Time to revamp the 'no applause' rule in classical music?

March 10, 2010
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One of the pleasures of attending the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's Happy Hour concert a few weeks back was hearing spontaneous applause whenever a soloist played a particularly engaging piece. 

I'm sure, though, that there were hardcore classical fans in the crowd who felt that such eruptions disturbed the musical moment as badly as would a cell phone going off.

Now, the ISO's Happy Hour concerts are designed as casual affairs (At the same performance, someone even whistled at the conductor before he even raised his baton), so the mid-piece clapping should not have been surprising. But there's debate among music lovers about whether the whole idea of applause restraint is a custom best abandoned. Music writer Alex Ross chimes in on it here, noting that the Commander in Chief even joked about needing guidance. "Fortunately," Pres. Obama said, "I have Michelle to tell me when to applaud."

Is that how it should be? Would more people be comfortable with symphonic concerts if clapping wasn't met with cold glances from other patrons?

Or is part of the magic of a symphony concert lost when the applause isn't saved for the end?

Your thoughts?

  • Clapping in church
    I have the urge to clap after a good performance of a soloist or choir in chuch. I hate the quiet after a good song.
  • Clapping at Taped Concerts
    Small amounts of clapping between movements at a classical music concert is not such a big deal, but it would be very difficult for an orchestra to get a decent tape if the audience clapped while the music is being played (for a solo, or whatever). Most conductors will acknowledge a soloist and allow the audience to show their approval during the final bows. The tapes are used for radio broadcasts by some orchestras and in the case of the ISO, the tapes are available on Instant Encore. So it's important that there be as little 'noise' as possible while the music is playing. For casual concerts like Pops and Happy Hour, that's a whole different thing. Let loose!
  • The Clap
    I think it's a side-effect of the laid-back atmosphere the Symphony is creating with these Happy Hour concerts. As you add the informality outside the concert hall, it can't help but creep inside. After all, attendees aren't typically dressed to the nines either.

    I also think it's a matter of audience education. People who have never been to a classical performance use the rules of etiquette they learned from other places, like jazz clubs and rock concerts, where immediate appreciation is given to solos.

    I have three pet peeves with applause. The first grates on me when I'm watching a musical performance and the audience applauds when they recognize the song being played, especially when it's the group's big hit. The second really annoys me when I'm watching a movie and people clap at the end. I was prompted once to say loudly, "You know they can't hear you, right?" The third has begun fairly recently: When people begin applauding loudly when someone begins singing the last line of the National Anthem. It's disrespectful.

    There, now I sound like an old man. Damn.
    • Clapping at live concerts
      What a terrific subject. As a professional musician I may think differently than most of my colleagues around the country. When attending an ISO or classical concert our audiences are paying money to enjoy the entire evening out. From the moment they enter the Hilbert Circle Theatre and are greeted in our box office then by our wonderful usher crew, led to their seats and the concert begins: they hear and they see and I, as one musician, want them happy and eager to return. Over the course of a Classical or Pop Concert we play our best - we our constant - the conductors change. If a member of our audience wants to close their eyes during a tune - I am complimented and know they are relaxed and indeed I have had more than one member of an audience explain they fall asleep and are embarassed - I say NO your sleeping says you are in your 'zone' for a composition. I also then say - if you do not like a composition - you may boo. But, when the conductor acknowledges the orchestra - then you applaud their efforts and artistry. If you are so moved to applaud between movements - do it, applaud. And don't back down. It is your right. Now the 'wolf whistle- for our Happy Hour conductor - now we're talking! A great audience enjoying a great concert. Really, if you attend a concert by the Berlin Philharmonic - the audiences go 'nuts'. The more our audiences get into it the better we play. An orchestra is a living / breathing musical happening that you are witnessing - whoop it up and have a great time!
    • A Conductor's Perspective
      I haven't experienced an ISO Happy Hour but it sounds great. In all honesty, I can't STAND IT when we've just presented an incredibly brilliant, moving moment (such as the 1st mvt of Tchaikovsky's 6th symphony) & you know the audience is sitting in silence wondering about protocol. It's insulting!

      Yes, if you clap during the music you may actually miss an important or surprising musical event in the next few moments, but I'd rather you stay connected to what's going on, share your joy, and let me know we're doing a good job!

      Ignore the chap sitting next to you when you're on the edge of your seat, or crying profoundly, and he shuffles & grunts to show his displeasure at your behavior. It simply demonstrates he probably isn't connecting to the music/performance at all, and is certainly not engaging in the experience in the same way you are.

