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Tommy Atkinson

Audience Etiquette

December 17, 2007 at 7:30 AM

The past few weeks I've played a bunch of the obligatory Christmas gigs, and the orchestra that I play with had their second subscription concert of the season. Particulary with the Messiah gigs that I played (one last weekend and one this weekend... it must be that time of year!), the audiences didn't exactly display what most people would call "proper audience etiquette." And I must say, I've never had so much fun playing a concert!!!

I played the Messiah at two churches, one on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, and one in a suburb, just a few miles to the northeast of the District. The audience (or should I say congregation?) clapped after basically every aria and every choral number. The cool thing was, I could tell they weren't clapping out of obligation; the audiences genuinely enjoyed each section and wanted to express that. As a result, I felt really appreciated and left the concerts with a really positive feeling.

At my regular orchestra job, we had Holiday Pops concerts this weekend. I had two encounters with "bad" audience etiquette. The first was when I was playing a concerto* with the String Workshop before the Symphony concert. The String Workshop, by the way, is a program through our orchestra where beginning and intermediate players (of all ages!) play a "side-by-side" concert before each Saturday performance of the regular symphony consisting of not very difficult music. For the Workshop, I serve as concertmaster of the orchestra. The Workshop is free to all participants, and we all have a great time!

Anyway, during this concerto that I was playing with them there was a point where the cello soloist had a very definitive V-I cadence, and the audience assumed the piece was over and gave a hearty applause, not realizing that there was just a short pause, and this was not the end of the piece. As soon as the applause softened, the conductor just continued with the piece. I was SO proud of the young orchestra, as they all faithfully watched the conductor and not a single person played until she cued them to go ahead!

So, these two instances of "poor" audience etiquette... what was the lesson I learned from them? I certainly wasn't angry either time! In fact, I am more convinced than ever that "audience etiquette" has been blown way out of proportion. The audiences that clapped and even hooted and hollered their appreciation at us were great! It's so refreshing for me, personally, to know that the audience is enjoying themselves. If they feel the urge to burst out into applause after a movement of a piece that genuinely touched them, I think that's great.

Perhaps one of the reasons that the attendance at classical music concerts is not as high as we'd like it while things like Broadway/musical productions are thriving is because we're too stuffy about how audiences are expected to express themselves during the concert. At a Broadway show, it's ok to clap during the last big note that a singer has! It's also ok (expected, even!) to clap after a song, despite the fact that the whole scene (or whatever) is still going on. I think that's quite analagous to clapping after a movement of a piece, especially when there is a clear ending to that movement (Mendelssohn concerto, probably not.... Brahms concerto after the first movement, I say go for it!).

Well, I know that things probably won't change very much in the near future in most cases, but if you ever come to one of my recitals, the following is more than ok:
-clapping between movements, if you feel moved enough to do so
-hooting and hollering after the piece is over
-not wearing a three piece suit and tie to the concert. I think decent jeans and a polo are fine (heck, at my last recital I didn't even wear a tie!)

When we go to a concert, we go for various reasons. Basically, though, I think our main motivation for going to see any kind of performance is for entertainment/enjoyment. If being silent during the piece and having great "etiquette" does it for you, then that's great. If you feel like you're afraid to clap at the wrong spot or something, don't! Well, not at my concerts anyway.

*The concerto I played with the Strings Workshop was called "The One Bow Concerto" for string orchestra (all pizz!) and solo violin, viola, and cello. It's a really neat little piece in which the soloists all pass around a single bow to play on, which eventually makes it into the hands of the conductor at the end. It's a great piece to give kids around the middle school age experience with accompanying a soloist. The solo parts are also easy enough that some good young players could learn them without too much trouble. During the unexpected mid-concerto applause, I was actually less distracted by the applause, and more impressed that the kids were watching the conductor so well, and didn't all go on auto-pilot! It also gave them valuable experience in what happens when things don't happen exactly as they do in rehearsal and you have to adjust in the concert.

From Tia Pietsch
Posted on December 17, 2007 at 7:35 AM
I've had my youth orchestra play the One Bow Concerto...it's a hoot! Really fun if the soloists are all siblings and really get into it!
From Terez Mertes
Posted on December 17, 2007 at 4:59 PM
I enjoyed reading this. : ) Good point about the clapping and how it shows up in other types of musical performance. As a ballet dancer, I always hoped for applause during a performance, particularly after a big partnered lift, and when we didn't get it, I'd feel deflated. (So, for the record, clapping during a ballet performance is definitely looked upon favorably!)
From Pauline Lerner
Posted on December 17, 2007 at 6:06 PM
Terez, I didn't know that you were a ballet dancer, too. You have so many artistic talents. That's great.

Tommy, I've heard Leonard Sladkin, conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra, make the same points you did about applause. He said that he loves to hear applause at any time because it means that the audience is really enjoying the music.

From Roy Sonne
Posted on December 18, 2007 at 3:24 AM
Artur Rubinstein was once asked in an interview what he thought about applause between movements. Rubinstein replied, "Well, you're really not supposed to do that, you know." Then he added, "But I love it!!"

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