There are few things I enjoy more in this world than sleep in all its wondrous forms: power naps, car snoozes, practice room shuteye, food comas, actual bedtime sleep, extra holiday sleep-in sleep. A big reason why I like closing my eyes so much is probably because when it actually is time to go to bed, anxiety usually keeps me from getting a quality, restful night of Z’s. And, anxiety or not, I know I’m not alone out here when I say that those proper eight hours are as elusive as professional orchestras that regularly program works by POC and women composers………………..
...So anyway, today I’m writing about why we fall asleep during concerts. Here’s why:
This one speaks for itself. We live in a nonstop world that values chaotic self-improvement and ambition. Starting from when we’re young and in school, we’re told to work hard and earn good grades as we climb academic ladders. For us musicians, it becomes “practice, practice, perform, practice, repeat”, or “network until you die” or something like that. And it’s only after that full day of practicing or working or whatever you do, that you finally sit down in that quiet, dark concert hall to hear the most Largo movement of anything you’ve ever heard, ever. All of a sudden the tiredness you’ve been running from all day starts to catch up to you. You do that thing where you fight your closing eyes by blinking a lot, but it’s no use…. annnnnnnd boom: accidental concert oopsie sleep.
I mean, I wish there was a feasible cure for this, but if you’re tired, you’re tired. In my opinion, there’s no shame in a little concert snooze if your body is begging you to do it. After all, as one of my wisest friends puts it, “body knows best”. If you review your schedule, there’s probably a solid reason why your brain is forcing you to close up shop. Plus, the concert hall is sneaky and tricks your brain into believing it’s the perfect place for bedtime…
...which brings us to #2. Close your eyes and imagine a concert hall. Now, after you wake back up, what do you remember seeing? I usually imagine a big, cold room that’s pretty dark except for the concert stage. There are squishy chairs and an unnatural stillness—a stillness that we are taught in school to never, no matter what, disturb by any means. That means no talking, moving, paper-folding, gum-chewing, texting, Insta-scrolling, BREATHING etc. Staying perfectly still in the dark, your already-tired body sinking into the squishy chair, (not to mention your body is working hard to keep you WARM), and of course, your brain wandering off into dreamland to some soothing music—it’s the textbook recipe for sleep. Yes, the chair and the ambiance don’t help. But maybe instead of reconsidering the venue, we can reconsider our concert-going traditions. But hold on, I’ll get to that in a sec.
If you’ve gotten this far, first of all: wow, thanks! Second of all: you’re probably thinking that I use concerts as a place to take naps. That’s not necessarily true, but my point so far has been to try to make you (me) feel less guilty about falling asleep (every once in a while) at performances. This last point is more of a “call-to-action”, I guess.
If you’re (still) reading this (thanks), you have probably been to a concert where you were bored out of your mind. Maybe the repertoire didn’t interest you, or the performance just wasn’t doing it.
But classical music concerts are NOT meant to be boring! We go to support our friends, colleagues, mentors, artists we admire, even strangers (recital credit, anyone?). We go to experience and appreciate art as a live performance. We go to hear what composers and performers alike have to say, to receive what they want to give to their audiences: anything from food for thought to moments of bliss. Right?
So, why the heck do we find drool on our programs from time to time? (Wait...you don’t?) Well, the answer could be anything that I mentioned above OR maybe the fact that concerts can, at times, be really darn snooty.
The audience, as well as the performers, are expected to look, act and dress a certain way. The audience sits in complete silence (and DOES NOT clap between movements, lest they be beheaded by That Old Man’s laser-sharp glare). Performers are also silent, walking on and off stage in a very serious mode, only acknowledging the audience’s applause with a series of bows. It’s like an ancient, sacred ritual with lots of rules. It all feels so serious and almost sad. It makes me feel like no one is ACTUALLY excited to be there. It makes me feel sleepy.
Do we need all of this formality to enjoy a concert?
Okay, before you come at me: please, don’t get me wrong. I appreciate some of the traditions in place because they were meant to enhance the concert-goers’ and performer’s experiences. In fact, I LIKE dressing up for concerts a lot of the time, I ENJOY being able to hear everything from the balcony. I DO believe that there are many moments in classical music that could definitely benefit without interruptions (think: the end of Mahler 6 as it dissolves into nothing before it explodes into everything).
But what if we got rid of some of the rigidity? Like letting concert-goers and performers wear what they feel comfy in, or making it normal for performers to talk and engage with the audience throughout concerts (I dunno, like a rock concert or something)? I love a good program note, but let’s be real: we’re getting to the venue 3 minutes before curtain, and if we do get there earlier than that we’re probably socializing or in line to pee. (But maybe that’s just me.) Besides, I find it much more captivating and engaging if I hear directly from the performer (or composer) about what to listen for in a piece or what makes it special or interesting to THEM. It’s heartfelt and it makes me feel more involved with what’s happening on stage.
So, let’s make the concert stage more accessible. Let’s do away with the elitist traditions and actually make it inviting for people to go along with us on our music journeys. I’d love to go to a concert and feel like everyone is happy to be there and enjoying the music that they are making/that is being made (no matter what it is!). I’d love to see a big, diverse group of people gathering together to participate in something that’s fun and beautiful. Now, THAT is something I might enjoy more than sleep. MAYBE.
End Note: Falling asleep at a concert doesn’t necessarily mean it was bad. It actually probably means that the sounds that were made were so nice that it made me feel cozy enough to doze off. (See: all the “Classical Music for Sleep” playlists on Spotify.) They were able to accomplish what 10 mg of melatonin before bed could not. Amazing!!!