      And yes, it's disrespectful to clap during the national anthem, but doesn't that suggest either: people are fed up with it and want to get on with the event, it's a bad uninspiring performance of it, or folk are no longer connecting with what the anthem is trying to convey - it's become rote and meaningless.
    • Viva la clapping
      Thanks Lou for bringing this up! Clapping is an awesome way to show appreciation at a concert, but culturally classical music has frowned upon people who â??disturb the flowâ?? of the multi-movement piece. When did this start historically? Iâ??m no musicologist and I might be wrong, but I canâ??t imagine that Beethoven and Mendelssohn would have frowned on mid-piece clappersâ?¦ During some historic premieres, audience members would essentially beg to hear a movement repeated before proceeding. And, of course, weâ??ve heard of the premieres gone badâ?¦ Stravinskyâ??s Rite of Spring when the performance came to an almost screeching halt! No one politely sat there just waiting for the â??endâ?? of the work to show displeasure or appreciationâ?¦

      Personally, I have no problem when people clap between movements. This tells me that there are patrons in the hall who are new to this experience and are enjoying what theyâ??re hearing. In fact, Iâ??ve enjoyed some pretty amazing soloists performing with the ISO and have fought hard not to applaud after an incredibly moving 1st movement for fear of those shame-on-you glancesâ?¦ Perhaps we need to stand up and say, no more. I will not be ashamed of showing appreciation. Viva la clapping!
    • Applause
      It's as simple as looking at the definition of applause in the dictionary. It states:

      "applause - hand clapping as a demonstration of approval, appreciation, acclamation, or the like."

      What musician playing on stage wouldn't appreciate a sign of "approval, appreciation or acclamation" during ANY point in the concert?
    • Who are concerts for?
      The comment about taping illustrates a disturbing trend in classical - especially symphonic - performances: a host of other considerations are put ahead of what should be, IMHO, the most important: the audience.

      For an entertaining and enligthening read on the history of the applause/no applause convention, check out Alex Ross' blog The Rest is Noise.

      Musicians: it's OK to SMILE and feel appreciated when the audience gives you some love!
    • tradition...
      ...is not necessarily the right word but it simply is supposed to be this way.

      IN A PERFORMING ARTS CENTER (music, dance, art, drama)...

      1. Never enter a classical concert or traditional theatre during a performance. Always wait until the end of a sketch or a classical movement.

      2. Do not talk during a performance.

      3. Applause upon completion of "complete" performance...and not until the silence is heard!

      4. Act as if a private recording session is taking place.

      5. Never applause if the 4th movement of the Howard Hanson Theme is played (Interlochen Tribute)!

      That's all I have to say about that.
    • Right up my alley
      What a great topic, I'm thoroughly enjoying everyone's comments. No one taught me etiquette when I was young for attending a Classical concert. I gathered that it was a dressier affair than a rock concert and learned the hard way about the clapping. I love the fresh approach to programming the Happy Hour concerts provide. Mixing Beethoven and Coldplay, Brahms and Mayer in the same night brings a new excitement and energy to a younger crowd. And let's face it, we need this younger crowd to be enthusiastic about Classical music.

      And I'm one of those dorks that has been known to clap after a great movie fully knowing the actors and director can not hear me. Thank you for the laugh Hugh!
    • applause during classical music
      As a participant in a symphony, I feel that musicians who perform a solo part during the performance should be recognized at the conclusion of the piece by having them stand. During a performance can interrupt the mood which the composer is trying to convey.
    • Applause History
      Historically, audience members were quite inebriated and the applause could go on until morning! The applause after a total piece was for continuity so that the evening did not go on FOREVER and so the conductor could get "into" each movement. It's also good for recording purposes as said above. I still stand when I hear Handel's "Hallelujah" chorus....what'ya gonna do?
    • To clap or not to clap...
      My comments come from the perspective of being a symphony performer and also a school band conductor. I have enjoyed reading the comments written here before mine, and agree with many of them. As a general rule, I think it comes down to whatâ??s appropriate for the situation.

      If an orchestra is playing a multi-movement symphonic work, then I do not think it is proper to change the mood and flow of the piece by applauding between movements. (I tell my students, if you aren't sure when to clap, wait until someone else does first.) While I agree with Paulâ??s comments about the performers connecting with the audience, I think that intense quiet between movements is something that everyone in the hall feels and IS an important part of the experience of that particular piece. If I play a solo in the 2nd movement that the audience liked, I know the conductor will likely give me a solo bow at the end of the symphony, and if people liked it they will have a chance to clap then.

