From Erica Sipes: Twitter in the concert hall?

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.

Students and faculty at Virginia Tech's Tweet-seat event, photo courtesy of Virginia Tech

Students and faculty at Virginia Tech’s Tweet-seat event, photo courtesy of Virginia Tech

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.  

Her blog can be found at and her website for her practice coaching business is at


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  1. says

    I think it’s a clever idea. I’ve been to concerts where they provided ongoing background information “by the numbers”, via supertitle numbers that referred to paragraphs in the program booklet. This was a great aid to listeners during one Colorado Music Festival season, guiding them through the labyrinth of such works as a Mahler symphony, a Rachmaninov concerto, etc. Why not tweets? I know there could be some drawbacks (like audience members trying to reply or tweet each other), but with preparation and some ground rules, I think it has the potential to make for a deeper experience – especially as I’ve notice program notes are shrinking as part of cost savings.

    • says

      Thanks for your comments, Ron. It’s interesting to hear that the Colorado Music Festival tried this via supertitle numbers. I do think these ways of presenting live-program notes can be an effective way of providing more background info to concertgoers without it being hard to follow. In regards to your point about audience members trying to reply or tweet each other, in our little experiment we actually did have quite a bit of interaction amongst ourselves during the performance but our group was made up of students and teachers – there was an understanding that this was to be conducted as if it were a class. I suppose if the people tweeting were strangers some issues might come up with in terms of privacy and there might be concern about inappropriate or unwanted interactions – I’m not quite sure how this could be dealt with. Perhaps there could be folks monitoring the chat who could instantly block anyone who started to tweet inappropriately.

      I too think the concept has a lot of potential, not only for the reasons you state, but also because it offers and opportunity to provide program notes that are custom designed for each individual that is interested in them.

      I’m hoping to continue the experiment in the months to come so we’ll see what develops!


  2. Lawrence de Martin says

    Music was tribal for decamillenia. The interaction was inclusive with singing, chanting, call and response and dancing.

    Watching Classical audiences file in with a few small knots of friends, usually assigned to separate seating, it seems no more connected than the audiophiles who listen to machine reproduction by themselves or occasionally gather to take turns sitting in the “sweet spot”.

    My practice is to de-construct music. I read the program after the performance to reduce my pre-conceptions. I do take great pleasure in sitting with sophisticated Manhattan audiences who are ebullient over the same performances I am, which seems to be limited to the Chamber Halls. The larger venues react better to showmanship and familiarity than nuance and the arc of long form compositions and I suppose that 2,500 or more people can’t interact effectively.

    This makes me in favor of interaction, but specifically not to Twitter. I find it hard enough to fit functional communication into SMS packets and find that only surface level sound bites fit that media. It also seems that this doesn’t scale up since it is too distracting outside the back row.

    • says

      Interesting comments here, thank you.

      Twitter and this type of interaction in the concert hall is definitely not for everyone. I happen to be very well-practiced in the art of coming up with small, short blips of info but it’s taken some time to figure it all out. I do think many in the younger generations take to it like a duck in water which is partially why I think this experiment worked as well as it did, although I should say here that there were several students who had never tweeted before this event, joining only to take part in the event. They picked up on it all very quickly.

      You mention that “it is too distracting outside the back row.” I’d be curious to try to expand the experiment a bit, perhaps allowing tweeters to be in an entire section, still separated from non-tweeting audience members. I also wonder if those around them would really be that distracted. At this particular concert we were at there was an audience member in one of the boxes that stood up in the middle of a piece and dragged his chair several feet as he got up. It made quite a racket and drew more attention, I believe, than we did. It’s pretty amazing how quiet one can be when tweeting. I’d be curious to find out from the audience members around us if we distracted them from the performance. Maybe next time we’ll have a way to ask!

