When a local orchestra contractor recently called to book me as a percussionist, I answered on my old flip phone with a nearly broken hinge. He asked me to play “Pictures at an Exhibition,” one of the few remaining pieces that gets a subdued classical music audience out of their chairs. I said yes with a whoop. Musicians dream of performing pieces like this. It’s bombastic, it’s heroic, and I was going to get to play the gong. Loudly.
At the first rehearsal, I should have been lost in the music. Instead, I was glued to my brand-new iPhone. I checked my Gmail…three times. I briefly debated the merits of Qdoba versus Taco Bell on a friend’s Facebook page. I “poked” the tuba player and texted a friend before a solo to see if the buzzing in his pocket would throw off his technique. (It did.) When the maestro called out a rehearsal number, I snapped to, barely refocusing enough to play my part.
Before I got my new phone, I had been envious of my colleagues who constantly had their phones out during rehearsals, texting each other inside jokes and posting funny updates to Facebook. My archaic cell got limited reception and made texting an ordeal, so I kept it shut and quiet. It was like the cool kids were passing notes during class and I was missing out.
My new gadget provided the in-crowd gratification, but I quickly realized that being connected in cyber world meant we were blatantly disconnected from the music world. No longer could I sense that hyperawareness of playing that brings a piece to life. My busy thumbs, fumbling over the still-unfamiliar touch screen, meant I was no longer tapping my fingers in time to the brilliantly changing meters, nor nodding to the stomp of the timpani. I was willingly distracting myself from a career for which I’d worked tirelessly and passionately since I was 10 years old.
It’s ironic, really, that these pocket-size slabs of technology are threatening one of the world’s most ancient and enduring art forms—that our attention spans as performers are so shattered that we can’t make it through a 40-minute symphony without interrupting our own creative process with an online fix. Classical musicians may seem like a link to a quickly disappearing past, but when it comes down to it, we’re just as susceptible to the lure of modernity—even at the expense of what we love.
Before we performed “Pictures,” someone made an announcement asking the audience to turn off their cell phones. For the most part, they usually do. But onstage, though I put away my own phone, my head buzzed with distraction: I was thinking of witty ways to paraphrase the performance for Facebook and itching to check my texts for post-show plans. The performance brought the audience to their feet, but when they applauded, I stood guiltily, feeling empty for missing the life of the music as it passed me by.