      However, if it an orchestra playing a pop/jazz piece, and you liked the solo, applaud away!

      Applauding during the National Anthem â?? donâ??t get me started. I can barely contain myself seeing the awful behaviors during the playing/singing of the SSB at public events.

      On a related topic - my pet peeve is playing in an orchestra, when we are playing something fun and lively (i.e. Shostakovich â??Festive Overtureâ?? or â??In the Moodâ??), and I look around at my fellow musicians, and some of their faces give the impression they are going through an invasive medical procedure â?? lighten up and have fun! (yes string players, Iâ??m talkinâ?? to YOU!). And when we just finished a great performance of Beethoven #7, SMILE when we take a bow and the audience is giving us a standing O! I have often had audience members in the lobby after a performance tell me they enjoy watching me during the concert because they can tell Iâ??m having fun.

      And yes, I sometimes clap at the end of a great movie, just as I sometimes yell at the tv while watching a game ;-)
    • It's down to leadership
      OK, I'm going to step out on a limb here (not the first time in my career) and state what should be obvious, but rarely is:
      It's up to the conductor/ leader of the ensemble when clapping is appropriate. An effective [competent] conductor will very clearly 'carry' the audience with him/her between movements of a large work: command silence when it's appropriate, permit in-seat leg-stretching & shuffling when it's appropriate, and also inspire between-movement applause when it's appropriate. Using their 'presence' and a suitable means of silent communication (not Over-The-Top, either... just watch 'the greats'), conductors should be influencing & bringing together listeners as much as performers. If they're not, 1. they ain't doing their job, and 2. they open the performance up to a ton of abuse, including coughing, talking and people walking in & out!

      As for 'traditional' rules. Well, I am very fond of tradition. Justified tradition, that is. What's been thrown in our faces above is scarily ludicrous and wrong - it hasn't always been that way. Indeed, only recently (in the late 20thC) was alcohol prohibited from many auditoriums... let alone the wandering around, cheering, chatting, laughing, etc. that many of our great composers enjoyed [or, in many opinions, endured] for hundreds of years! Yes, it can be distracting and I'm glad audiences generally don't treat the auditorium like a train station anymore, but when protocol interrupts people's enjoyable participation... that's bad.

      Again, a good conductor will affect and encourage musicians to smile - as they often should - especially when acknowledging the audience's appreciative applause. Sometimes, though, the music just hits too deeply and it's hard.

      I truly hope this debate stays alive...
    • Applaud to your heart's content
      Though I consider myself somewhat of a conservative classical music enthusiast, it no longer bothers me when members of the audience applaud at the end of a movement (as long at itâ??s deserved). If you donâ??t feel like applauding, donâ??t. If you are truly impressed with the performance, do. Donâ??t worry what the person sitting next to you thinks. The music is there to be enjoyed. Enjoy it! Personally, I donâ??t applaud in between movements or at the conclusion of movies, but I will approvingly smile at those who do.

      But please â?? if you need to cough, plant your mouth into your bicep and let it rip. Itâ??s easy, nearly silent, and no one will mind if you then applaud mid-movement.
    • Applause=Approval
      I do understand the controversy about when to applaud. It seems to be an unspoken rule that one holds their applause until the entire work is complete, however, it doesn't bother me at all when you have been so thrilled after hearing one movement of a piece, that you spontaneously clap with joy! Sometimes we on stage do the same! The conductor will usually hold up his hands after a movement if he would like the audience to hold their applause. In this case, I would honor that request. Being a performer, I can tell you that there is nothing more gratifying than having the audience stand up and clap furiously - and the more people in the audience, the better! Have you ever noticed the applause at the end of a piece that involves a soloist, often times a female, conducted by a male? If they hug to show their thanks for the collaboration, the applause drops to near silence for just a second or two, then resumes to full volume. I try to be aware of this, but often, by the time I think to listen for it, it's done. I guess I'm also too busy watching!