      Thanks again for reading and for your comments,

  3. Michael Di Mauro says

    Our wind orchestra gave the live tweets a go (as well as Facebook and instagram), and it was a roaring success. The programme was a festive one, so what we did wouldn’t work for many concerts, but our I believe it’s lifted the connection between our orchestra and audience, and we’ll greatly benefit as a result. You can find ours at / qwofiesta

    • says

      How fun to read through those posts! And I’m so grateful to find out about tagboard. That’s new to me. I love how the orchestra incorporated Instagram and Facebook as well. I imagine that encouraged even more people to get involved. One of my favorite lines is, “Less visible tattoos on stage than I’m used to at a gig, but the band killed it anyway! Nicely done.” Hilarious! What I love about that it reveals something about the audience member herself, making the communication that was happening a two-way street. I’m always excited for that to happen. I see that some musicians seemed to have posted – those are great too and like you said, I bet it helped make a different type of connection between the orchestra and the audience. I love it!

      Thanks for sharing!


  4. says

    Although my first response to the concept was the usual dismissive “ugh,” Erica’s description changed my mind. Tweeting requires active listening, which is what every performer and composer really wants. If it enhances engagement with the music, then it is a good thing.

  5. says

    I was prepared to think this was a “gimmick” … but it obviously provided a lot of insight for people (and not just the students). How interesting, that it made them listen harder rather than being a distraction. Way to go for turning this into a meaningful (and fun) educational tool!

  6. says

    Gosh … did it lose my original comment? I noted that I was prepared to think of this as a gimmick, but it obviously provided a lot of insight for people … and not just the students. How interesting that it made them listen harder rather than being a distraction!

  7. Ariel says

    The nonsense that goes on under the umbrella of education . This experiment contradicts the reason one goes to a concert .The self congratulatory” success ” of the venture speaks volumes on self promoting educators of to-day , one supposes the audience “whispered ” pointed “and stared – realizing the barbarians are no longer at the gates, they are inside .

    • says

      We are all welcome to our opinions but I need to chime in here as the writer of this post and as someone who is passionate about education to say that I did not undertake this venture for selfish reasons nor did I write this post in order to pat myself on the back. I would have written it if the experience hadn’t turned out as well. Bring a member of the educational community in a rural area I see the lack of interest among younger generations on a daily basis. In this particular instance I believe that a large percentage of the students that were willing to try out our experiment would not have attended such a wonderful performance otherwise. Is that the fault of educators? Possibly? Parents? Possibly them too. I feel like many of us are working on the issue in traditional and non-traditional ways. We are trying something which I think is a good thing. And with all new things comes the opening of the door to criticism. Understandable.


    • Michael Di Mauro says

      “Barbarians are inside” – this idea of two classes of listeners is ridiculous. If those barbarians are the ones who buy tickets, learn something new, and share the experience with friends and family, perhaps the real barbarian is the one scolding the new-comers.

  8. ariel says

    Erica , not for one moment does one entertain the thought that you do not take seriously and
    passionately your work in bringing “great ” music to the masses . It seems however that tweeting during a performance defeats the purpose of what a concert is all about . You well know there is a difference in giving your” undivided” attention to a performer and tweeting however brief some inane observation that has just come into ones ‘ head and breaks the
    line of the performance . Perhaps teaching how to listen and what to listen for would
    accomplish more – a before and after discussion – history of performance etc . One is not
    surprised that a marketing and communications dept . would institute a tweeting study it’s
    the nature of the beast . Marketing aspires to nothing but the lowest common denominator.
    Tweeting banalities under the guise of investigative studies suits marketing to a T .
    Who is at fault ? educators and parents . Not all new things are met with criticism only
    the stupid which is understandable .

    • says

      I am a bit taken aback, I have to admit, by some of your words here. My partner and I spent hours doing research on the composers and repertoire being performed in addition to preparing tweets that we could send out at appropriate times. I do not believe they were at all banal. They were written in an informal way, true, but banal? And you mention that “teaching how to listen and what to listen for would accomplish more” but we wanted to do something different, something in real time. From my experience with working with audience members that aren’t as familiar with classical music especially I have discovered that talking to people beforehand, especially young people, can go in one ear and out the other fairly quickly and/or they have a difficult time connecting with something they heard earlier and being able to apply that while taking in a performance. And program notes pose similar problems. Another factor to take into consideration is the time factor. Getting students to also turn up for a pre-concert discussion when it’s not a required part of the class would be a huge challenge.

