A surprising lesson in the concert hall

by Ellen Blum Barish, Special to MPR
March 25, 2014

EVANSTON, Ill. — I was at a long-anticipated evening of string duets at Northwestern University's pitch-perfect auditorium, Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, with my husband. The lights dimmed, the buzz of voices faded, and the hall vibrated with the deep, steely notes of Edgar Meyer's double string bass, followed by the high-pitched plucks of Chris Thile's mandolin, blending classical into hybrid bluegrass.

As the strings began their call and response, my eyelids contentedly sank — I'd been looking forward to the concert for weeks — when a rhythmic click...click...click roused me out of my trance. Had I missed a drummer, stage left or in the back row, lightly touching a wooden stick to a drum skin? I turned toward my husband and he nodded. He was hearing it too. We rotated our heads and craned our necks but the sound had no visible source.

I slipped into my wool coat with the stiff collar, pulling it up around my ears and slinking down in hopes that would muffle the tick-ticking, but it didn't. Soon it was the only sound filling my ears, and I could barely stand it. I leaned in to tell my husband that I was going to get an usher because clearly there had to be a glitch in the heating or cooling systems and someone needed to do something about it — but my husband was already up, heading down the aisle toward her, tapping an usher gently on the shoulder and pointing in my direction.

The usher looked my way, crinkled her brow, shrugged her shoulders, and walked down the carpeted steps to find a manager. That's when cacophony overtook me, and I was pulsating with frustration and disappointment and self-pitying questions like, How could this happen in one of the most acoustically sensitive venues in town? Why is the sound audible only to us?

The usher returned and whispered something to my husband, who moved back to his seat, navigating knees and feet. He cupped his hand around my ear to tell me that there was a man, an older fellow, sitting in the row right behind us. The man was connected to a breathing device, and we had been hearing the sound of oxygen puffing its way into his lungs.

Slowly I turned and there he was, this gentle man whom I had somehow managed not to see the other three times I looked. He was about 80, seated next to a boy who looked like he could be his grandson, and there was a tube attached to his nose and a tank on the floor by his feet; his instrument of wind. His eyes were closed, lost in the music like I was, before. He was there, as I was, to enjoy an evening of music, as he struggled for every breath.

In seconds, my huff was released. I was no longer an angry audience member distracted by an annoying sound in the auditorium. I could hear — even enjoy — the music again even though the ticking remained.

Only later, as my husband and I were leaving the concert, did I recognize that in addition to the gift of the music, I had been given a lesson in tolerance. Live music brings an audience together not only to enjoy the music, but also to be with others. Had my huff exploded, I would have distracted those around me far more than the man with the oxygen tank.

As audience members at a live venue, we are also part of the music. Our role is not only to listen, but to share the space around us.

Ellen Blum Barish is a Chicago-based writer, editor and writing instructor whose personal essays have appeared in the Chicago Tribune and have aired on Chicago Public Radio's WBEZ.

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