I Read Books at Recitals (And You Can, Too!)

People seem to be confused when I bring books to performances. If someone near me is curious enough to ask, they assume I’m an amateur enthusiast who just likes a nice place to read. “No,” I tell them, holding my page politely but not shutting the book entirely, “I’m a musician as well.”

Somehow, this is unacceptable. As a music student, I should be the example of discipline when listening to live classical music: back straight, attentive, maybe nodding my head when something sounds particularly good. I should not have my neck bent down in the pages of a book. I should not appear bored with what’s on stage.

No one said anything to me Sunday night when I did this. CMYS brought JACK Quartet to Yellow Springs with free tickets to students and adults under 25. I sat with friends in the back, knowing the sound is good at any seat in First Presbyterian and visual doesn’t matter. I intended to sit by myself with a book and not be much company, but the world doesn’t end at the hands of polite companionship. I paged a well-loved library copy of Ann Patchett’s This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage and listened.

This isn’t because I get bored at concerts or recitals. Quite the opposite — once a composer friend of mine asked quite seriously how I could sit through long Sunday afternoon recitals at the orchestra festival we both attended with no complaint. I didn’t realize this wasn’t the norm.

I’m no example of attention. I don’t believe it is possible to sit through a performance and focus on the performance alone. The mind wanders. Yoga Nidra allows this in meditation, but once it’s noticed to call the mind back to center. Don’t dwell on the shopping list or the scuff on the cellist’s shoes. Acknowledge it, and return. I’m not saying audienceship is a form of meditation, but when the mind wanders in a recital, let it. Then call it back.

This isn’t taught in music school. We’re told the basics of concert etiquete — enough to turn our noses up at anyone who claps between movements — and which performances are mandatory. Maybe we were supposed to learn how to endure the performance on our own. Maybe our generation just can’t sit still. The day Wright State took away the concert attendance requirement, audience numbers dropped.

I don’t always read during performances, but when I have a particularly intriguing book that will occupy my imagination those two hours anyway, I might as well bring it. I enjoy the combination of reading and listening; they both take on different meanings this way. During JACK’s performance of Elliot Carter’s String Quartet No. 1, I was reading Patchett’s essay “Love Sustained.” It is about Patchett’s relationship with her grandmother and her grandmother’s death, and I cried silently reading it. Carter’s Adagio now sounds like the complicated love and heartbreak of watching a family member succumb to dementia.

The secret to youth sitting through performances isn’t to make it more exciting or to even shove books in their hands. The discipline isn’t to sit still, but to sit with only your own mind for that long. This why they don’t show up for a world-renown ensemble for free on a Sunday night (I was one of a very few of JACK’s audience members under 25). I don’t hold the answer, I just wonder what would happen to audiences if listening was natural and not disciplined, and to audience numbers if we left the formality at the door.

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