How the Music Director of the New York Philharmonic Stopped a Concert and Won a Standing Ovation

I’ve been waiting for the day when an idiot would leave his cell phone on during a play or concert I was attending – even after the usual announcement to turn them off — and the phone would start ringing. It happened the other night and how Alan Gilbert, music director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, handled the incident was so instructive that I thought I’d share it with you.

Ring, Ring, Ring

"Disrupting Mahler's Ninth"

Disrupting Mahler's Ninth

The orchestra was playing Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, his last masterpiece. Just prior to his death, the composer had also been music director of the Philharmonic so he holds a special place in the hearts of the orchestra and its fans. Below this post is a video of the famous last movement of the symphony.

If you’re familiar with the symphony, in the final movement there is an exceedingly soft period when the violins are scarcely whispering. Guess when the phone went off?

Finally, Alan Gilbert stopped the orchestra, turned in the direction of the phone and asked that it be turned off. The phone kept ringing. Obviously, the offender didn’t want anyone to know who he was – probably afraid of a lynching.

How to Handle Disruptions

Maestro Gilbert demonstrated what an effective communicator he is. After the phone finally went silent the conductor faced the audience and said, “I apologize. Normally when these things happen we ignore it because stopping is even more disruptive. But in this case I just had to.” He turned to the players and told them where they would begin again.

Then he turned back to the audience and, with a smile, he said, “Well, we’re ready to go!” That brought laughter and a big round of applause. The orchestra went on to finish this brilliant piece of music and deservedly won a standing ovation. Stopping a concert is so unusual that The New York Times wrote a piece about it.

What I Learned

We all face disruptions and disappointments in our lives. It’s how we handle them that can turn a negative into a positive.

When you’re making a presentation, do you scold people who are talking and disturbing others in the audience? Or do you make a joke and ask if you can join their conversation? Scolding them will make the audience uncomfortable (not to mention the offenders).

Taking the high road will gain you the respect of the audience like it did for Alan Gilbert when he carefully communicated to the audience why he had to stop the performance.

When you lose a piece of business do you go into a funk and blame it on the client? Or do you try to learn what went wrong and try to fix it? Maybe other clients are fuming about the same thing and you’re not even aware of it – like not returning phone calls or always being late with assignments.

Protecting Your Brand

The New York Philharmonic is one of the world’s great orchestras. A simple disruption of one performance isn’t going tarnish its brand. But what if Alan Gilbert had gotten into a shouting match with the offender with the ringing cell phone? Ironically, that could have turned the audience against him because they would have become so uncomfortable with the way he handled it. But he didn’t do that, of course. He handled it with grace and style.

I hope you don’t mind my sharing this experience with you. Like the rest of the audience I was furious at the owner of that darned ringing cell phone. It could have totally ruined the performance. But Alan Gilbert managed the incident like a true leader.

He and the orchestra went on to give a ravishing rendition of the last movement. The audience was on its feet. The cell phone incident was but a memory.

Update: The mystery of why the phone kept ringing has been solved. It was the alarm clock of an iPhone. The phone’s owner is interviewed by The NewYork Times.


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  1. Wonderful post. And what a teaching moment for the audience! It’s important to learn how make adversity work for you- to turn a challenge into strength.

    • Janet — It was a very difficult moment for Alan Gilbert. He had to made a highly unusual decision to stop the concert. But he definitely won the audience to his side in how he handled the situation. Trying to tough it out and continue the concert would have destroyed the experience. Starting over was the right thing to do and the audience respected him for it.