyone thinks I’m the unkindest person in the world for not understanding how horrid it is to have one of those ticklish coughs creep up on you unawares at a time when you least want it to, let me assure you that I have, on many occasions, caused myself to double up in agony, eyes and nose streaming, holding my breath for up to a minute and a half to avoid coughing while sitting in the audience at a concert. And I unwrap all my cough lozenges before the concert starts.

When I’m performing, I’m not impervious to noises either, though I hear fewer of them on account of all the noise I’m making myself. I forgive misplaced applause far more easily than misplaced coughing, since I’m delighted that people who don’t know the secret language of applause etiquette have plucked up the courage to come at all. Newbies at classical concerts are our friends, and we forget that at our peril.  I’ll even forgive the odd crying baby, because if the mother or father has wanted to hear me enough to struggle to a concert carrying a volatile infant and bulky baby equipment, I’m touched and grateful. I’m afraid the people I can’t forgive are the ones who cough and hack constantly without any attempt at suppression, or who only hold coughs in until the split second a heavenly slow movement has ended, spoiling the atmosphere. Or those who plonk themselves down in the front row with a bag of potato chips, crunching and rattling away with no regard to the concentration of the performers or the disrupted enjoyment of the other listeners, while I sit on the podium wondering in anguish if the microphones are going to pick up the noise.

In short, then, appreciation-expressing and non-inconsiderate noise-makers are fine by me, blatantly rude ones aren’t. Noisy medical devices, however, I put in a category of their own. Yes, oxygen carts and malfunctioning hearing aids can be loud, but the people who need them would surely much rather not need them, and it isn’t their fault that they do. Music is a great consolation to many people with illnesses, and I’d rather have them come and experience a little pleasure than stay home or in hospital, even if that means we’ll have a few clicks and whines in the background. Furthermore, most of the people who use these devices are elderly, and we mustn’t forget that the over-65s are, in spite of ubiquitous efforts to attract the young to concert halls, the people most likely to purchase our tickets and to get out their chequebooks when we’re fundraising. Who are we to throw them out of concerts they’ve gone to all their lives because they’ve lost their health or their hearing? I am unable to deny that I’d prefer all concerts to take place in the kind of hallowed silence that would afford Mr. Oestreich the equilibrium to write his reviews more easily, but surely much of the musician’s purpose is to give pleasure to lovers of music, whoever they are and whatever shape they’re in.

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