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Concert Hall Etiquette

The Halls are Alive with the Sound of Noise


Imagine yourself in a concert hall, waiting for the performance to begin. All around you can hear whispering, coughing, shuffling, jangling jewelry and crackly candy wrappers. Will this continue during the performance? You may well wonder.

In 1952, the avant-garde American composer John Cage focused our attention on this nuisance in his infamous 4’33", a “composition” for which a pianist comes on stage, sits down at the piano, plays nothing for the duration of the title, then leaves. The “composition” is the noise in the concert hall, all the sounds not coming from the stage - a disturbing thought!

In other words, 4’33" is not really a piece of music at all. What it does is draw our attention to the noise being emitted in the hall during a concert. Call it anti-music, if you will. Should this be happening? Surely not! But 4’33" makes a point. And now that we’re on the subject, we might consider other elements of concert hall etiquette as well: When should we applaud? When to stand? What about arriving late or leaving early? Do you need to dress up? Can I tap my foot to the music?

Quiet, Please!

It is probably unnecessary to say that talking during a performance disturbs those around you. But you’d be surprised how many people think that by speaking quietly or whispering that others won’t hear. They will! If you really must whisper, do so very, very quietly. Listening to music is an intensely personal experience, so adding extraneous sounds to the performance can destroy that experience for others nearby. Tapping your foot in time to the beat, humming along to the melody, swaying your body or gesturing like a conductor can also be annoying to your seatmates. This doesn’t mean you must sit like a statue; just be mindful of others who want to focus on the music, not on you!

Where is the End?

It is customary to show appreciation for the performance of a musical work by applauding at the end. But where is the end? This puzzles some concertgoers. If the work is short and not divided into independent sections (often called movements, as in a symphony or concerto), this is rarely an issue. But if a composition consists of several movements or sections of a suite or a collection of “sketches” or “pictures,” the novice may be at a loss to know when to begin clapping. (Insiders call this the “clap trap”!). Reference to the program page, which lists the individual sections or movements of a work may be useful, but this is not always reliable, as sometimes movements are joined without pause. It is not unknown for a listener, totally absorbed in the luxuriant outpouring of sound from an orchestra, to begin applauding wildly immediately after what sounds like the final chord, only to discover himself alone in his effort. Acute embarrassment follows.

A well-known example of the “clap trap” occurs in the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, one of the most popular works in the orchestral repertory. Near the end comes a series of loud chords for the full orchestra, with brass blazing and drums rolling. It certainly sounds like a great ending, especially if you haven’t been following the long-range harmonic plan. But don’t be caught off-guard here, or you may find yourself delivering an unwanted solo performance!

There are Exceptions

Generally speaking, one does not clap anywhere during a multi-movement work except at the very end. However, if a movement or section has been played with exceptional brio or intensity, this will certainly be noted by more than one member of the audience, and endorsement in the form of spontaneous applause may well follow. Feel free to join in if you are so inclined. Many performers are quite happy to accept applause at such moments.

Now and Then

Actually, in Mozart’s and Beethoven’s time it was commonplace, even expected to have applause between movements. Audiences readily demonstrated their enthusiasm for individual movements, and if the applause was vociferous, the musicians would repeat that movement on the spot. The second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, premiered in 1813, is a famous case in point. Within the world of opera, the practice of applauding every aria (solo number) continues to this day.

To Clap or Not to Clap: That is the Question

If you are unsure just where to applaud, the safe thing to do is simply wait until you hear others applauding. Bear in mind, though, that at some concerts someone in the audience will feel impelled immediately to initiate the applause at the end of a composition, one that seems not so much to end as to fade away into inaudibility or to carry the mind out to infinity. In cases like this (the conclusion of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, for instance), it is far more appropriate to sustain the mood by basking in silence for a few moments rather than erupting into applause. One composer, Jean Sibelius, even asked that there be no applause at all following performances of his Fourth Symphony (a practice no longer observed). Glenn Gould once wrote an article in which he called for a ban on applause altogether. A savvy conductor or performer will indicate with body language when it is time to start applauding. Watch!

The Standing Ovation

What about the standing ovation? Years ago, a standing ovation was awarded only to a performance of truly exceptional merit, the kind of transcendent, overwhelming experience that makes you to leap to your feet with uncontrollable enthusiasm. Nowadays, however, the standing ovation has become so commonplace as to be virtually meaningless. After all, every concert cannot be exceptional. If routine performances get standing ovations, what’s left to mark something really special? If you are swept away by the sheer emotional intensity of the performance (the performance, mind you, not the music itself), then by all means stand to applaud. You might also yell “Bravo!” to demonstrate an extra measure of approval. But don’t feel you have to follow the crowd.

Do You Boo?

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the question “Do you boo?” Most people would say no, at least in North America. (Booing is somewhat more acceptable in some European countries.) But then, perhaps a more honest response to something one really didn’t like would be more appropriate than tepid, insincere applause. Let’s face it – there are some truly bad pieces out there, and performances can occasionally be of stultifying boredom, even from famous players.

Early – On Time – Late

Try to arrive on time for a concert, of course, or even a bit early so as to allow yourself time to read the informative program notes that will often help you get more out of your concert experience. If you are late, you will probably be denied access to your seat until an appropriate pause in the program (after the first movement of a symphony, for example or after the overture, if there is one). Needless to say, shuffling your way to your seat far from the aisle while the music is playing is discourteous and breaks the concentration of all in the vicinity. Leaving early produces the same result, but if you really must, try to do so between movements or sections, or at the very least, during a loud passage. If lighting in the hall permits, you may want to refer to your program notes during a performance, perhaps to keep track of where you are in the music or to help you understand what’s happening at a given moment, though this is best done before the music begins. You can’t really concentrate on both reading and listening at the same time.

The Candy Commotion

Speaking of loud passages, this raises another point. Have you ever noticed how people always seem to unwrap their candy or cough drops during a quiet episode? Try not to be part of this scene. If you think you’ll need a cough drop, unwrap it before the performance, between movements, or during a loud passage. If you really must open it during a quiet passage, do so quickly or risk eternal damnation from fellow concertgoers.

Don't be that Someone!

It should go without saying that use of cell phones, electronic beepers, video cameras and all audio recording devices are either forbidden, illegal or both. Even though there are usually reminders to turn off cell phones, someone invariably forgets and lands up disturbing a large number of people, usually in a quiet passage of the music. Don’t be that someone! A conductor of a major orchestra once refused to offer the traditional encore piece because this happened during the quiet ending of a concert.

Dressing Up and Down

As for dressing up, that’s entirely up to you. Formal wear for men and gowns for the ladies are required only on the rarest of occasions, for which the dress code is explicitly stated. Many concertgoers like to think of a concert as a special occasion and dress appropriately. Some may arrive directly from the office and hence may be wearing business attire. The trend these days is to dress casually; hence many, especially younger audience members, can be seen in shirts and sweaters. Wear what you wish, but out of respect for the musicians, composers and other audience members, try to refrain from sporting T-shirts, scruffy jeans and running shoes. One thing to avoid wearing to any concert is a strong fragrance, which may appeal to you but not at all to your neighbors.

Have a Good Time!

So, come and have a good time. Concerts are not worship services, nor are they sporting events, but they are meant to be enjoyed by all!

Robert Markow