Ever been phone-shamed at a concert? You know: Just when you’ve framed the perfect photo or video of the performance, or the crowd—or are about to share a snap to Instagram—the artist delivers a pointed screed from the stage asking if everybody, for just one song, could put their phones away and be in the moment, if you all could try to experience what’s going on together, in real time? I have, and...it’s awkward. Good, but awkward, as that faint sense of shame and self-righteousness—I mean, look at those other people who simply can’t leave their phones alone for five minutes!—envelops the space.
What’s surprisingly less awkward: not having a phone to put away to begin with. More and more performers—from Madonna to Childish Gambino, Haim, and Justin Timberlake—have been enlisting the services of Yondr, a tech company that provides phone-locking pouches to artists and venues: You show up, go through security, scan your tickets—and lock your phone away until the end of the performance. (You keep the pouch itself with you at all times.) Have an emergency (or do you simply need to post that pic)? Leave the performance area and use an unlocking device to open up the pouch.
The latest institution to introduce phone-free concerts? Almost shockingly, it’s Manhattan’s esteemed Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, which debuted Yondr pouches during its recent White Light Festival, which centers around compositions and performances that speak to an inner or spiritual life.
“We had three things come together,” says Leah Johnson, Lincoln Center’s chief communications and marketing officer: “Henry Timms, our new CEO, told us about an amazing quote from the first president of Lincoln Center, William Schuman, who talked about the arts as ‘an antidote to our automated age’...and something that serves as ‘a creative illumination to counteract the push-button emptiness of our mechanized lives.’ This is back in 1966! At the same time, the White Light Festival is 10 years old this year, and Jane Moss, our artistic director, really conceived the festival as a way into the human experience. The third thing is the link between social media and depression and loneliness. And so we reached out to Yondr—we think we’re the first classical performances to use the technology.”
At least for now, giving up your phone at Lincoln Center is a suggestion, not a requirement, and Yondr will only be used sporadically until audience feedback can be studied—though the early rollout seems to be a success. At the White Light Festival concert I attended—Harry Christophers conducting the Britten Sinfonia and the Sixteen choir in the U.S. premiere of James MacMillan’s haunting new Stabat Mater (the first musical work to be live-streamed from the Sistine Chapel)—most audience members seemed to surrender their phones, though the woman next to me continued to use hers—to read an electronic version of the Bible, I couldn’t help but notice—right up until the moment the lights dimmed and the performers took the stage.
After the performance I asked Christophers, who’s conducted thousands of performances around the world over four decades, how often he’s been interrupted by an errant phone call. “One concert in four,” he says. “Invariably in the silent part.” He is far from amused. “It’s the same as someone throwing trash out the window. Part of me despairs—why can’t people simply get into the habit of turning their phones off? It’s not terribly difficult.”
Johnson told me about attending a recent opening night performance of the New York Philharmonic when an Amber Alert reverberated from cell phones throughout the concert hall. “At first I thought, That can’t be part of the symphony, can it?” she remembered. “You might think that people who are disposed to attend a classical music performance might already be attuned to the need to turn their phones off—you’d be wrong.”
Back at Alice Tully Hall watching Christophers wield his baton, I had no such worries. Those who didn’t surrender their phones to Yondr pouches seemed to have done the right thing—though that didn’t prevent my concert experience from being interrupted. At the end of an introductory piece by MacMillan, the achingly beautiful Miserere, based on a psalm asking God for mercy and forgiveness, an odd sound, distinctly non-electronic, reverberated from the seats directly behind me. I couldn’t resist a quick pivot for a scolding snare—and discovered the source of this disturbance to be...a Catholic priest, snoring. Is nothing sacred?
Originally Appeared on Vogue