The Sound of Tolerance

When I caught sight of the newspaper ad for one of my favorite folk mandolin musicians scheduled to play with the classical bassist my husband David really likes at the pitch-perfect university auditorium near our home, I called for tickets right away. I nabbed them in spite of its not-so-great mid-week time slot.

It was just the outing we needed to break the monotony of the winter workweek routine. So when we took our seats in the upper balcony, I sat down in my seat with happy anticipation of several hours of beautiful musical escape.

Once the lights dimmed and the low buzz of voices quieted, the duo began to strum their stringed instruments.

A minute or two into the first piece, I first heard it: a rhythmic clicking. I looked immediately for a drummer lightly touching a wooden stick to a drum skin, but stage left and right showed no signs of a drummer.

The clicking continued without a break for some time until I glanced over at David who indicated that he was hearing it, too.

Where was it coming from? The well-crafted hall was designed for sound to bounce around, and that was exactly what it was doing. I craned my neck and squinted to the far back of the auditorium to see if a lighting system might be responsible. Nothing and nobody was back there. Maybe it was a heating issue — it was cold, after all, and furnaces across the Midwest were all on full blast.

I made a pathetic attempt to block the sound from my ears by pulling my coat collar up and slinking down a bit in my seat. After 10 minutes, I could stand it no longer. I whispered to David that I was going to get up and talk to an usher — that someone needed to do something. But he was one step ahead. The moment the next piece ended, he exited the aisle toward the usher, tapped her gently on the shoulder and pointed in my direction.

She nodded, looked my way, but quickly crinkled her brow. She couldn’t hear the sound from where she was standing, but headed out of the auditorium to talk to a building manager, or so I later learned. David took a seat at the end of the aisle, staking an easy getaway location if that’s ultimately what we needed to do.

Those minutes felt endless as I lost the ability to ignore the sound. I was getting angrier and started a rant in my head that went something like this: A rare night of music; we don’t do it often; just our luck that the night we choose to go, the most acoustically perfect venue in the area has a building malfunction and we are the only ones who seem to be hearing it.  If only it were rock and roll – I’d be dancing in my seat about now.

Finally, the usher returned and whispered something to David. He nodded and made his way back to our seats. When he sat down beside me, he leaned in and said, “There is an older fellow sitting in the row right behind us who is connected to a breathing device. We are hearing the sound of air being forced into his lungs.”

What that’s you say?

I didn’t have to twist my head back to look very far to see a man of about 75 sitting beside a boy of about 12 or 13 (his grandson?) with a tube attached to his nose and a tank beside him. They were there,  like we were, to enjoy an evening of luscious sounds.

After the show, David and I talked about how speedily we recovered from our private huff once we thought about how this man struggles for every breath and has every right to listen to this concert, too. I have to admit that I was still disappointed in the placement of our seats, but once I connected the sound to a person rather than a building, whatever was left of my own humanity clicked back into place.

How easy it is to jump head first into intolerance, personal comfort and entitlement. How hard it is to let them go. But once we do, then we might be able to sit back a little and enjoy the show.

Originally published by Adams Street Publishing, April 2007