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.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Sweeping away ashes and stones post iPhone-gate

Image by J. Samuel Burner,
from Wikimedia Commons
The story took social media by storm yesterday.  A performance of Mahler's monumental Ninth Symphony in New York City, a ringing iPhone that didn't stop, the concert coming to a grinding halt and the angry mob that arose out of the incident.  (If you have no idea what I'm talking about you can read the first-hand account of one of the audience members here.)  At first I was determined not to add my two cents about it all but after browsing through several blog posts last night and reading the mostly vitriolic comments that ensued and that left an incredible pain in my stomach, bringing me almost to tears, I feel I  do need to say something.  Hopefully it will be something that has not already been said.

To start off, I want to say that I completely understand how disrupting a situation like this can be.  And in light of the repertoire being performed and the fact that this all occurred in the final moments of such a significant work, I can viscerally imagine what it was like to be there.  What I don't understand is the violent response that an accident, a common mistake, inspired.  Being the usually optimistic person that I am, why can't we find another way to look at this incident?  Why can't we take a moment and look at the realities of the situation rather than throwing stones at a gentleman that accidentally forgot to turn off his phone?  

So in an effort to throw out some constructive thoughts about the whole ordeal, here are some things that have been swimming in my head since last night.

Cellphones and their kin are part of our everyday lives now.  They are mighty convenient but they also have a price.  I'm not just talking about the high monthly fees, I'm talking about their tendency to go off at the most unfortunate times.  I'm not sure what we can really do to take the risk factor out of the equation effectively.  Yes, there are those notices in the program, signs at the entrance to halls, announcements made at the start of a concert, the influence of seeing those around us silencing their phones.  But those preventatives are not infallible.  What if a concertgoer gets to the hall late and misses all of the notices and announcements?  What if he or she was in the bathroom when the announcement was made?  What if he or she just ignored everything not out of spite or ignorance but simply because that happens?  I think it's important to realize that it is not always ignorance that leads to a cell-phone not being turned off properly.  In fact, I rarely think it's ignorance.

So what do we do?  

  • We can stop using cellphones all together.  (Won't happen.)
  • We can leave our cellphones at home when we're going to a performance. (Won't happen.)
  • We can all put our cellphones on vibrate all the time, regardless of the situation, so that we never have to remember to silence them. (Won't happen.)
  • We can find ways to allow people to check in their phones upon arrival somewhere, kind of like a coat-check for technology.  (Interesting idea but probably won't happen.)
  • Concert halls could have a device that automatically turns off phone signals upon entering the building.  (I believe that's illegal.)
  • Concert halls could place devices like security gates at the entrances so that patrons can voluntarily walk through them to be assured that their devices are turned off or silenced.  (Probably too expensive and there will always be some people that refuse to walk through them.  Plus the gates could fail to work properly.)
Hmmm...none of those ideas seem very plausible.  So now what?

At this point in time I don't think there's a whole lot we can do because as long as we have cellphones we're going to encounter incidents like last night to varying degrees.  But here's something that I do know as a performer.  I know that before I walk out onto stage again I can come up with a plan for myself.  And that's what I've done. 
  • I will try to envision different scenarios before walking out onto the stage so that I won't be caught by surprise quite as much and react in a way that I might later regret.
  • If a cellphone goes off, I will try to play on as well as I can.  If I find that I simply can't concentrate or that the audience is clearly disturbed, I will stop and try to politely resolve the problem.  
  • I will try not to blame the person in question but acknowledge that it could happen to anyone.
  • If the situation doesn't remedy itself quickly I will ask for assistance from either the ushers in the hall or someone sitting around the patron with the cellphone.
  • I will then decide on the best way to proceed once the ringing has stopped.  
  • I will not publicly humiliate the patron in question.  Chances are he or she is already feeling humiliated.
When I consider how many people attend a given concert such as the one in New York the other evening (thousands?), and compare that to how many people are the ones that have to deal with a difficult situation (a handful), doesn't it seem like it would make more sense to try to control ourselves and our own reactions as performers rather than depending on a mass of people?  