      I'm sorry about not smiling more. The audience deserves a pleasant face. I will definitely try harder!! I am so grateful for the attendance and the applause!!
    • My two cents
      I'm with Dinah that conductors usually show pretty clearly if they want silence between movements. I think it's totally appropriate to clap after a virtuoso movement. The first movement of Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto or Beethoven Symphony #5 come to mind. Only when it really interrupts the mood or the flow of the piece is applause ever a problem. Now, the Happy Hour concert in question featured Time for Three. They were alternating on solos in a pop-influenced piece, and the atmosphere was very much that of a jazz concert. When a jazz player finishes an improv or any big solo, it is expected that the audience will applaud. The applause after Ranaan or Nick or Zack played solos on Happy Hour was totally appropriate and deserved. However, if an audience member had clapped after my oboe solo on the Brahms Violin Concerto the week before, the others in the attendance would have missed the violinist's solo entrance. It's all about context.
    • Clap on - Clap off - The Clapper!
      I totally agree with Roger; it is all about the context. That being said, as musicians we should all strive to play in such a moving and convincing manner that our audience members can't help but applaud - and then applaud even louder for the next potentially trampled soloist.

      I wish the ISO musicians could be in the audience for a Happy Hour concert. I've had the pleasure of attending two performances and the excitement, enhanced perhaps by a little gin, is...dare I say...intoxicating.
    • Can be awkward
      In Cleveland, the Music Director has said that he enjoys it when people clap between movements, because then he knows people new to the experience are in the audience.

      However, in some situations with various conductors it is awkward when it happens. The conductors and the audiences aren't really prepared how to handle it. I think it's something every conductor should prepare for in advance, so that when it does happen, they know exactly how they want to handle it. Occasionally when they don't acknowledge the applause it can be perceived as aloof by the audience.

      I also agree with Roger that it's context that's important. In opera, it is common for the opera to pause while the audience applauds an aria or ensemble.
    • Is Music Sacred?
      In watching a video about the life of Leonard Bernstein, there was a period of time when he was struggling to get the Vienna Philharmonic to understand that the notes in the music of Gustav Mahler were "just as sacred and holy a group of notes" as those found in Brahams. During college band and orchestral rehearsals, we would sometimes spend a half hour just to get a phrase (or even "an" articulation) "just right," the way it was supposed to be. Sometimes, we would practice sitting absolutely motionless at the end of a movement, with instruments in playing position, until the conductor would lower his/her arms, to inspire an audience to listen until the very end of a note's final fade. The process of my music education had trained me that classical music (in the broader sense of the term) represented highly crafted works of art. Understanding the true and finely detailed qualities of each piece required a highly sensitive and focused set of listening skills. Even listening to stereophonic reproductions on CD of recordings that were originally done in mono for LPs (or 78s) could be considered distorting those performances. I used to listen to my friends' CDs and tell them (without seeing the CD jacket) what orchestra was playing and who was conducting.

      Sometimes, even though I'm a Christian, it is difficult to perform with church groups. Everything is all about giving God the glory. Yet, I've been trained musically that everything should be given up for the sake of the music.

      So, when I go to a live performance, it is distracting for me to hear applause before a final note has finished. I'm trained to be intense with my listening until everything has resolved completely. I just have to remind myself that some things (like gratitude from an audience) are more important than a slight distraction from my being in the zone. It's sometimes hard. But it's only hard when I forget that the music is not being performed only for me (when I'm in the trombone section or in the audience).
    • an education
      I am thrilled by the depth and heart of these comments. I love being educated by IBJ readers. Keep 'em coming.
      --Lou Harry
      Arts & Entertainment Editor
    • A Little Class?
      Why is it, these days, so difficult to understand what is the proper decorum for specific situations. But then again, not too long ago I witnessed a patron of St. Elmos dining while dressed in a sweat suit. With regard to attending a classical music performance, with Mr. Rodenbeck, I am firmly in agreement.
    • I agree!
      Hugh - I couldn't agree with you more about clapping in movies. Unless the director or actors or anyone personally involved with the movie is in the audience, there's just no sense in it! I can't stand it! I thought I was the only one who was really annoyed by that!
    • Sunday morning comment
      I haven't figured out yet what my own opinion is on this topic, but I have loved reading everyone else's opinions, especially the comments from the professional musicians. I really appreciate everyone who took the time to write and share their thoughts on Lou's thought-provoking post!

      I think the very specific question of "Should you clap whenever you feel moved to show your appreciation at a live performance?" is related to the larger question of how to be a person.

      I mean, you want to be fully present and honest or at least authentic in every moment of your life, right? But you also want to do your tiny but essential part to build community and help heal the world.

      Sometimes this means taking a risk and expressing, but other times this means taking a risk and holding back. There is no one-size-fits-all rule.

      So...I don't think there can be a hard-and-fast rule about when to clap and when to sit on your hands. Not really.

      But that said, I think the question of whether or not to clap is also related to the question of whether or not some spaces are sacred (in the largest sense of the word, not the merely religous) and if so, what is right behavior while in them? Yes, you're there to draw water from the sacred well or whatever, but you're also there to help keep the well going. It's not all about you, even if you paid money or time or something to be there.

