I’ve never been to an orchestra concert before. What should I expect?
Expect to enjoy yourself! This if the time to let go of any preconceptions you may have about classical music or the concert experience. If you feel a litle nervous, that’s OK. Some things about the concert may seem strange because they’re new to you, but if you just focus on the music, you’ll have a great time.
Open yourself up to the music. Let it trigger your emotions—maybe even your memories. Feel the rhythms; follow the tunes. Watch the musicians and the conductor, and see how they interact with each other. Notice how the music ebbs and flows—surging and powerful at some times, delicate and ephemeral at others, and everything in between.
What if I don’t know anything about classical music? Do I need to study beforehand?
There’s no need to study. The music will speak for itself. Just come and enjoy!
Over time, many frequent concertgoers do find their enjoyment is deeper if they prepare for a concert. This can be simple, like reading the program notes beforehand; or it can be more involved, like listening to recordings of the music to be performed in the days before they attend a concert.
You know yourself best, so if research interests you, go ahead and follow your curiousity. But if studying isn’t your thing, there’s no need to be concerned about it. Just listen with an open mind.
Will I recognize any of the music?
You might. Classical music is all around us: in commercials, movie soundtracks, television themes, cartoons, retail shops, and even some elevators! Popular music often quotes classical melodies, too. While you’re listening in the concert to a piece you think you’ve never heard before, a tune you’ve heard a hundred times may jump out at you.
Whether or not you’ve heard the music before the concert, as you listen, you’ll notice that each classical piece uses its own group of several tunes over and over, in different ways. You’ll start to “recognize” these melodies as a work progresses. Listen for the ways a melody is repeated: Is it exactly the same as the first time, or with a different character? Is it played by the same instruments, or different ones? Does it start the same as before, but go off in a different direction? Or start differently and surprise you by developing into the tune you recognize from earlier in the piece?
What should I wear?
There is no dress code! Anything that makes you feel comfortable is fine. Most people will be wearing business clothes or slightly dressy casual clothes, but you’ll see everything from khakis to cocktail dresses. Some people enjoy dressing up and making a special night of it, and you can, too. Still, evening gowns and tuxedos are pretty rare unless you’ve bought tickets for a fancy gala—and if you have, you’ll know!
If you do decide to dress up, though, go easy on the cologne, which can distract others near you and even prompt them to sneeze (which may distract you)!
Should I arrive early?
Absolutely! Plan to arrive 20 minutes before concert time, so you can find your seat, turn off your cell phone, take a look at your surroundings, absorb the atmosphere, and have time to glance through the program book, too. You won’t be alone. Most concertgoers make a point of coming early to read the program notes, or just watch the orchestra warm up.
Rushing to your seat at the last minute doesn’t really give you enough time to get settled, so you may not fully enjoy the first piece on the program. And there’s another good reason to come early: Most concerts start on time. If you’re late, you may end up listening from the lobby! If that happens, the usher will allow you inside during a suitable pause in the program, so your arrival won’t disturb other concertgoers.
How long will the concert be?
It varies, but most orchestra concerts are about 90 minutes to two hours long, with an intermission at the halfway point. Very often there will be several pieces on the concert; but sometimes there is one single work played straight through. It’s a good idea to take a look at the program before the concert to get an idea of what to expect.
When should I clap?
This is the number-one scary question! No one wants to clap in the “wrong” place. But it’s simpler than you may think, and quite logical on the whole.
At the beginning of the concert, the concertmaster will come onstage. The audience claps as a welcome, and as a sign of appreciation to all the musicians.
After the orchestra tunes, the conductor (and possibly a soloist) will come onstage. Everyone claps to welcome them, too. This is also a good moment to make sure your program is open, so you can see the names of the pieces that will be played and their order.
Then everything settles down and the music begins. Just listen and enjoy! The audience doesn’t usually applaud again until the end of the piece.
In most classical concerts—unlike jazz or pop—the audience never applauds during the music. They wait until the end of each piece, then let loose with their applause. But this can be a little tricky, because many pieces seem to end several times—in other words, they have several parts, or “movements.” These are listed in your program.
In general, musicians and your fellow listeners prefer not to hear applause during the pauses between these movements, so they can concentrate on the progress from one movement to the next. Symphonies and concertos have a momentum that builds from the beginning to the end, through all their movements, and applause can “break the mood,” especially when a movement ends quietly. Sometimes, though, the audience just can’t restrain itself, and you’ll hear a smattering of applause—or a lot of it—during the pause before the next movement. It’s perfectly OK to join in if you enjoyed the music, too.