Ugh.  I'm sorry that this all happened the other night because I was so very discouraged reading the reactions of so many of my colleagues and of other classical music supporters.  I get their frustration, but I sincerely don't get their anger.  And it saddens me that in all the comments and reactions I read there were hardly any voices that eased up on that anger.  Aside from Fran Wilson, pianist and author of the blog, "The Cross-Eyed Pianist," who wrote a post yesterday that echoes many of my same sentiments, I couldn't find many others that felt the same way that I do.  

If this resonates with anyone else, please feel free to comment to this post.  I think it would be good to have some more positive, constructive, sympathetic thinking about the iPhone-gate incident on record.  And if my feelings doesn't resonate, well, please just be respectful should you choose to comment.  

[Added later: After receiving a comment which can be seen below, I feel like I should say that my use of the term "angry mob" is not quite fair since from further reading it seems that in general the response of the audience was quite restrained.  There were some exceptions though.  My apologies for speaking without having been there myself.]

[Also added later: Here is a link to the NY Times article that reveals the story behind what happened.  The patron in question agreed to an interview.] 


  1. This definitely resonates with me. I wasn't happy with a lot of the other blog posts too, but you've put together some good thoughts here.

  2. Thank you, Erica, for a very thoughtful and reasoned response! I liken this wise analysis to the axiom about those stone-throwers who live in glass houses. :)
    Plus, with such real tragedies that are around us in the world, the level of anger in the responses to the cell phone incident seems way out of proportion.

  3. I wasn't there. But one point that has emerged from all the reports I've read is that the ringing went on for a very, very long time. And there, I think, is the source of the anger.

    The normal, embarrassed person whose phone has just begun to ring mid-concert will reach for it without a second's delay and do everything necessary to (a) silence the ringer and (b) ensure that the phone was turned off/put in flight mode so there was no chance of it happening again.

    When a phone rings, especially during an inopportune moment, then the people around will feel frustrated and perhaps a bit angry. But if it's evident that the person has promptly silenced the phone, then the anger and the frustration dies just as quickly and is soon forgotten.

    If someone allows their phone to ring on and on – as all the descriptions have suggested happened – then clearly they're not feeling very embarrassed about it and aren't too worried about the extent to which their phone is spoiling the performance for everyone else. And yes, that would make me angry. I wouldn't be yelling across the concert hall (because that would add to the disruption) but I'd be thinking very cross thoughts.

    So I'm sympathetic to Gilbert's response as it's been described and in the context as I understand it. If the ringing really was going on for two or more minutes (and that's a long, long time in the concert hall), then he probably felt he had to say something. I don't support the heckling from the audience – as I said earlier, that kind of thing only adds to the disturbance, and it increases the time it will take to restore quiet – but if the conductor has to actually tell a person to turn their phone off because that person is letting it ring and ring and ring and apparently making no move to do anything about it, then I support that.

    In fact I hope that the person did end up feeling at least a modicum of embarrassment as a result of Gilbert addressing them directly, because embarrassment is a perfectly normal, healthy reaction in those moments when we draw attention to ourselves for the wrong reasons.

  4. Thank you, Danny. I'm not surprised it does and I am thankful that you have commented with those words.

    All the best,

  5. Leon,
    Thank you for your comments. And you are so very right about looking at the situation in the context of what is going on around us. It would be good for us to keep that in mind with most things that we do, especially here in this country.


  6. I think it's valuable to read first-hand accounts like .

    In none of the few I read did I read or interpret anything close to "angry mob," "vitriolic," "violent" or, centrally, "common mistake." It may be helpful to read the additions to the above linked post, if you haven't.