      So...I do believe in believe in following conventions of "sacred space" courtesy when I can. I turn off my cell phone at the theatre, for example. I use my "indoor voice" at the public library. I don't touch the wrestling ring at a sumo match. I might clap in church or even shout "Amen!" but I might not, depending on the church.

      So...if someone tells me there are right and wrong times to clap at symphony concerts, I'll do my best to follow those conventions, out of respect and out of a desire to have the concerts continue.

      Speaking of continuity, though, I loved the final paragraph in the article you linked us to, Lou. Alex Ross wrote:

      "People often ask whether classical music has become too serious. I sometimes wonder whether it is serious enough. Certainly, it has acquired a veneer of solemnity, but too often that veneer is a cover for business as usual. I dream of the concert hall becoming a more vital, unpredictable environment, in thrall to the wildly diverse personalities of composers and performers alike. The great paradox of modern musical life, whether in the classical or pop arena, is that we both worship our idols and, in a way, straitjacket them. We consign them to cruelly specific roles: a certain rock band is expected to loosen us up, a certain composer is expected to ennoble us. Ah, Mozart; yeah, rock and roll. But what if a rock band wants to make us think and a composer wants to make us dance? Music should be a place where our expectations are shattered."

      Paving over the sacred well is not the same as preserving it.

      Hope Baugh
      Indy Theatre Habit

      PS - I don't think I have expressed myself here very well, but if I don't leave for the theatre RIGHT NOW, I will be late. And that is definitely not okay! (hah)
    • Hold your applause, please....
      I have been a classical concert-goer for some 65-years. Attending a performance given by a top-tier orchestra has always been an experience close to my heart. It's a most personal, almost sacred, experience. And, personally, I prefer the "no-applause between movements" protocol. I've heard all the arguments pro and con, but in the end I know what is important to me. And, that is to respect the integrity of the work, the artistic sensitivities of others in the audience, and to thoroughly enjoy it. The silence between movements is golden. There is plenty of time to applaud, shout, and stomp at the conclusion of the piece, especially when the key orchestra members and the conductor take their well deserved bows. I see no reason to lower the 'etiquette bar' just to fill seats. Inappropriate applause can be unnerving to the sensibilities of the seasoned classical music concert-goer, and it can be also very distracting.
    • Brahms
      I was rushed at the time I wrote my earlier comments. In rereading them, I realized that since I was referring to the "sacred" nature of Brahms' music, I should have taken the time to spell his name correctly. After all, I don't wish to be struck by lightening. :) P.S. I've really enjoyed reading all of the comments. I've realized that I'm not quite as out of touch as I that I might have been with people's current thoughts regarding applause between movements and after solo passages.
    • Happens at more than the Happy Hour Concerts
      Unfortunately, this happens at a lot of concerts, not just the Happy Hour series. It indicates a lack of respect for the musicians and contributes to the dumbing-down of American's understanding of classical culture. I attended Hough and the Tchaikovsky B-flat minor concerto and there was applause at the end of the first mvmt of the concerto AND at the end of the 1st mvmt of the Beethoven Symphony. Ridiculous! Applause comes AT THE END OF A PIECE/WORK regardless of how moved you are in the middle. These are not Mariah Carey or American Idol pop concerts where people spontaneously applause a long held note or a colorful run--even in broadway shows, applause is held until the end of a song. This is the correct protocol regardless of when it started historically. Would you spontaneously boo in the middle of a piece if you were disappointed? Learn from those around you- - - it is not highbrow or snooty, it is witholding applause until the absolute end of a composer's work. If you cannot handle it or think you should be allowed to clap whenever you wish, go to the movies.
    • applause
      I always take my cue from the conductor -- but I would say this having attended an ISO Happy Hour - that is intended to capture a different audience (not me- but I love it anyway) and you should expect different behavior. I should be a rollicking good time -i some new fans are hooked - they will pick up the norms at other events. I do want to make a note of an earlier comment about the demeanor of the musicians - I pointed out a woman in the second chair section of ISO to my wife and I said "I love that woman - because when the music is joyful she smiles while playing and listening,
    • venue
      While I dislike clapping except at the end of a work, I realize the Happy Hour is a more casual event. However, it would be nice when one attends a traditional classical concert to have the quiet, to be able to really listen. Even at the end of a work, I sometimes wish there was more quiet to really capture the the experience before I applaud. Can you educate the audience to do different things in different places?

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