Audience behaviour

Back from a lengthy session in Hong Kong during which I recoiled, yet again, at the grotesque habits of the Hong Kong audience. Things go from bad to worse and it’s got to the stage now that, if I wasn’t obliged to go, I’d give concerts there a miss.  There’s great music-making in every area of Hong Kong’s exciting cultural scene, and Edo De Waart has done fantastic things with the HKPO, but something drastic needs to be done to the audience.

Ringing phones, chatting, reading books, rustling sweet papers, noisy (and noisome) children.  They are all par for the course.  They’re so common it’s almost part of the furniture. Clandestine (and not so clandestine) love affairs go on all over the place, with gweilo arms draped gropingly across the backs of petite Asian belles wearing, from the back at least, just about nothing  at all and from the front revealing an ease of public access which the designers of the Cultural Centre themselves would have done well to emulate.  Weak bladders and noisy shoes go hand in hand (as it were) judging by the incessant procession of patrons caught short (always) during a quiet moment in the music and obliged to make a hasty retreat to the furthest possible exit.  All that is part of the landscape.  Hong Kongers can’t be expected to change their ways that drastically.

But for me the insufferable thing is the  Blackberrying and Emailing which goes on ceaselessly.  From every corner of the hall you see little blue screens flashing around as bored patrons (why the hell do they go if they only want to play with their pocket gadgets?) entertain themselves at a level Beethoven, Brahms or Bruckner could never hope to attain.  After all, what’s Mahler 7 got that can compare with an email from someone you haven’t seen for 30 minutest??  What magic can Respighi draw from The Pines of Rome that can compete with the up-to-the-minute stock-market reports coming in from the Argentine??  The level of selfishness shown by these people defies belief.  Of course, why would a financier have any interest or concern in the fact that data coming into and going out from his handheld is distorting the amplified signal being sent to those in the audience unfortunate enough to need to use a hearing aid?  Why would a businessman who believes himself to be successful want to know that his little electronic toy is totally destroying the listening pleasure of those who have been stupid enough to go to the concert to listen to music rather than marvel at his state-of-the-art gimmicks?

The last straw came during a concert on 5th Feb when the CHinese man in front of me spent the entire concert Blackberrying, despite the frantic efforts of his wife to get him to stop for a moment (it was his wife, I assume; the usual tartlettes would have been more impressed by his hardware).  He held his machine so high that I could easily read it.  He didn’t notice me, but I saw his screen clearly.  He was reviewing the CVs sent in by applicants for a job with a major Hong Kong company.  Thanks to him I know the background and details of five young hopefuls who were being considered for an interview.  How I was tempted to contact one of them and suggest they spend the whole of the interview texting their friends.  What would Gormless-with-the-Gadget say about that?  I know.  He’d not even consider the applicant, and would probably tell his equally gormless friends that the candidate was “rude”.  I did write to the Personnel Director of the company and complain and, of course, I have received no response, but there again I expect that nobody sees the problem.  You can be rude to musicians and those foolish enough to enjoy music, but you must not be rude to those who earn mighty salaries in the financial and commercial institutions which our misguided culture labels “powerhouses” .  When I was a boy, if you failed all your exams you went into banking; if you passed them you went and did something more worthwhile.  I’m afraid I have yet to grow out of that mentality.

And what do the authorities at the Cultural Centre do to curb such disturbing antics?  They employ a harem of harried hags who hurry hither and thither around the auditorium as the doors shut and lights dim, wearing the noisiest heels known to womankind and flashing their torch lights officiously at any late-comer (and a majority of any Hong KOng audience is made up of late-comers) to ensure that he or she sits in the correct seat, even where that seat is in the very middle of the second row from the front.  Even when the performance is underway, they will hurry around flashing their torches and muttering loud tut-tuts seemingly at random.  I’ve never seen one of them do anything other than disturb a concert.  Does anyone give them any training?  LAst week, one of them forgot to close the door beside the organ and spent the first few minutes of the concert in full view silhouetted against the light fiddling with the bolt.

Singapore audiences certainly used to be pretty bad, and there was a fantastic website that reviewed every concert with an indicator to the distraction caused by the audience.  It worked to an extent, although late-comers are still a big problem.  LAst week, for example, I gave the pre-concert talk at the Esplanade library, and was advised – when only two people showed up –  that as the audience always come late we’d best start five minutes after the advertised time (which rather buggered up my carefully-timed 30 minute session).  True, the audience grew to around 40 and people were still coming in even as I finished.  They didn’t care; after all why bother to put yourself out when you are only dealing with music?   Would any of them dream of turning up over half-an-hour late for a prearranged meeting with their bank manager?  I rather think not.

