Phones in concerts

The Slovakian violist Lukas Kmit made what must be the best response I’ve ever encountered to a phone ringing during a concert: he improvised a little fantasy on the famous Nokia ringtone (which of course comes from Bach).

Forgetting to silence one’s phone during a concert is thoughtless, but I expect having it catch you unawares by ringing loudly is utterly mortifying for most people. I’ve seen all manner of responses from performers in the fifteen or so years that mobile phones have gone from common to ubiquitous. Some enraged musicians have stalked off the stage, some have stopped playing and made an angry remark, and some have just pulled irritated faces. I like Kmit’s response because it doesn’t punish all the people in the audience who did silence their phones (and unwrap their throat lozenges, and go bright purple in the face stifling their tickly coughs), and yet it sends a message that the person playing on the stage isn’t impervious to background noises and that a little courtesy is appreciated, thanks very much.

And yet, in some cultures, it apparently isn’t considered rude to take phone calls in concerts (or perhaps it isn’t widely known that most Western classical musicians prefer to play without audible distractions). I played some concerts in China a few years ago where phones went off almost incessantly. The first time this happened, I felt a bit sad, thinking perhaps people didn’t like the concert. But afterwards, I had audience members approaching me backstage with tears in their eyes saying how much they’d enjoyed it. Maybe you can treasure the experience of a concert without necessarily having to listen to it in hallowed silence?

Then again, from my perspective as the person on stage, it’s a lot easier to concentrate when there’s silence. But since it probably isn’t realistic to expect absolute silence all the time, Kmit reminds us to have a sense of humour.

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