Concert Protocol

Concert Protocol

Jan 17, 2012

It was the concert heard around New York City. Or rather, not heard.

Last week, the New York Philharmonic stopped in the middle of a concert because a cell phone went off during the performance. The phone ringing wasn’t the only story, but the audience reaction: the fellow concertgoers began to heckle the cell-phone-ringer-attendee.  It was a big enough deal that even the New York Times had a story on it

Talk about a bad day for everyone involved.

But this incident got me thinking about concert etiquette, and not just silencing cell phones or avoiding unwrapping cough drops in the middle of Beethoven, but some larger issues as well. 

There are certainly moments where distractions happen, and they’re annoying. But, I’m not going to hold it against the guy next to me if he sneezes, or shifts in his chair because the performance is getting long.  Listening so intensely to classical music can be just as exhausting, as it can be relaxing and transformative.

One of the things that this concert incident brought up was that there is a certain expectation that the audience knows the protocol for watching a classical performance.  Obviously this extends to phones and such, but also when and how to applaud, and what proper behavior is generally.

Here’s my story: I attended a performance in college of my student musicians, when attendees applauded in the middle of the movements.  Afterwards, many of the non-music degree students were derided by their more musically educated peers for not knowing that applause between movements was unacceptable.

For me, what the issue is isn’t whether or not the students clapped, but that they didn’t know they weren’t supposed to.  Does this mean they never attended live classical performances before?  Did they not know that this is how many classical pieces are structured? The fact that they just didn’t realize this makes me wonder if the musical education they received even bothered with these issues and that there had been a severe gap in music education.

Moreover, it didn’t help that people were reprimanding each other for simply not knowing. Classical music live is how the genre is meant to be experienced and making anyone feel like they had destroyed a performance made me wonder if they’d ever attend again. It wasn’t time to chastise, but maybe turn it into a “teaching moment”.

So, with more funds being cut to schools and the focus shifting away from music and the arts, how can we expect people to know what the etiquette for classical music listening is if the only concert they’ve ever been to was Justin Beiber? Does there need to be further explanation at the start of concerts as to what is or isn’t acceptable, or is this the fault of parents and schools for limiting exposure to the genre and experience? Does the protocol need to be more flexible for the modern audience?


How to handle a cellphone idiot

Stopping a concert to spotlight an inconsiderate idiot who was not courteous enough to consider the other audience members by leaving his cell-phone ringer on is not the only way to handle the situation. Violinist Lukas Kmit has an innovative solution:

Applause Between Movements

I don't understand why it is ok to interrupt a ballet, or operatic performance with applause to recognize an exceptional performance, and sometimes even ask for an encore during the scene; but when it is done at a chamber or symphonic concert, applause between movements is frowned upon.

I have seen this issue debated at many Q&A sessions with chamber performers with mixed responses. Some say that they appreciate knowing that the audience was pleased with their performance of a given movement. Others have a more conventional opinion.

One finds that in the western suburbs of Chicago, applause between movements is standard procedure. It does not detract from the overall atmosphere of the performance, and the performers seem to accept the accolades.

Beg to differ

re: "... It does not detract from the overall atmosphere of the performance...."
Sorry Chuck, not everyone agrees with that opinion. :-)
I hate applause between movements, and one of the reasons I don't go to many operas anymore is the obligatory applause after every aria.  It interrupts the continuity of the performance and IMHO is extremely distracting.
As far as accolades, the musicians usuallly get what they deserve at the end of the performance.   Is classical music to go the way of jazz with applause bursts 4 or 5 times withing each movement of a string quartet as each individual musician does something impressive?

Silence at Concerts

The idea that classical music requires utter silence and tense control over one's entire body needs some reconsideration. I think it goes back to the idea that music is akin to a religious experience, but even many religions allow worshippers to speak, breathe, move, applaud as the spirit moves them. I wonder about the quality of relationship with music that finds a cough or a sneeze so compelling that it shatters our ability to focus on Mahler.

Silence at Concerts

It is exactly that intimate relationship that makes any interruption including talking, coughing, rattling candy rappers and applause between movements that breaks the continuity of the connection.
The composer has often put forth months of concentrated effort writing a work.  The musicians have put in many hours of rehearsal time learning the work and developing their interpretation of it.  Non of those visions have included noise from inconsiderate audience members that is both distracting to the audience members who have come to actually hear the work being performed, as well as being disrespectful to the musicians performing.

Why is Formal Education the Answer

Margaret, your post asks or implies a lot, and many of the subjects you touch on come up frequently. "Education" seems to be the most mentioned "solution" to the "problem" that classical music faces. But frankly, I'm not sure that I believe that any more (if I ever did).
A couple of Greg Sandow's posts ( touch on this subject. An idea that sticks with me that I first heard in some form from him is that saying that education is needed to enjoy classical music is itself pretty off-putting: "We're smarter than you," it seems to say, "you won't understand our music unless we TEACH you how to enjoy it."
I know I'm phrasing it baldly, but you have to agree that there is at least a sliver of truth in that. Noone is worried that they won't enjoy a concert by Justin Beiber without attending a pre-concert talk, are they?
On a slightly lighter side, at performances by the Chicago Bass Ensemble, I make a point to introduce pieces with some sort of simple anecdote that will help the listeners enjoy the piece (yes, that's a form of education, but the least didactic form), and when we play a multi-movement work, I express the idea that it's meant to be heard uninterrupted, but "if you like a particular movement so much that you want to applaud, go ahead." It's not an original idea from me, although I don't remember where I heard it.
It puts uneducated ;-) audience members at ease, sets an expectation and also sets a tone.
Bottom line, I want my audience to enjoy themselves and express their appreciation in a way that's comfortable to them. Yes, I think the protocol should be flexible! It's for the audience that we do all this, isn't it? And now I'm off to read Allegra's blog about musicians making music just for themselves . . .

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