And KL concert audiences have a culture so unique it almost defies comment.  I long ago realised that KL audiences go to be seen not to see.  I laugh with ill-disguised mirth at the odd assortment of cocktail dresses and tiny black numbers which, teetering in on high heels over the state-of-the-art wooden floor, draw attention to themselves on entry to the hall.  They, too, sit with their phones on busily texting (I assume contacting their clients for later in the evening down at the Beach Club) ; but when you look like that, you wouldn’t know any better, so we can’t complain.  At least those dopey dreamgirls have put in the effort to look presentable.  In other areas the KL people seem to have gone bonkers over the Dress Code.  Malaysians hate being told what to do, even when it is for their own good, and when the Dress Code was introduced it was intended to offer guidance to an audience who had no previous experience in attending classical music concerts.  But it became a big issue with people who wanted to object for the sake of objecting.  TAke this, from one disgruntled member of the audience turned away for wearing a vest and slippers;  “I could go into a concert in London dressed like this.  Why can’t I go into one in my own country?”  If he had ever gone to a LOndon concert dressed thus, he would have been carried out on  a stretcher before the first movement was over, suffering from hypothermia.  Take the complaint I heard a few weeks ago, when a very angry young man adorned in a designer tee with designer jeans railed at the door-steward for not allowing him in without a jacket;  “Would you belive, lah?  No jackets to fit in your so-called wardrobe-lah?”  If poseur was so keen on being there, why didn’t he invest in a jacket of his own rather than rely on the DFP staff to find him one at the last minute?  Would he go to the casinos of Genting, Sentosa or Macau dressed thus?  The lure of big money would soon make him forget the “oppressive” rules imposed on dress.  Once again, when it comes to music, the perception is that we must do what we want, but in any other walk of life, we accept the rules governing basic etiquette.

When is music going to stand up for itself and say “enough is enough; if you don’t want to play by our rules we won’t let you share our product?”  The answer is, of course, never. THose in the music management business are too obsessed with keeping everyone happy that they forget the true value of what it is they are offering to the public, and that tendency for music management (And a lot of musicians too) to roll over and let everyone walk over only undermines their place in the public esteem.

9 Responses to “Audience behaviour”

  1. 1 David Chai
    February 21, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    Dear Dr Marc,

    I really enjoyed reading your piece titled “Audience behaviour”. In fact, I really laughed out loud while reading it.

    Another behaviour which I find extremely annoying is persistent coughing during a performance. Nothing likes coughing to really kills your enjoyment and concentration of the whole performance.

    Now the reason why I am writing to you. I find that in KL there are fewer and fewer records shop that sell classical music CDs. The only shop which has a reasonable collection of CDs is Towers Records, which has shrunk from a few outlets in KL to only one now.

    As one of my hobbies is collecting (and sometimes listening to) classical music CDS, I would like your opinion on where to source for them. (By the way, I don’t really like to order from nor trust much Amazon.com).

    Thank you.

    • 2 drmarcrochester
      March 6, 2010 at 11:39 am

      While I believe that coughing AFTER a performance, especially one of a quiet movement or one which has been unusually exciting, is a sign that the audience has really enjoyed it (when you are absorbed in listening to something, you forget to breathe normally, and once the tension is broken, you inadvertantly cough to clear the air passages), coughing DURING a performnacne is just plain rude. I’ve noticed that Malaysians think nothing of coughing without so much as a hand or hanky nearby to cover the sound and absorb the germs. But then poor health and selfishness are fundamental Malaysian characteristics, it would seem. When the Royal Festival Hall opened in London, they used to put a little note in their programme books to the effect that a single note played mf on a French Horn produced x decibels, while a single uncovered cough produced xxx decibels. I wish I could remeber the precise figures!

      As for CD shops, you are clearly a man after my own heart. I won’t buy online and any city with a CD shop invariably finds me inside, rooting through the shelves and making a point NEVER to leave empty handed. I have found my favourite music that way – discs I would never have bought online. Take the track I’ve uploaded today – Danse des Juives from Arensky’s Egyptian Nights (Marco Polo 8.225028 – Moscow Symphony/Dmitry Yablonsky). I stumbled across this in a back street CD shop in Brisbane and thought it looked interesting. It’s one of the most magical pieces I know and I’d never have found it had I not been browsing shelves in a CD store. There are good CD shops around – The HMV Classical Department downstairs in the Oxford Street/Tottenham Court Road branch in London, Parsons in Wellington (NZ), Marbecks in Auckland, Hong Kong Records in Pacific Place, and even the HMV in 313 Orchard, Singapore, while not a patch on the old classical department at the Heeren Centre, isn’t half bad. As for KL, there’s nothing. When Tower Records were driven out of KLCC because a bank wanted their site (which is rather what my Audience Behaviour bit was on about) they moved to a stinking corridor in Lot 10, lost their wonderful classical buyer and now people their store with illiterate failed haridressers. Sadly, we tried to forge a link with the old Tower Records and the MPO, but as the former MPO CEO never liked to leave the office (she was possibly waiting for a call from the Petronas President offering her a better job?) and as the Classicla Buyer couldn’t leave his store (in case the pop department wanted to expand?) I was never able to engineer a meeting between them and a golden opportunity for Malaysian music lovers was lost.

