From Greg: Erica helps us here with a question many of us ask. If we break the traditional silence of the concert hall — and the sitting motionless that goes with it — will people still listen with the care and attention we expect? You’ll see that she herself wondered about this, but by taking part in something she’d never tried before, she learned…
But let her tell you.
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. A group of us were in the back row of the balcony, with black canvas totes on our laps in which we could conceal our typically illegal mobile devices. As audience members walked in to find their seats some seemed visibly distressed to see us there. They stared. They whispered. They pointed.
So why were we in this somewhat unusual and typically unacceptable classical music world scenario? I was invited by Heather Ducote, the Director of Marketing and Communications at Virginia Tech’s new Center for the Arts, to co-host what they call a “Tweet seat” event at a performance given by the Sphinx Organization’s “Virtuosi” touring group, a remarkable ensemble made up of alumni from the Sphinx Competition for Black and Latino string players. Performing without a conductor, they brilliantly carry out the Sphinx Organization’s mission which, according to their program notes, is “to advance diversity in classical music while engaging young and new audiences through performances of varied repertoire.” The freshness of this group and their embracing of the educational spirit presented a perfect opportunity to try the tweet seat concept out. As Ducote remarked,
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 given the task to engage students in an educationally based discussion. I have to admit that I could understand why many of the audience members around us 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 really pay attention to the performance. I was also not sure what we could tweet about that would be deemed as “educational”. With these concerns in mind we made a point of approaching the experiment with a lot of consideration.
One of the things we did was to 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. The program was a really interesting mix of music from both the 17th and the 20th centuries: a new work, Strum, by the Sphinx Virtuosi’s current composer in residence and violinist in the ensemble, Jessie Montgomery; two tangos by Astor Piazzolla; the aria and selected variations from Bach’s Goldberg Variations; Paquito D’Rivera’s Wapango; Bach’s Sixth Brandenburg Concerto; Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s Louisiana Blues Strut, and his Sinfonietta No. 1; Vivaldi’s Concerto for 2 Cellos; and Britten’s Simple Symphony.
We came up with program note tweets such as:
During their performance of some of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Tracy tweeted:
We had also put together a list of questions to which many of the orchestra’s members responded 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 the musicians and ourselves.
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 because they were so intrigued by what they were hearing. During the Goldberg Variations it was decided that the piece made almost more sense 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 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 afterward 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. (Click here to see a slideshow of photos that were taken by the Center for the Arts staff during the reception.) 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.
The whole Twitter stream from the event can be viewed 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.
In the end, I think all of us, including the staff at the Center for the Arts and the musicians in the Sphinx’s Virtuosi group, were surprised at how successful and discreet this type of engagement ended up being. Again quoting Ducote,
Tweet Seats Master Class was a great success and we look forward to continuing the conversations across disciplines!
With thoughtful planning and sensitivity to other audience members, I do believe that engaging audience members, educators, and musicians in this way can be a positive, if not fruitful experience for everyone involved. It can serve to educate, connect, engage, and inspire in spite of the taboo that seems to come with using mobile devices in the concert hall.
Erica Sipes is primarily a pianist but also a cellist who has a passion for bringing joy, personality, and fun into making, listening to, and performing classical music. She is a blogger, freelance pianist, collaborator/accompanist, closet cellist, occasional private teacher, addicted chamber musician, and performer who is almost always willing and eager to perform with anyone who promises to try and have fun in return. She also loves helping people figure out more efficient ways to practice, prepare for recitals, and to accomplish their musical goals, big and small.