Today’s blog post is written by guest, Katie Heilman. Katie is a regular attendee at Schubert Club concerts, a member of Schubert Club’s Theoroi program, program assistant at GTCYS (Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphony), composer, and oboist. Learn more about Katie here.
Have you ever been to another country and found yourself confused by the customs of everyday life surrounding you? Or have you gone to a wedding of a different culture from your own and saw people saying certain things at certain times or dressing a certain way, and you felt out of place?
I’ve had several conversations recently with friends and colleagues about the state of classical music and diversity. One thing I’ve been thinking about in particular lately is concert etiquette. Concert etiquette is what I suspect turns many people off from attending classical music concerts (besides cost). There’s this idea that classical music is really stuffy, and when you think about it… it kind of is. Most concerts in other musical genres expect noisy audiences, clapping when you like something, and coming and going as you need to. Not so with classical concerts. The vast majority of classical concerts expect audiences to be quiet, only clap at the very end of the piece, and you better not leave during the middle of a piece!
I grew up in a musical family and didn’t learn that you weren’t supposed to clap in between movements until I was at a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concert, probably in late middle school (a few years after I’d started playing an instrument), and I started clapping after the first movement of whatever symphony they were playing, because it just made sense. It wasn’t until I got a weird look from my mom that I realized that wasn’t “okay.” When people start clapping between movements of a piece, I see that same weird look get passed along through the “regulars” at the concert. I’ve seen this happen twice in the last few months. The first was during the Sphinx Virtuosi concert at the Ordway, where the vast majority of the audience was people of color (especially younger people of color). The second was just this past weekend, when the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra performed Mozart’s third violin concerto to an audience with several students (they all certainly looked younger than me). The common thread between these two audiences, besides clapping between movements? They weren’t your stereotypical classical music demographic!
Here’s my philosophy on clapping between movements (or other “breaches” of classical etiquette): if people are clapping between each movement, they aren’t necessarily being rude. It’s probably because they don’t know about this weird tradition we have that really only dates back to the end of the 19th century or so. That means there’s a good chance they’re probably first-timers at an orchestra concert, which is awesome! And yes, there are some pieces where’s it’s nice to have that silence in between movements (slow Mahler for sure), but Mozart or Haydn? Clapping in between movements was standard back in their day – sometimes, if the audience really liked something, they’d demand a second run-through of a movement or section. I’ve attended a bunch of more “informal” chamber concerts at coffee shops and art museums where you’ll even have people chatting in the background. For a first-timer at a classical concert, going to the orchestra probably feels the same as being a foreigner in another country. There are so many customs that we’ve been doing for years that a newbie isn’t going to automatically know, and they might feel lost and alienated when people stare at them for not doing the “correct” procedures.
It’s great when the administrative side of an organization is working to bring in new audiences, but in order for this to be successful, we as current audience members need to be more welcoming and patient when new audiences don’t automatically know the culture. Administrators, if you really want to make sure that your program is quiet and that audiences wait until the end to clap, then just make an announcement before the concert. They do this sometimes at the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra when they have a program that interweaves other pieces throughout a larger piece, and it doesn’t feel out of place at all. Imagine how much more welcomed new audience members would feel if we let them know when it’s appropriate to clap, instead of assuming? It’s like when you have someone over to your house for a party, and you let them know where the restroom is, where to leave their coat, and where to put the food they brought. On the other hand, maybe it’s time to take a lesson from the newcomers and bring back clapping between movements of certain pieces. Trust me, Haydn is a lot more fun when you let yourself get a little rowdy.