  7. Anonymous,
    Thank you for your comment. Regarding the length of the cellphone incident, after reading the story from several different angles it seems to me that we have no idea, really, what the situation is. About all I know is that it was possibly a regular NY Philharmonic subscriber. Who knows what happened in the moment. Me being an optimist and someone that prefers to give others the benefit of the doubt I can't help but hope that the audience member was either stunned, shocked, didn't know it was his phone (which I've seen happen with regularity in many situations) or something aside from sheer ignorance or rudeness. Especially if it was a regular subscriber the latter seems impossible. Why would someone that actually commits his time and money to attending regularly not care?

    Anyway, perhaps I'm sticking up too much for this anonymous person, who I sincerely hope remains anonymous, but, well, that's me.

    But I do understand the frustration, I think, of those there and I imagine that Mr. Gilbert had to do some quick, hard thinking in order to figure out how to deal with the situation at hand. A difficult moment for many people. Hopefully, hopefully it won't happen like that again in quite that same way.

    Thank you again for commenting.

    All the best,

  8. Anonymous,
    After I wrote this post I did discover the same article you linked to above and I tried to read all the others that have been written which have obviously been many. Perhaps my term "angry mob" should have been tempered but my use of the other terms you mention, "vitriolic," and "violent" were not actually relating necessarily to the incident itself but to the many comments on facebook and on blog posts that I read last night. And I'm not saying I'm necessarily right, I was just incredibly shocked by the outpouring of emotions about this particular incident. As for my saying accidentally leaving one's cellphone on is a common mistake I don't regret using those words because I've seen it happen time and time again when I perform. Granted it's never gone on for as long as it did the other night but still, it happens.

    More importantly, my main point for this whole blog post was to think about what we as musicians can do to deal with similar situations since they do arise. I wasn't there that night so there is much that I don't know. I prefer to move on and to learn something from this unfortunate incident.


  9. Wow! A bit of road-rage in the concert hall!

    I’d say your action plan for possible interruptions is about right. You do need to play it by ear, as each scenario is different. As the conductor you are responsible for setting the demeanor of the event. If you avoid taking action you send the message that you would rather allow disrespect towards hundreds of listeners and musicians, rather than risk offending one person.

    If you do offend the guilty party, you risk looking too cruel; embarrassment is often enough punishment.

    Considering that Mahler composed sounds from the street into his music and found the terrible juxtaposition between beauty and ugly reality a source of musical material, I’d say the phone may have created a perfect Mahler moment!

  10. "Granted it's never gone on for as long as it did the other night but still, it happens."

    The length of time is what takes this out of the realm of "common mistake." Those will continue to happen (deactivating phones is both unsafe and infantilizing, IMO) and most people react responsibly, quickly, and with a degree of horror for being so inconsiderate (none of which this "gentleman" did). That kind of regrettable "common mistake" thing doesn't need to be handled in the moment by performers. Considerate audience members who just made a "common mistake" take care of it quickly themselves.

    That's not what Gilbert was faced with.

    Unless it was a stunt encouraged by those who think concerts should be more fun, participatory, casual, minus manners, and ripe for going viral (which seems the Holy Grail for some), I doubt this kind of lengthy, seriously-disruptive thing will become common.

    On a practical note, I think pre-concert reminders should also remind to check pre-set alarms (happened to me the other night, even on vibrate - fixed in seconds but felt HORRIBLE!). Also, attendants/ushers should be on alert for such disruptions during concerts and stop them. Gilbert was failed by them, IMO.

    As for a consequence, perhaps those who disrupt to this degree (lengthy, defying requests to stop it) should be fined by paying refunds of all expenses incurred to be there (ticket, gas/parking/cab, babysitter) to each in the audience who asks for it - for truly diminishing their experience. That would stop it.

  11. I don't agree with violence, BUT, I can understand why they were ready to riot if the person was ignoring the directions to turn it off and was letting it do this for 5 minutes.

    Why is it so hard to shut it off at the beginning of the concerts? Just do it already! Doesn't the person think people that came to hear a spectacular work like Mahler's 9th want to hear it without mishaps?