(By the way, disregard anyone who “shushes” you for applauding between movements. It’s only in the last 50 years or so that audiences stopped applauding between movements, so you have music history on your side!)
What if you lose track, and aren’t sure whether the piece is truly over? One clue is to watch the conductor. Usually, s/he won’t relax between movements, but keep hands raised; the attention of the musicians will remain on the conductor. If in any doubt, it’s always safe to wait and follow what the rest of the audience does!
At the end of the piece, it’s time to let yourself go and let the musicians know how you felt about their playing. Many pieces end “big”—and you won’t have any doubt of what to do when! Some end very quietly, and then you’ll see the conductor keep hands raised for a few seconds at the end, to “hold the mood.” Then the hands will drop, someone will clap or yell “Bravo!”—and that’s your cue. There’s no need to restrain yourself. If you enjoyed what you heard, you can yell “Bravo!” too.
What if I need to cough during the music?
Everyone gets the urge to cough now and then. Worrying about disturbing your fellow listeners is a laudable impulse, but don’t let it ruin your enjoyment of the concert. There’s a funny thing about coughing—the less worried you are about it, the less likely you are to feel the urge! So chances are you’ll feel less need to cough if you’re prepared:
1. Be sure to visit the water fountain in the lobby before the concert, and at intermission.
2. If you have a cold, take some cough medicine in advance and bring wax paper-wrapped—or unwrapped—lozenges with you. (At some concerts, you’ll even see cough drops free for the taking in the lobby.) Have a few out and ready when the music begins.
3. Allow yourself to become involved in listening to the music and in watching the performers. The more you are absorbed in what’s going on, the less likely you are to cough.
4. If you absolutely can’t restrain yourself, try to wait for the end of a movement. Or “bury” your cough in a loud passage of music. If this is impossible, and you feel a coughing fit coming on, it’s perfectly acceptable to quietly exit the concert hall. Don’t be embarrassed—your fellow listeners will probably appreciate your concern for their listening experience.
What should I do with my cell phone during the concert?
Turn it off! The same goes for pagers and alarm watches. It’s a good idea to double-check in the few minutes before the concert begins, and again as intermission draws to a close. Better still, leave them at home if you can.
Doctors and emergency workers who are “on call” can give their pagers to an usher, who will summon them quietly if they are paged.
Can I take pictures?
Cameras, video recorders, and tape recorders aren’t permitted in concerts. If you happen to have one with you, be sure to stop at the coat-check and check it in before entering the auditorium. If you have a camera and want a souvenir of a special evening at the symphony, it can be fun to ask someone to take your picture outside the concert hall before you go in.
Why is there an intermission, and what should I do during it?
It’s a short rest period for the musicians and conductor—once you see how much activity goes into a performance, you’ll understand why they need a break!
Listening to music is also an intense activity (even if considerably less physical), and a break in the middle helps the audience concentrate better in the second half. Some concerts, though, have no intermission because it would interrupt the flow of a long work. Check the program before the concert so you know what’s coming.
Most intermissions are fifteen to twenty minutes long, which gives you time to socialize with your companions, get a drink or a snack in the lobby, visit the facilities, or simply sit in your seat and read the program notes. Do whatever puts you in a good frame of mind to hear the second half of the concert.
Can I bring my kids?
It depends on the concert and on the age of your kids. Many standard-length classical concerts are inappropriate for small children because they require an attention span that is difficult for youngsters to maintain. Most concerts also are held at night, and stretch beyond “bedtime.”
So if your children are very young, check with your local orchestra, which may present family or children’s concerts on weekends; these are a great way for families to enjoy classical music together. Young children are especially intrigued by the many different instruments of the orchestra and the way they are played. Try to sit up close to the orchestra, so your kids will have a great view of everything that’s going on.
To further build your children’s interest in classical music, play classical radio or CDs around the house. When they are old enough to sit quietly for an extended period, you may wish to bring them to the first half of a standard concert. An interested preteen or teenager could also have a marvelous time at an orchestra concert, particularly if it features several different pieces.
In all cases, it’s a good idea to check with the orchestra directly about the appropriateness of the concert you plan to attend with your kids. Also ask about discounts for students and children.