By Laurie Niles | From the May-June 2021 issue of Strings magazine

[The time is coming when in-person performances will again become the norm. For all those who have exclusively been performing virtually during COVID, or haven’t been performing much at all, here is a little refresher on handling those noisy live audiences.]

Nothing beats the energy of a top-notch performance, given in the moment, before a live audience. But when thousands of humans gather in one place, the potential for disruption grows high.

How does a performer handle the unpredictable nature of a live audience? 

It’s a question that caused heated debate after a concert in December 2014 at London’s Royal Festival Hall, when a coughing child caused violinist Kyung-Wha Chung, under pressure after a 12-year hiatus from performing, to suggest from the stage that the child return when she was older. Apparently the entire audience had been particularly stricken with coughs throughout the concert, as well. Should she have tolerated the disruption? Or did the audience noise detract so much from the musical experience that it needed to be addressed?

The criticism over Chung’s handling of “The Cough” eclipsed in the press most conversation about her playing. On the other hand, Slovakian violist Lukáš Kmiť became an internet darling in 2012, when he showed his wit and good nature by playfully mimicking the Nokia ringtone that interrupted his recital at an Orthodox synagogue. The audience was delighted, and the YouTube video went viral and still circulates. More recently, in May 2014, Joshua Bell was performing with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra when an Amber Alert caused a high-pitched din as several thousand cell phones squawked to life. Reviewers gave him high marks for the poise and control he showed, calmly proceeding with Ravel’s Tzigane right afterward.

So how much is too much disruption and what can a performer do when faced with it?

Here’s a quick guide with links to the sections in this article:

Expect Interruptions, No Matter the Venue

Cellist Matt Haimovitz, who performs in both concert halls and nightclub settings, described some typical interruptions that a performer might encounter, besides coughing: cellphones, someone passing out in the middle of a concerto, giggling teenagers, candy wrappers, foot-beating (in time, and not in time), electrical outages, and earthquakes. “Remember the image of Isaac Stern wearing a gas mask, playing with the Israel Philharmonic during the first Iraq War during the Scud attacks on Tel Aviv?” he asks. “Rocket fire is a pretty big distraction, and he kept playing.”


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Though people typically think of the concert hall as a bastion of good etiquette, it’s not necessarily quieter than a nightclub, nor does it always have a more attentive audience, Haimovitz has found.

“We played Beethoven’s five sonatas for piano and cello in February in Seattle at a honky-tonk bar, to a capacity crowd of about 250,” Haimovitz says. “You could have heard a pin drop while we were playing. My colleague Christopher O’Riley pointed out that the applause and cheering was so loud between the movements, that the audience was much louder than we could ever hope to be with our period instruments, a fortepiano and gut-strung cello.” But the audience’s level of concentration made all the difference.

Practice in a State of Distraction

Violinist Rachel Barton Pine draws a distinction between something distracting the performer and something that detracts from the audience’s experience. As a child, Pine practiced playing through distraction. When she was about six, “my mom would put me on top of this old trunk, and then my little sister’s job was to run around, talk, wave her arms, and do whatever she could to distract me. It worked really well, to the point where, when I was eight years old, somebody fainted during one of my concerts and was carried out. With all of the commotion, I didn’t even notice! I had learned to stay focused, no matter what was happening. I don’t think it’s too late for anybody to improve their skill at that.”

Learning that skill can be as simple as practicing with someone who agrees to be a distractor: have him rustle paper, cough, whisper to his neighbor, check texts, and generally try to throw off the performer, she says.

Understand Your Own Boundaries

“I think you have to balance what’s appropriate for the audience with what’s human,” Pine says. “If somebody actually answers their cell phone and starts talking on it, then that’s crossing the line. But if somebody’s cell phone goes off, I don’t even get angry about that because it could happen, one time, to any of us. I try to be understanding and forgiving of these little slipups, and keep in the back of my mind that I’m grateful that every person in that hall chose to come to my concert that day.”

That said, there are incidents that cross the line, and there’s no substitute for experience when it comes to managing those situations.

“My ability to cope has evolved dramatically,” Haimovitz says. “I have experienced such a range of venues over the last 15 years, not a whole lot can faze me. I had a fight break out once in a club in Los Angeles. After mediating, I sat down and continued playing. I’ve always had good concentration, and can tune quite a lot out. I draw the line when I feel that it is an unfair distraction to the audience. Although this line can also shift.” 

One time, Haimovitz simply had to stop. “I was once playing solo Bach at a restaurant venue in Burlington, Vermont. The noise coming from the drunken chatter at the bar, dishes clanking, and insensitive wait staff made it impossible for anyone there to engage with the music,” he recalls. “After one suite, I apologized to those who had come especially for the music, and assured them that I would choose a more appropriate venue next time. That has happened once, maybe twice, in my entire performance career.”

Don’t Assume Noise Will Ruin Your Performance

On the other hand, occasionally a mild distraction can cause both audience and performer to focus even more. Once while on tour, playing solo works by living American composers, Haimovitz was scheduled to play at a Boston club. 

“It was a sold-out show, a few hundred in the audience standing shoulder to shoulder on the dance floor,” he says. “The atmosphere was electric, but when I took the stage and the applause died down, all you could hear was the booming bass, thumping from the hip-hop club below. ‘What have I done, bringing these people here to listen to Elliott Carter?’ crossed my mind, in a split second of panic. I began to play, and I was overwhelmed to see not a soul leave the venue during more than two hours of challenging music. 

“They had tuned out everything else; the bleeding strains of hip-hop had become white noise. It was a revelation. Sometimes making an effort through distractions heightens the artistic process.”