  12. I agree with all you've written - especially that this kind of thing is simply inevitable. I would even add, perhaps more controversially, that it's just not THAT big a deal. I understand that in the moment it will feel as if something beautiful has been spoiled. I remember hearing Bruckner 7th for the first time at the Boston Symphony and having an entire 20 minutes of it continue while an obviously serious medical situation played out about 10 rows over. Paramedics came in, worked quietly, and eventually lifted a patient out. Of course, in that case, although it really did spoil the symphony for me and many others I'm sure, it was quite easy to have perspective and see that a Bruckner symphony just doesn't matter so much if someone's life is at stake.

    And, the thing is, even Mahler 9 is really not THAT important - whether someone's life is at stake or not. It can surely feel important and overpowering and emotional in the moment, and maybe it can even change lives, and the ugly cellphone moment surely drained some value from the entertainment dollar that night. But it is pretty much about entertainment, even if it's a rarified and unusually sublime kind of entertainment. No, a cellphone blunder's not the same as a medical emergency, but the musical performance is equally important (or not so important) in each context.

    I'll admit I've gotten very annoyed with noisy audience members in the past. I remember hearing Jeremy Denk once at the Gardner Museum, and it turned out a guy behind me had some kind of hand tremor issue, so his program rattled constantly and was dropped a couple of times. I don't think I can even reconcile how I felt about that - it was very annoying that this distracted me from an amazing performance of the Concord Sonata, but I'm really thankful I don't have a hand tremor and it's just not that big a deal. It was a great concert - and I wish my experience had been more ideal. Oh well.

    If this NY Phil patron let the phone ring that long, there's almost surely some kind of impairment (age? hearing?) in play; the same thing that has people so bent out of shape (the length of the disturbance) is likely a sign that this wasn't just a rude, careless person. Things happen.

    And it's not just cellphones - in a world where we value a silent audience (as I do) and the experience of hearing a live performance communally (as I do), then we just have to deal with people, whether it's coughing, cough drops, rattling programs, sirens, snoring, whispering, etc. Sometimes things just don't work out.

  13. The patron-in-question agreed to an interview to explain what happened.

    1. Thanks for posting this Erica. New iPhone, pre-set alarm...sounds like something that could happen to anyone.

  14. Kim,
    Thank you for making me smile with your comment. :-) I needed that!


  15. Chris,
    Well, I was going to reply to your comment by saying that again, I understand peoples' frustration but that I simply couldn't believe someone would leave a cellphone ringing intentionally, that there must be some issue involved, like being aged, having a hearing disability, having a new cellphone or something like that. As I was about to write all this I saw the NY Times tweet come in with the article I posted above with the patron-in-question's statements regarding the whole episode.

    It's good to know that it was an accident, which it truly sounds like it was.

    Here's hoping that doesn't happen again in the same dramatic way.

    Thanks for adding your two cents.


  16. Michael,
    Thank you. I think we all prefer performances that seem to have magic enveloping everyone and every note, where not an extra sound is heard until the wild applause at the end. But life doesn't tend to work that way. Life happens.

    And i'm glad that I'm not one of the only ones that felt like there must be an explanation for the length of time this happened. I just couldn't imagine someone purposefully allowing that to continue. Some folks were making it sound like an act of purposeful music terrorism and I just couldn't buy it.

    Oh well. It's all over now. On to the next performance!

    Thanks again, Michael.


  17. I wonder what will become of the investigation of the Lincoln Center attendants. They should have done something and it was left to Gilbert's shoulders.

  18. Erica,

    Your posing the question of “What is the game plan for incidents caused by the audience?” is very important. I hope every reader considers scenarios and decides what their demeanor will be, prior to facing the moment unexpectedly. You will know what words or gestures you’ll use if you have your mind-set prepared.

    Then, just as important, ask ”What is the game plan for incidents caused by myself or fellow performers?”

    For example, on the podium my first priority is to the performers and their dignity, if you will.

