It’s the evening of your classical music concert and you’re nervous. There’s really no need to be nervous. Do you have your tickets? Check. Do you know where you’ll park? Check. Or are you taking public transportation? Check. You’ll want to arrive at the concert hall at least half an hour before the concert time. If there’s a pre-concert talk to introduce you to the works on the program, arrive at least ten minutes before the start time of that pre-concert talk. Some orchestras request that you sign up for any pre-concert educational programs ahead of time. If that’s the case where you live, by all means, sign up!
What to wear? Years ago, classical music concerts were a bit more formal. Women wore semi-formal dresses or gowns, and men wore stylish suits. The orchestra musicians on stage will be in formal wear, as will the conductor. But nowadays, the audience can wear just about anything. I’ve seen cut-off shorts and T-shirts during the summer, jeans and sweatshirts during the winter. I tend to believe that if the musicians have dressed up to perform for me, the least I can do is wear nice clothes. I’d recommend business casual for both men and women. Or if you want to make it a special occasion, wear formal clothes.
A word about grooming and hygiene: you will be sitting in an auditorium with 1500 to 2500 other people, some of whom will be in especially close proximity to you. Even if you lean toward the casual in your attire, please be clean, wear deodorant, brush your teeth. I have seen concertgoers with piercings all over the place, or heavy make-up that would make a clown blush, but they have been clean and didn’t smell. Thank you!
As you enter the auditorium, an usher may approach you to ask if you would like help finding your seat. Accept that help. Ushers are walking encyclopedias about the venues they serve, as well as the orchestras. If you have any questions about concert behavior, an usher will be happy to help you. Ushers also carry a cache of helpful items such as cough drops. If your phone is equipped with a camera, resist the temptation to snap photos throughout the concert. This is forbidden for a lot of reasons, but the first is the gross distraction it creates for others. Imagine if everyone began taking photos? Also, unless sanctioned by the organization, resist the temptation to use your phone to tweet or post on social media during the concert. Actually, the best thing, the most courteous thing, to do is to turn off your phone and any other electronics you have with you. You cannot imagine the derision you will experience from others if your phone begins to ring during the concert. If you are a doctor on call, put your phone or pager on vibrate.
OK, you’re in your seat, looking through the program book. Find that evening’s program. Fold the booklet in half so that you won’t need to search for the program once the music begins. Chat with your seat neighbors. I don’t know how many times I’ve met interesting people at concerts that way, and sometimes you can meet classical music lovers who would love to share their knowledge with you. But do not talk during the music. The acoustics in classical music halls are so refined that everyone on stage can hear the slightest noise in the audience. Plus, it’s just rude. If you begin coughing during the music and you cannot stop, leave. Find an usher for a cough drop, or for directions to the nearest water fountain. It happens to all of us, so don’t be embarrassed. Just be considerate.
Some orchestras have their musicians gather on stage in the 15 to 20 minutes before the concert begins. Others have their musicians come onstage all at once at the start time. Take your cue from the people around you — if they clap when the musicians come onstage, you clap. Often the concertmaster who sits at the front of the first violin section will be the last orchestra musician who comes onstage. Clap for him or her. Traditional ritual now has the orchestra musicians tuning their instruments to the oboe’s A. They are all actually in tune already since they tune backstage, but this ritual serves as a way to communicate to the audience that the concert is about to begin. It readies everyone for the conductor to come onstage. When he or she does, applaud. Stop once the conductor has stepped up onto the podium, the raised platform from which he or she conducts.
A standard concert program begins with a short orchestral work like an overture, followed by a concerto with a soloist or tone poem. The first half of a concert runs about 40 minutes without break. There continues to be a debate about when someone should applaud during a multi-movement piece. I sit squarely in the please-don’t-applaud-at-the-end-of-each-movement group but at the very end. Applause can disrupt the pace and thematic coherence of the musical work. Observe what the people around you are doing. Sometimes, the applause is spontaneous because the music has been so exciting and well played, e.g. the end of the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. Just sit back, relax, and listen.
The first half ends with a 15 or 20-minute intermission. This is a break for the audience and musicians to visit the restroom, get something to drink, call the babysitter, etc. Or socialize. I like to walk around, stretch my legs, chat with people I know. Again, I’ve met interesting people sitting around me just by being a little friendly. Music lovers love to talk about music! After the intermission, return to your seat for the second half. A standard concert program would have a symphony on the second half, i.e. a much longer work with several movements that can last 30 to 60 minutes or more. Sit back, relax, and listen. At the end of the symphony, the concert is over. And you have now attended your first classical music concert! It wasn’t so hard, was it? (smile) Any questions, feel free to ask in the Comments below.
When people ask me what they need to know in order to enjoy a classical music concert I reply, “Nothing.” All you need to do is open your ears, your heart, and your mind, and listen. Music is sound representing whatever the composer intended. I think it is most often the sound representation of emotions. Through music, we learn more about our humanity, and the individual’s soul. That sounds so lofty, but I don’t know how else to describe it…..