Classical Music Concert Etiquette – A Primer

Classical music can be very intimidating to get into. With such a large volume of music spanning centuries and many different genres, it is impossible to pick a good starting place without guidance. I will be writing an article on this at some point in the new future, but for today, let’s assume you are simply interested in attending a live classical music concert near you.

We as classical musicians are a very snobby bunch. We expect people to come into our hallowed concert halls and know exactly what to do and what not to do. The modern act of sitting down in (hopefully) completely silence in a concert hall is actually a fairly new practice – in classical music’s earlier years, it was perfectly normal to stand up, mill about, have a chat or a drink with a friend while Haydn’s latest creation was blasting behind you. This is not the case anymore and if you don’t have a friend to explain what’s going on to you, you will probably be completely as oblivious as I was when I first stepped into a concert hall myself.

Choosing a concert and your seat

If you are choosing a concert for yourself or for someone as equally clueless as you, for a first time experience, you may want to shy away from composers who lived and composed during the 20th century onward. In my opinion, music between 1700 and 1850 tends to be the most accessible for the first time listener. With the advent of the internet, looking up the composers and time periods of the pieces that your prospective orchestra will be performing is easy – you may even want to take a sneak preview on YouTube and/or iTunes to get a taste for what you’re getting yourself into. Bear in mind that most orchestral concerts run at least 90 minutes in duration, so plan most of your evening for this concert.

Picked a concert? Excellent. Now your seats. The acoustics of every sound hall varies wildly, so here’s a general rule of thumb: don’t get a seat all the way at the front as the sound can be deafening and will sound very raw because the sound hasn’t had time to mix together to form a wonderful blend; sitting on the extreme edges of a hall tend to have weird sound too. Other than that, use your good judgment. Usually, the price ranges are a pretty good indication of the best seats in the house.

Dress

Please, please don’t go to an orchestral concert in daily street clothes. Think business casual – sometimes there are gala events where people show up in evening gowns and tuxedos, but most of the time a nice shirt/blouse with khakis/long skirt does the trick.

Arriving and being late

Orchestra concerts usually start five minutes after the time printed on your ticket. That being said, try to get there ten or fifteen minutes early because sometimes it’s hard to find your seat. The ushers will generally do a good job guiding you, but you may have to set time aside to climb up two or three flights of stairs before finding your seat. Peruse the program that they give you if you wish as there’s usually some kind of write-up about the pieces being performed that night. If you wonder about the layout of the orchestra, take a look at the featured image above, which is currently the most traditional (but by no means absolute) way of setting up an orchestra.

Should you arrive late for some reason, the ushers will not let you in until the end of the first piece or the end of the first movement of the first piece (I’ll explain what a movement is in a bit). If you arrive just as they shut the doors, expect to wait anywhere from ten to twenty minutes before they let you in.

Oh, and please turn off or mute your cell phone. Everyone is there to hear the real version of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, not your MIDI-synthesized variation of it which is probably in the wrong key anyway.

Clapping Intervals

So you’ve settled into your chair and right on schedule (five minutes late), the lights dim. You notice someone walk in with a violin in hand from your left side. Follow everyone’s lead and applaud politely. This is who we call the concertmaster or concertmistress, who is the “leader” of the orchestra and the section leader of the first violins. The part that follows the applause is my favorite part of a concert: tuning. The concertmaster/mistress will point to someone, and you will hear the orchestra’s tuning note – an “A” or “la” – stemming from the oboe. First, the woodwinds (flutes, clarinets, oboes, bassoons, etc.) will tune, followed by the brass (trumpets, trombones, french horns, etc.), followed by the lower strings (double basses, cellos, and violas), followed by the upper (1st and 2nd violins).

After the concertmaster/mistress sits down, another gentleman (or lady) will walk in from the left. This is the conductor, the person who gets to stand in front of the orchestra and wave their arms for the duration of the concert. Their job actually spans far greater than this, but for the sake of space, I will save their job scope for another post.

Once the conductor mounts the podium, the concert will begin. Still have your program? Take a look at the pieces. Some of the piece may have what we call movements. For example, in Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, since I mentioned it earlier, a program entry may look like this:

Beethoven Symphony No. 5 in c minor, opus 67 (1808)
I. Allegro con brio
II. Andante con moto
III. Scherzo/Allegro
IV. Allegro

As you can see, there are four “sub-sections” in this piece. Each has a different mood or tempo, and their separation is usually marked by a very clear and obvious break. The conductor lowers his or her arms, everyone begins to fidget and cough. Notice that no one claps at these intervals. Applause is reserved for the end of the piece. Perhaps I picked a poor example with Beethoven’s 5, because the third movement moves straight into the fourth with no pause…but this is a rare exception. In most cases, there will be two or three *coughing* breaks before the piece ends. This rule applies to solos as well.

The types of pieces you will encounter (very simplified)

Symphony: Most common. You will usually hear one of these in every concert. Usually 3 or 4 movements, each contrasting the other.

Concerto: Will feature a solo player who will camp out to the conductor’s left. He or she will usually wear an outfit that sticks out slightly from the traditional black and white of the rest of the orchestra – women tend to pick dresses with some decoration and a solid or pastel color, men will have a uniquely colored bow-tie and/or cummerbund. The conductor will usually walk offstage to “retrieve” the soloist before his or her piece, and it is traditional to applaud when they come on stage. This piece is usually three movements and will feature the soloist extensively.

Overture: Single movement piece that is usually 10-15 minutes in length to begin the program.

Enjoy!

The information I have included is by no means an extensive list and I know I neglected to explain a great deal of things. The goal here is to get you out of your computer chair and into a concert hall to enjoy some music. The finer technicalities can be researched/read about later once you think you may be interested in getting to know more. A live concert, in my opinion, is one of life’s most wonderful, enriching experiences and everyone should attend at least one in their lifetime.

I really hope you enjoy yourself and as always, if you have any questions, you can reach me here or at my email!

(Photo credit: Taceted)

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