How (not) to behave at a concert: an audience guide

by isabelrogers

I went to a school concert yesterday, in an old chapel. The kind with carved stone, wood panelling and creaky pews. They weren’t the delightful Creaky-Pughes one might have met last summer at Henley over a Pimms. These are the deceptively uncomfortable wooden benches people insist you sit on when you are being told off by God. Buttock pain helps penitence, apparently.

I admit I hadn’t arrived at the concert in the best mood. The day had been fraught, involving four 20-mile round trips for various dull child-based reasons, one accompanied by an extra four-year-old who decided she couldn’t stay at the birthday party she’d been looking forward to all week, despite Cinderella painting her face and sprinkling magic wishing dust everywhere. (We are still retrieving the magic wishing dust from our car. It will be there for years. If anyone offers you glitter, just say no.)

In the chapel, I settled myself as best I could into the uncompromising right-angled seat. The place filled up with parents and assorted family members. There was the usual attempt to clamber over knees of people who sat in the first available place, by the aisle. The people who refuse to shuffle sideways. Everyone smiled, but you could see jaw muscles jump. Thus are the Home Counties kept civilised. You may never articulate your wish to murder someone, least of all someone beside whom you are forced to sit for the next two hours.

The chap who ended up next to me seemed normal. He’d only had to climb over three knees (that’s pairs of knees, not a war-wounded amputee on the end who might have had PTSD relapse at a sudden percussion entry). The vein in his temple was already subsiding as he made his buttocks into corners. His tweed ensemble tried to blend him into the background, but failed.

We jumped when a confident clap rang out from the doors behind us to indicate that the conductor was about to start his lonely walk up the aisle. By the time he’d reached half-way we’d all got the idea, and cheered him along merrily. Quite why he couldn’t use a small door near the altar, where all the other musicians were, was never explained. Anyway, he arrived eventually, and we relaxed to enjoy Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, a Mozart violin concerto and Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms.

The concert had no interval. Advantages: a quicker getaway and less time for the laws of thermodynamics to operate. Disadvantages: no opportunity to stretch ageing joints that do not react well to cooling and forced inactivity. In short: we had some wrigglers.

Trained from an early age, I can now sit perfectly still during music (if required – I can dance on tables if appropriate). I have to be in severe pain to allow myself to move at all. I would rather asphyxiate than clear my throat, let alone cough. I once endured a quiet movement of a symphony at the Proms with streaming eyes and burning lungs, refusing to be broken by a coughing fit. I am a silent, ninja audience member.

You know what’s coming, don’t you? People watch television a lot at home, where they can eat, drink, shuffle about, pick their nose and break wind at their own convenience. These habits are entrenched. (This concert didn’t reach the olfactory heights of an earlier carol service. I don’t think I could have survived that twice.)

Mr Tweed was clearly less than comfortable. It started with simple things, like shifting his feet and aggressively pouncing on his flimsy paper programme and rustling through its pages, then crackling it back down on the pew. He had a mucus problem during the Mozart. By the third movement, he interpreted the jaunty theme as permission to jerk his legs around in the manner of one trying to dance in his seat. He wasn’t fooling anyone.

During all this, the woman in front of me spent a lot of time scratching her head furiously. I have no idea how far head lice can jump, but trying to calculate that during a performance of Britten is quite distracting.

As the end of the concert approached, Tweedy’s random spasms were more frequent, with scant regard for the musical dynamic. Even the worst sweet-unwrappers time their crinklings with a fortissimo. Not he. Pews, by their very nature, are communal seating. We were all constrained by the same right-angled buttocks. Mr Tweed, however, threw himself around with such abandon the pew tipped about like a ride in an amusement park. Several of us may sue him for whiplash.

At last, the final applause erupted to drown our yelps of pain. We clapped the magnificent achievements of the performers, and smiled beatifically as we shuffled out. Being British, no word was said about what had just occurred. I believe I even nodded at our tormentor as we stood up. There is nothing so satisfying as a sneaky blog the next day.

But, please, if you take anything from my experience, have small business cards made and laminated ready to hand out at such events. “Any shuffling, nose-picking, coughing, rustling or scratching may result in summary death.” It’s not very British, but it might encourage them to sit elsewhere.