Everyone sitting comfortably?

On 1st September, a little over a week from now, I’ll be going to my first Prom of the season. Yes, this might seem a little late… but, being somewhat hermit-like by nature – and particularly in the summer, when I’m tired and in need of a rest – it often takes until about this time in the festival to pluck up the necessary grit to face an audience of several thousand people. And at least if you listen at home, you’re spared the interval-long queue for the toilets.

This will also be the first year in which my various Proms visits will not actually involve Promming. This is entirely a result of luck rather than judgement, and of course it’s quite possible that I’ll attempt to squeeze in a few more events, once I’m actually there, by standing in line for arena tickets on the day. But for the pre-planned visits, this time I get to sit down.

I can’t tell whether this will make me more or less susceptible to the ‘unforgiving killjoys’ whom Jonathan McAloon seems to find present at every turn in his trips to this most impressive of music festivals. His Telegraph article of this week is entitled ‘Are young people scared of the Proms – or the audience?’, and he then goes on to detail several instances of People Being Rude at the Proms, either by shushing him or his friends or, in one instance, apparently disbelieving that he could be a professional journalist because he’s twenty-six.

I’m not for one moment suggesting that this kind of thing doesn’t happen, because I’m sure we’ve all met people at concerts who seem determined to be annoyed with us, no matter what we do. People who think we don’t sit still enough; or turn the programme pages too noisily; or aren’t being sufficiently respectful in our interval comments. (It’s not restricted to audience members – I once had a pianist shout at me after page-turning for her because my watch was apparently ‘too loud’, and prompted an intense struggle for her to keep a piece going at crotchet = 64 rather than dropping back to the pace of the ticking. She’d made no such comment in the afternoon rehearsal.)

Angry man in the audience (cartoon)

The thing is, people can be passive-aggressive, killjoy idiots pretty much anywhere. Anyone who has ever tried to board a train in central London knows this to be true. Or been in a queue in a Post Office. Or encountered one of a myriad of embarrassing situations in shops, at bus stops, in the park, and so on. Sometimes, people just suck. Interestingly, no one seems to feel the need to write an article about them. Just about the classical music audience. Because this certainly isn’t the first time I’ve read a piece like McAloon’s.

The most frustrating part of rhetoric of this kind is that it isolates the experience of attending concerts as unusually socially difficult, filled with terrifying new etiquette unknown from any other walks of life, and populated by large numbers of pompous arses just waiting for you to make a mistake so they can tell you that you’ve messed up. For the record, here are a few other situations I can think of where I’ve felt equally at sea:

  • At a wedding. Then at an Evangelist wedding. Then at a Catholic wedding. In the first instance, it was all new, I knew pretty no one except the happy couple who have no time to speak to you, and I was there alone. In the second, I didn’t know any of the songs and didn’t want to dance around the aisles of a tiny medieval church with people I didn’t know. In the third, I didn’t know any of the responses and they weren’t in the order of service.
  • At a library you’ve never used before, where you don’t understand the borrowing rights, what rooms you can work in, or where the photocopier is, and you might get shouted at for being noisy if your pen makes a scratchy sound on your notepad. Assuming you’re allowed a pen at all without being told off for not using pencil.
  • At a summer school for the first time, where everyone already seems to know each other and seems way better than you. Or indeed at a new school. Or university, or conservatoire.
  • At an academic conference, where the delegate list includes people whose books you’ve read, but you don’t know if it’s ok to go and be a fan or whether that’s deeply frowned upon, and you also appear to be the most junior person on the list. And, of course, everyone already knows each other.
  • The first time I went to my local swimming pool, after years of not swimming. I mean, just how fast do you need to be to be in the ‘fast’ lane? Is it ok to overtake people? I saw a woman giving one guy a really evil look just last week, because he was kicking so enthusiastically that she got splashed. Which obviously is a real problem when you’re IN A POOL.

Any new scenario or situation is intimidating if we don’t feel familiar with the behaviours expected of us. Age is completely irrelevant to this. Classical music concerts should be no more or less scary than anything else, except that for some reason people keep going on and on about how terrifying they are. If you don’t know when to clap, wait til everyone else does. If you’re not sure if it’s ok to take photos, look at the programme: it will tell you. If someone does something you’re totally not expecting – like the Prommers at the interval launching into their little speech about how much money they’ve raised – just listen and see what happens next. And if someone says something rude or stupid, console yourself that people say rude and stupid things all the time, all over the world, so it’s almost certainly more their problem than yours.

Last but not least, if you’re really intimidated by a new situation of any kind, try to take a friend along for back-up. That way you have extra support either from someone who knows a bit more about how it works, or is as much at sea as you. Plus they can hold your spot in the arena whilst you queue for the toilets. And who knows? Maybe, if you’re really lucky, you’ll meet some of the many hundreds of actually nice people whilst you’re there.

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