      I would also like to add that the performers at this concert were far from being irritated by our tweeting. They were very vocal afterwards about how much they appreciated seeing into the minds of the young audience members since they rarely get a chance to do so aside from the typical, “Your performance was so nice, thank you” type of comments.

      So I will continue with this “stupid” idea until the people for whom it’s intended no longer seem to benefit from it.


  9. Ariel says

    Erica ,we will agree, I believe, that it is not obligatory for people to appreciate “classical ” music in having a full life .The millions that know of Mozart & Chopin etc. are outbalanced by
    millions that haven’t the slightest idea of who is Mozart, Chopin etc. The brief synopsis of the
    type of students you must deal with presents a question- ” going in one ear and out the other ”
    having a difficult time processing thoughts , and understanding written programme notes and
    getting them to turn up at a pre concert discussion class being a huge challenge ….one wonders
    if these particular Virginia students may not be suffering from some mild attention deficit
    problems . Maybe they would be more attentive to
    watching massive trucks driven in endless circles then crashing into each other .It is after all
    another form of entertainment . But …if this is how far we have come in education and these students are the norm do you wonder why we are in the world of educational ranking so far
    down the list -20 something right after Peru I believe . Tweeting as a form of dumbing down
    will not do it but teaching them to” aspire ” to something better than what they have come from
    just might . Most music schools survive because of the Japanese ,Chinese and Korean
    student population , does this not tell you something ?

    • Michael Di Mauro says

      Ariel, anyone who enjoys active listening does not suffer from the syndrome of ‘going in one ear and out the other.’ Art and entertainment are two very different things – the youth of today (growing up in a world saturated with entertainment via more than one medium) likes to engage with their art on multiple levels, and twitter is one avenue in which they can do this in a concise manner (and not ‘dumbing it down’). Engagement does not equate to disinterest, and it certainly does not equate to any form of attention deficit.

      In the end, I would prefer to ‘aspire’ to find wonder in music, and share that experience as a result. I, personally, wait until the end of a concert to do so; however, I don’t scorn at anyone who shares the experience during the concert. They have grown up in a different time, with a different society, and not adapting to this means irrelevance.

      • Ariel says

        Mr. Di Mauro – Art and entertainment are not two different “things “. One would
        be interested in how you define the “difference ” That you wait to applaud until the end
        of the concert shows you are a well bred gentleman . One does not scorn the likes of
        Erica and her tweeters , however one does deplore the fact that they cannot give their full
        attention to the artist for the brief one hour or so that they take from their busy little
        lives in attending a concert . Can you imagine tweeting during the Fidelio quartette
        or the great ending to The Marriage of Figaro ? You are correct the times are different and society is different and we must adapt to survive but it does not mean we do
        not differentiate between the playing down to the lowest common denominator of
        change and the making of demands on our students to aspire to higher standards than they
        think they are capable of , otherwise our world education standing will be worse than
        it is at present . There is a time to tweet banalities and there is a time to listen .

        • Tracy says

          To all in this thread, I was the other “faculty” member participating in this tweet seat event. I had just as many reservations about the idea as Erica did, but I also think the event proved to be valuable for the students involved, and I’d like to share an observation. We know that audiences weren’t always of the “sit quietly and don’t make a sound until the complete work is over” type. Silent attentive listening was not the norm until late in the 19th century. I don’t think anyone would advocate returning to 18th century concert etiquette, but our Twitter experiment allowed something unique: the opportunity for students to “exclaim” in the middle of a performance about something that was particularly striking or beautiful to them. I thought this was a particularly sweet element of the experience that we all shared – the ability to comment mid-concert about what we were seeing and hearing. Calling these “banalities” is unfair, since the experience was very real to the students and their comments were heartfelt. They were listening intently!