My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Twitter? In the concert hall??

I almost always play the role of the "good girl" but a few weekends ago I found myself in a position where I was being glared at with obvious distaste and disgust within the confines of a concert hall. At least I wasn't alone.

There we were in the back row of the balcony, with black canvas totes on our laps in which we
Students and faculty members at Virginia Tech's Tweet-seat
event, photo courtesy of Virginia Tech
could conceal our typically illegal mobile devices.  As audience members walked in to find their seats some were visibly distressed to see us up there, obviously up to something that couldn't possibly be good.  They stared.  They whispered.  They pointed.  And when it came time for the announcement for everyone to turn off their mobile devices with the exception of us tweet-seaters? That made me feel like a rebel.

So why were we in this somewhat unusual and typically unacceptable classical music world scenario?  Believe it or not, I was invited by Heather Ducote, the Director of Marketing and Communications at the venue to co-host what they call a "tweet-seat" event at a performance given by the Sphinx Organization's "Virtuosi" touring group. Ducote remarked about the concept,
"We were eager to try an educational slant on Tweet Seats at the Center for the Arts at Virginia Tech, so we scheduled this experiment for our second performance in the new Moss Arts Center. We are interested in finding inventive ways for our patrons to make connections and discoveries with the arts, and thought Twitter presented an interesting opportunity for a new spin on a master class." 
Tracy Cowden, a professor in the music department at Virginia Tech, and I were asked to engage students in an educationally based discussion as an experiment.  I have to admit I could understand the audience members that were initially wary of what we were doing since I was a bit skeptical myself beforehand.  I was concerned that we would be distracting to others and that we would distract ourselves resulting in us not being able to pay attention to the performance.  I was also not sure what we could tweet about that would be deemed as "educational."  In the end, I think all of us were surprised at how successful it ended up being, including the staff at the Center for the Arts.  According to Ducote,
"Tweet Seats Master Class was a great success and we look forward to continuing the conversations across disciplines!" 
Tracy and I had split up the program, with each of us taking responsibility for researching half of the pieces beforehand so that we could provide program notes in 140 character or less during the course of the concert.  For example:

During their performance of some of Bach's Goldberg Variations, Tracy tweeted:

My partner in crime and I had also put together a list of questions that many of the orchestra's members graciously responded to before the concert.  We asked about some personal things - what they enjoyed about touring; which pieces on the program were their favorite and why; and how they made the arrangement of the Goldberg Variations among others.  We incorporated many of their answers into the twitter-stream which I feel helped make an instant connection between us and then musicians.

For their part, the students contributed interesting comments and questions of their own, about different string techniques, how a conductor-less ensemble puts pieces together, the process of rehearsing, and reasons behind various ways of positioning the musicians on stage.   Their enthusiasm for the ensemble, the repertoire, and the composers was tangible.  While hearing Benjamin Britten's Simple Symphony, several of them declared a desire to have a Britten listening party.  During the Goldberg Variations it was decided that the piece worked really well as a string quartet since the voices were so clear and defined.  In D' Rivera's Wapango they were able to pick up the changes in meter and to sense the rhythmic vitality that they brought to the piece.   As an educator, it was exciting to see the students applying what they were learning in school to a live performance and to sense their excitement about what they were seeing and hearing.  And yes, we all did end up having plenty of time to really take in the performance - none of us were tweeting all the time.  

One of my favorite aspects of this experiment was having the chance to meet with the musicians afterwards and sharing the twitter stream with them.  Heather Ducote and the staff at the Center for the Arts had set up a special reception for us where they had a large monitor set up to show our tweets.  The musicians eagerly read them and seemed to enjoy getting instant, and sometimes colorful feedback.  They too could pick up on the excitement and enthusiasm we all had for their performance.  Several of them mentioned how unusual it is for them to have any real contact or discussion afterwards with audience members and we enjoyed having the opportunity to ask them questions that had come up during the performance that only they could answer.  It was a wonderful experience - one that was tweeted about later that evening by some of the orchestra members themselves.  You can view an album of photos that were taken by the Center for the Arts staff by clicking here.

As for the students, I asked several of them at the end of the event how they thought it went.  The reactions were all positive, with one student mentioning that because he was trying to find things to tweet about he ended up listening more intently throughout the entire performance.  He said he remembered more about each piece on the program than he typically does.  I have to say that I felt the same way myself.  Even though I had the extra responsibility of co-leading the tweeting, I feel I was much more attuned to the whole performance, not only in its details but also in the overall effect.  

So to the folks that glared at us when they walked in and saw us there, to my older friends that were apparently "appalled" by our "twitter invasion," according to an e-mail I received after the fact, rest assured what we were doing up there in the back row was really not so bad.  And if you would like to join us next time, we've got a seat ready for you and I'd be happy to give you a crash course in twitter beforehand.  Who knows, you may enjoy the performance even more! 


If you're interested in reading the whole twitter stream from the event, please click here.  

P.S. - In case you're wondering, the Sphinx Organization's "Virtuosi" ensemble is absolutely amazing and inspiring.  I encourage you to catch their show whenever they're on tour next!  


  1. That's really a great idea about the tweeting live during the performance, again assuming that you're not distracting any other audience members in the process. My only concern would be the glow of the screen being irritating if I were sitting behind the group, but it sounds like you considered this and were in the back-most rows already. Are there plans to do this again or in other venues?

    1. Thanks for reading! And we all did turn down our screens so they were set at the lowest brightness. We also had the device held in a black tote that was held sideways on our laps. The folks in charge of the venue had put a lot of careful thought into all of it to make the experience comfortable for everyone.

      I don't know if there are more plans to do this in the future but I hope so. I do think it's a great way to engage students and perhaps others would be interested as well.

      All the best,

  2. OK, I admit I was skeptical about this, until I read the first tweet and discovered Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. My first thought was - "The poet? Huh?" - I had to do a search and figure it out. Interesting! Now I have something new to explore. Thanks for the post!

    1. Mark,
      I really recommend listening to Perkinson's music and reading about him. He was quite the versatile and talented musician! Glad we've learned about someone new.