An Audience With Rob Pennock

Written by: Rob Pennock

Rob makes some well-aimed serious and surreal comments about what can be the worst aspect of going to a concert – the audience…

I am writing this during the season of goodwill, Christmas 2005, but I am afraid I find it virtually impossible to extend such consideration to a small sub-group of the human species – those noise-makers who attend concerts.

This article looks at the physical behaviour of audiences and in a second article I will move onto the absolute nonsense that is often heard during concert intervals and the totally irrational response some punters have to artists.

The following observations – both rational and irrational – are based on 36 years of concert attendance and an ever-deepening sense of cynicism. I have divided this piece into sections entitled “Introduction”, “Action & Reaction”, “Solutions”, and “Conclusion”.

For those readers who are in any way upset by my words, I would ask them to send ‘hate mail’ via the Forum – controversy improves site hit figures – but not suggestions that involve the misuse of compact discs that would be physically impossible even for seasoned practitioners of bondage, discipline and sadomasochism.


We go to concerts for different reasons. These might include the music being played, the artist(s), the venue, as well as snobbery and social standing

There will be those who go because the diva wears great frocks or because they are besotted with one or more of the artists – or they couldn’t care less about the concert but fancy the person they will be going with. None of this is a problem, human beings are complex creatures, but unfortunately when you throw in a combination of total irrationality, bloody-mindedness, ignorance, and a lack of consideration for others then the ‘true’ concert-goer’s life gets difficult.

So what causes me to think this? Well let’s look at it chronologically.

Action & Reaction

For many there will be a keen sense of anticipation as they approach the hall. For example, I always look forward to the prospect of hearing Zimerman or Perahia giving a demonstration of the art of playing the piano. Then you arrive at the hall doors and entrance lobby. Inevitably these will be of hugely differing design and convenience, but one thing is certain: if there is somewhere for a person or group to stand where they will impede the smooth flow of humanity, they will find it. Then we have the joys of the box office; for those lucky enough to be a guest or press you can get served quite quickly, but if you want to buy a ticket or pick one up, then the problems start.

First you will notice that there aren’t enough staff on duty or alternatively, as at the Royal Festival Hall prior to refurbishment, there aren’t enough service points irrespective of staff numbers. And those employed often seem incapable of dealing with any question or situation that goes beyond ‘name and credit card’ for collections or ‘which seat?’ for on-the-night sales. Alternatively they may be having an animated discussion amongst themselves about Kate Moss, or who on the staff has split up with whom, or the latest episode of “EastEnders”. One thing is certain, unless you live in the Far East where courtesy is rather more prevalent than in my London base, you will be seen as being an inconvenience.

Having finally purchased your ticket heaven forbid that you have to climb any stairs, because here lurk those creatures who stop halfway up to have a conversation, wave their arms around, aimlessly move from side to side, or take – irrespective of age – half-an-hour to climb a few steps. I am pleased to say – always assuming you reach the auditorium doors – in halls as varied as the Philharmonie Berlin, Singapore Arts Centre and London’s Wigmore Hall, that most of the ushers are reasonably polite and helpful, but then you actually have to find your seat. You have been told that it is halfway down the second aisle on the left but that doesn’t stop whole legions from wandering up and down the stairs or seat rows seemingly having lost all sense of direction and rational thought. If on the off chance you know where you are going you usually have to disturb others to reach your desired goal. Many people will be polite and charming, while some will look at you as though you are a creature of Satan, take an eternity to move their belongings, and exude malice as you squeeze past them.

And then you wait for the concert to start while worrying that the couple in front of you will continue to mindlessly rummage through their bags or constantly squirm around and flick through their programmes when the concert commences. Then we have the late arrivals, those who are let in just as the music is about to start, or those admitted at a totally ludicrous point in the proceedings, such as before the second movement of a symphony. I know that in London and Bangkok, for example, the transport system is a joke, but surely latecomers could make allowance for this and start their journeys earlier?

But, never mind, we are now to listen to music, but I think not. The couple in front are indeed doing everything you feared – plus rustling sweet wrappers, constantly putting their heads together for whispered conversations, and having an audible discussion about Uncle Bertie’s sex-change between every movement. (Hopefully the Concert Companion will not be introduced as further ‘entertainment’ for them.)

And there’s the watch-alarm that was not turned off … and the hearing-aid inexplicably taken out and left to whine on someone’s lap. I jest not, I recently went to probably the worst piano recital I have ever heard and to add insult to injury a woman in front fell asleep with her hearing-aid lying on her lap making high-pitched whirring noises! Of course you will always have, even when the temperature is 39 Celsius, a large number of people who are dying of consumption and who will commence their death throes at the quietest moments. Then we have the mobile-phone plague, a comparatively recent pestilence – the owners who let them ring are brain-dead inconsiderate morons.