    On a few occasions, when some player has gotten irretrievably off track, I have been known to add hand gestures that imply meaningfulness to what is happening. I call this ‘saving the players face.’ As far as I can tell the audience has usually remained unaware. If anyone did know there was a bobble they certainly also saw it was handled with grace. There is nothing worse than a glaring, red-in–the-face, angry, embarrassed conductor, steaming from the podium.

    I’d want performers to think through their scenarios a bit, too. A peeved-looking, angry, embarrassed performer is just as pernicious.

    The reason why this is important comes from what I call ‘stage-craft’. The art of owning the stage in a way that allows audiences to be comfortable and open to receiving your performance. The audience trusts you to guide them through the event. Being on stage is about accepting the trust and responsibility for this heightened position.

    If audience members see you becoming angry, beating yourself up - or viciously glaring at others – for making mistakes (being human), their thought is “If he/she is that tough on themselves, what would they do to me?” The audience reaction is discomfort, mistrust, uneasiness – all the things that break the spell of music’s magic.

    This is a well-known concept in the entertainment world, but less acknowledged in the stilted world of classical music. Your audience follows your lead. Use grace with faced with mistakes or instrument issues (i.e. broken strings, removing water, tuning, etc.)

    You are an artist - host your stage with humbleness and dignity.

  19. Thank you, Kim, for such wonderful advice and for thinking through all the different types of music personnel that could consider these questions and some possible answers for each. And as we've discussed before, I love your whole concept of stage-craft and of seeing music as something that can create somewhat of a magic spell on all involved. This is valuable advice for anyone that finds themselves on stage.

    I think it's really interesting to hear your perspective as a conductor so thank you for that!

    All the best, as always!


  20. Chris,
    I had a bit of a laugh at the whole investigation thing. It's making it sound criminal which I realize is how some folks might see it all. Anyway, I do think it would be good to make sure that ushers are prepared to assist in such a situation.


  21. Erica,

    I obviously consider it an important aspect of being a performer, hence the indulgent wordiness on my part.

    However, in your role of accompanist, you certainly have seen a lot of on-stage mishaps, too. Your insights would be pertinent to us all. I hope you will compile a post on this topic for the future.

    Thanks for stretching our perspective -----

  22. Kim,
    I am the last person in the world that would complain about wordiness since I tend to be a fan myself!

    And that is a good suggestion...I'll have to think up some of my on-stage collaborative mishaps to see if they are worthy of sharing. Many thanks for the mention!


  23. Dear Erica,
    I completely agree that the way this incident was handled by Maestro Gilbert and the rest of the patrons at the concert, as well as the musicians afterwards who spoke about what happened were unnecessarily angry and not human enough about something that could have happened to anyone- like you point out in your post. It is rather frightening that those of us musicians who consider themselves empathetic enough to play great music (like Mahler, etc.) and feel personally the emotions that these composers wrote, couldn't extend that same empathy to a fellow human being. That really is quite upsetting, and actually shows us that as a whole, we are all subject to giving in to our anger (especially in a group) more than we'd like to admit. The sad part is that it's a cycle too- I'm sure the musicians were angry because they respect the music, they worked hard to play it well, and they were disappointed that their hard work was interrupted at an important point in time, namely a performance. However, that does not by any means justify their reaction. Though, I am sure that we all as musicians, have, at some time or another, encountered ourselves being unpatient and perfectionistic. Two traits which might serve our technical practice well, but which don't serve our humanity well. Therefore, you are entirely right, and I hope that fellow musicians can eventually see that their response was completely exaggerated and not quite so empathetic as it should have been.

  24. Julia,
    Thank you for taking the time to read this post and to express your own thoughts and feelings about it. It's wonderful and heartening to know that I'm not the only musician that feels this way. As with all incidents like this it seems that the storm has already passed which is good in some ways. But at the same time I think it's important to also register what happened and the passion that so many people felt about it all. I just hope that next time it happens, and is will, though hopefully not in the same way, more folks will be a little more empathetic.

    All the best to you,