      The bottom line is, if you are Malaysian and want to buy CDs, you must first buy a passport!

  2. 3 vincent4wang
    February 23, 2010 at 10:26 am

    I’m quite surprised the HK audience behavior so bad as reported..
    I was in HK for transit to my hometown Xi’an last May. So I attended the Dresden Staatskapelle concert and found the audience behavior quite all right. My seat was at the center of circle. While this is the only concert I attended in HK, so I can’t comment much.
    For Singapore, most times audience behavior fine, unless groups of “obliged to attend” students were around.
    For concerts in KL (attended around five, and going to the Alpine Symphony/MPO this weekend), the dresscode may set a “barrier” for newcomers to classical concerts. On contrary, SSO has its slogan “You don’t need to dress in black”. In fact, in Esplanade I often seen western tourists in shorts and sandal..
    I tend to think all the behavior culture related, while the trend today is “going against the traditions”, probably a reason why classical music not as pop as before. I do appreciate classical/traditions. However I do not mind how the others listen to music as long as not disturbing.
    A professional musician friend of mine told me he doesn’t minid people sleeping in a concert. He explained that good music makes people comfort, while noise scares people away. I would add “as long as they don’t snore”.

  3. March 3, 2010 at 11:57 am

    Well said, Marc!

    I think the worst audiences are those who attend the “big name” concerts – those featuring celebrity musicians and orchestras, and the concerts where sponsors have bought a whole gallery of tickets for their clients and employees, many of whom are the sort who regard Richard Clayderman as their favourite pianist. They often bring a gamut of boorish behaviour that defies description.

    The best audiences in Singapore are those attending chamber concerts and song recitals, mostly by local artists. They know what they are coming for and treat every concert like an experience to be cherished. They are quiet during performances, but cheer vociferously at the end. Can’t we have more of their kind?

  4. 5 Valerie Toh (Malaysian)
    March 11, 2010 at 9:36 am

    Dr. Marc,I think that u do really understands malaysians.As you say,Malaysian do hate dress coding but i thinkwe must respect those musicians that worked for a long time to performa concert.Thus i think it is essential to respect those musicians.I am a student that join my school’s philharmonic orchestra. I hate to see those audience busy to talk with their friends,texting and one thing i hate the most is seeing those audience wearing unproper clothes.what i think about i a total disgrace towards us that had hardly prepared the concert.they always think that if they bought the ticket,what they want to do during the concert is not our bussiness.I sincerely hope that those fellow Malaysians will change they mindsets,

  5. 6 cfh
    March 20, 2010 at 11:46 am

    Different people having different tolerance for distractions. Some can block out distractions more easily than others. This is not to say that annoyance should be tolerated, but if one can’t stand distractions, it would be easier just to reason with the sources of them. If this fails, seek help from attendants, though they are usually not of true help.

    I do feel that every concert needs to secure as much attendance as possible, even those who are not truely interested.

    Good luck next time, Marc. Don’t feel too frustrated.

    • 7 drmarcrochester
      March 25, 2010 at 11:46 am

      I can’t agree with the assertion that bums on seats matters more than providing a suitable environment for those who are really dedicated. It might give good immediate returns to the box office but how many dedicated concert-goers feel excluded by such high tolerance levels of bad concert etiquette? I won’t go to the Shnezhen concert hall again simply because, on three visits, the audience behaviour has been so intolerable, I feel I’ve wated my money.

  6. 8 Fantasia
    November 2, 2010 at 1:10 am

    Hi Dr Marc, came across your site and have to admit I totally agree!

    What in your view is the proper dress code / etiquette for a concert for eg. Berlin Philharmonic / SSO gala concerts etc?

    • 9 drmarcrochester
      November 2, 2010 at 4:53 pm

      The answer is simple. The Berlin Phil will have travelled long and far to be in Singapore and it is basic courtesy for the audience to respect their effort in getting there by taking the effort to dress for the occasion. Men, I hope will wear suits/jackets and ties while women will wear something long and elegant. I doubt that they will, though!!

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February 2010


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