The Do's & the Don'ts of Concert Etiquette for Kids
To Go or Not to Go; To Leave or Not to Leave... Those are the Questions!
"When your child misbehaves, you are judged not on his or her behavior, but rather by how you, at that moment, respond."
A great French flutist stopped playing during a performance at the Kennedy Center, and, peering down from the stage, asked the mother of a little girl in the front row who was fidgeting to please control her child. The child was in a bright red coat, and, indeed, had been squirming in her seat throughout much of the performance. Surprisingly, several members of the audience hurled comments back at the artist; he responded, finally leaving the stage, but after several minutes returned to finish the concert.
THE QUESTION IS: If we want to encourage children to go to concerts, why was the flutist not thrilled to have a cute little girl in the front row during his recital? What went wrong?
There are 3 fundamental kinds of programs to which we can take our children
1. ADULT CONCERTS
The expectations are quite clear: they are meant for adult attention spans. Few children will happily sit through them. Most need a great deal of pre-knowledge and/or listening in advance to the music to appreciate the concert, and most experienced parents understand that leaving at intermission is probably a good idea for the child, the parent and their relationship.
2. FAMILY, PARENT/CHILD OR CHILDREN'S CONCERTS
The second type of concert is far safer, especially if you adhere to the age guidelines. Remember, the people setting the age limits for children's concerts are in the business of selling tickets. They do not like to turn patrons away. So, such guidelines often are set offering the greatest allowances for musically talented and extremely well-behaved children. Age 6 and over means a well-behaved six year old who enjoys music. His/her ten year old brother/sister, who would rather be playing soccer, is welcome because he/she has the maturity to understand appropriate behavior. Through listening, this child may actually discover that he/she is enjoying the experience.
3. ADULT CONCERTS WHICH OFFER DISCOUNTED TICKETS FOR CHILDREN
The third group is the most difficult to assess. The offer of a $5 ticket to expose your child to one of the world's greatest musicians seems to be an almost irresistible deal. What is more, you do not have to find a babysitter! Yet...you must remember that such wonderful bargains can only be successful for both the performer and the audience if you understand that nothing has been done to make such concerts "child-appropriate." These tickets should only be purchased for a child whom you feel would enjoy the concert at any price. In other words, probably a child of twelve or older would benefit the most.
Nothing is carved in stone, however. Some parents may have an eight-year old who goes to Type No. 3 and loves the evening. But the parent must be sensitive to the fact that the child who loves the evening, but disturbs both artist and fellow audience members, should be removed promptly, even if it means having half a row of people stand as you leave in the middle of a piece.
What is "reasonable child behavior" in the concert hall?
I immediately think of Dustin Hoffman acting in his first Shakespearean play on Broadway commenting, "The most difficult thing is to keep people in the front row from falling asleep!"
In short, few people are ever privileged to stand on a stage and look out at an audience. After being awed by the vastness of the sea of seats and faces, you would be shocked at seeing just how visible you, as an audience member, are to the performers. The front row is like sitting across from someone in their living room; fifteen rows back is like being in a classroom; the back of the hall is like looking across a gym. In this age of television, where none of the performers see you, it is important for children to realize that their attention to the performer actually improves the artist's performance. No parent wants to talk to a child who is fidgeting, talking to his/her sibling, turning around, eating candy or playing with a toy. A performer feels the same way. He/she is talking to you; if you have bothered to come, you should listen.
The concentration that the performer expects from his audience is probably about the same level of attention that you expect from your child when you are talking about the danger of running into the road. The artist has worked very hard and feels that he/she has something vital to say. It is difficult to perform when some people aren't listening. (A little like having people talk during a presentation that you have worked on for months.)
Basic Good Manners Means:
No whispering, and this includes parents! If you can't answer your child's question with three words, respond with, "I'll tell you at intermission." During a performance is not the time to share all your knowledge. Do this either before or after the concert.
No eating! Look at the seats and carpets in a concert hall. They resemble your living room. My parents never allowed us to sit and eat a box of M&M's in the living room, and my children are not permitted to do so either. The reason is simple: upholstery is difficult to clean. The arts should spend their precious dollars on production, not on cleaning services.
No standing on the seats! No hands over the head or leaving your seat! If your child is short (which most are!), bring something for him/her to sit on. As long as the youngster is no taller than an average seated adult, he/she may be propped up. But even the shortest child is taller than this if standing on the seat; they are far less steady and, therefore, incapable of being still. So remember, not being able to see is one of the greatest causes of squirming children, and good planning beforehand can eliminate the problem.
No hands over the head! Remind your child that theaters are designed so that those sitting in each row can see past the rows in front of them. The slant in a theater floor is called the "rake". The best theaters for young people have steep rakes which improve visibility. But no theater has been designed so that one can see past upstretched arms.
No wandering in the aisles!
Example of rake seating at a theater
What do you do if your child escapes and starts to wander down the aisle? Ignore? Conclude that the only thing worse than one child in the aisle is a parent chasing that child down the aisle? Hope everyone understands and thinks your child is adorable? No, no, no! As a parent, as a producer, as a performer, the answer from all corners is, "No." Get up quickly, move yourself and your child swiftly back to your seats, or, if you feel that you are beyond being able to keep your child happy and firmly placed, head for the nearest exit. Every other parent in the hall understands, and each and every one will appreciate the fact that you are setting an example for their children by allowing everyone to get back to listening as quickly as possible.
Where do the rights of a child to enjoy a performance end and the rights of the artist to perform begin?
A parent called an orchestra office following a performance and complained that her child's enjoyment of the afternoon had been ruined when the conductor, noting that the performance was being taped by National Public Radio for broadcast, asked that parents whose children who become disruptive quietly find the nearest exit. Should every child be allowed to come and sing and dance with the orchestra? Perhaps, but only if everyone is being invited to do so. Good family programs often include audience participation to address this need; at adult concerts and the non-participatory parts of family concerts, however, everyone has come to listen to professionals perform, not the child in the seat next to theirs.
If your child wants to perform with the pros, begin your training early and be sure he/she is on the stage, not in the audience.
Bonnie Ward Simon, BA, MA, M.Ed, M.Phil.,
President of Maestro Classics