Then we have the between-movement clappers – particularly prevalent at the Proms, but creeping in elsewhere. Some people tend to applaud after every movement, irrespective of the quality of music or the performance, and thus break the concentration that should exist through the whole of a multi-movement work. There are also the inveterate destroyers of silence; at the end of, say, Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, any discerning person would appreciate the quiet, however protracted, as part of the music, and respect the conductor’s wish for such stillness to be sustained.

So we reach the interval and attempt to exit the auditorium, but needless to say that those who lurk by seat, stair and foyer are here again. Ten minutes later you reach the bar that will be understaffed and designed by someone with absolutely no knowledge of how to maximise service. Having finally got a drink, with only a few minutes of the interval left, you bolt it down and rush to the loo. You can usually assume that a hall capable of holding 2000-plus people will have an inadequate number of urinals and cubicles in two or three areas which no-one can find. (Royal Albert Hall!) This inevitably means that there will be queues of guys trying to look inconspicuous and hoping they will not be thought of as ‘cruising’.

The bell has signalled that half-time is over and you notice that a considerable number of people are trying to be cool by blithely ignoring the warning. They will then enter the hall laughing and joking about thirty seconds before the doors are closed. At a Jessye Norman concert in the Royal Festival Hall a few years ago at least fifty noisy so-and-sos entered the hall as she was about to start singing. She looked aghast and afterwards I complained to the management, only to be told that they were corporate sponsors who would have forced entry. I will address this behavioural problem later.

I will assume that the concert’s second half was pretty much the same as the first with regard to interruptions and move to the coda. Here a substantial number of the audience usually has some desperate need to vacate the hall within 30 seconds. They may have heard a sublime performance but nothing is going to stop them catching a train that leaves every 15 minutes, or perhaps they need to check their mobile for missed calls: the exodus is sometimes so great that mediocre musicians might think they are getting a standing ovation! When the applause dies away, and those who have expired have been carried out, there is the great rush for the doors. Or rather ‘great saunter’ – here even more than prior to the concert, or at the interval, you will have people standing around the auditorium and staircases putting on their coats, waving to people they have just noticed, or trying to decide whether the big gaps in the wall really are the exits.


Anything that involves human nature and actions is going to be complex – but let us first look at those who lurk. Ideally a law should be passed that would allow the use of electric cattle prods on such individuals. I do appreciate that there would be some risk that ‘they’ could gain access to such devices and that Severance Hall could end up like the ‘OK Corral’. However with the use of video cameras persistent offenders could be identified and banned from attending any concert for say twelve months. Such bans could be imposed world-wide via the circulation of credit-card details and digital photos: the advent of the Web has made concert policing infinitely easier.

With regard to people who fidget, cough and unwrap sweets, and those who talk and whisper, sensors could be incorporated into every seat that would pick up every sound and movement and instantly inform a control room; a variable shock could then be administered via electrodes in the seat – the worse the offence the greater the voltage. I would recommend leniency with regard to hearing-aids, but it must be possible to instantly detect one that is not in its rightful place and temporarily disable it. I would however still impose penalty points.

Which brings us to watches and phones. Recently the actor Richard Griffiths stopped theatre performances and had the owners of ringing mobiles thrown out. While is an eminently reasonable thing to do, it does rather interfere with my favoured punishment: life imprisonment. However, given that British prisons are disgracefully overcrowded, a more high-tech approach might be appropriate. In parts of the USA signal inhibitors have been introduced into halls – unfortunately some misguided piece of legislation prohibits them in the UK. And the degree of stupidity and selfishness in those who can’t be bothered to turn off watch-alarms is mind-numbing. Unfortunately there is no way of disabling these tacky items, so ushers should be backed-up by a large contingent of security staff and every digital watch that hasn’t been turned off can be confiscated and destroyed. And those that arrive late should not be allowed entry until a work has been played complete.

In a few years time it may be possible to solve all of these problems with chip implantation. All concert-goers would be obliged to have one in their brain and punishment could then be far more adventurous: let your phone go off or start a coughing fit during a concert and the chip would stun the miscreant and then force them to listen to the complete recordings of Tetrazzini and Tagliavini – surely a fate worse than death.

On a more serious note, with regard to a venue’s staff and facilities, while it may seem very old-fashioned, might I suggest that the staff are better trained and that managers actually manage and ensure that the highest standards of service and politeness are maintained at all times. Certainly in the UK this is a revolutionary concept, but it might just work! The catering facilities are easily dealt with; you construct what are known as station bars (if this is an unfamiliar term, I can deliver a boring treatise).

Then we have the toilets. As far as I am aware there are regulations regarding the ratio of urinals and cubicles to audience numbers; architects and builders should consider exceeding them.


If you look at audience members when a person starts coughing or rustling sweet-wrappers, it is patently obvious that they are angry; and if it is a mobile going off, apoplectic. But hall managers just seem to think that it’s always been like that – and do nothing. If a phone goes off and you know who it belongs to tell the owner at the earliest opportunity that you are not amused and report them to an usher and do exactly the same with persistent coughers and rustlers. In other words, complain, and make known what you feel. Put pressure on these people to do something about their unacceptable behaviour – cause them enough problems and you never know what might happen!

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