Maybe you’ve seen it before. You’re at a symphony concert in your best evening wear to find yourself seated next to an obvious newcomer. The lights dim, but a glow next to you reveals your friendly neighbor whipping his phone out from the pocket of his oh-so-fashionably torn jeans. After a storm of texting, he answers a call during the first movement of Elgar’s Enigma Variations, leaning over to you, mid-call, to ask for a piece of gum. The movement concludes, but not knowing the piece is entirely over, your neighbor bursts into applause just as the conductor is about to begin the second movement. And just when you think you might settle into the peace of the evening’s repertoire, he stands up in the middle of the piece, edging through the aisle and loudly saying, “Sorry, when you gotta go, you gotta go!”
Well. We’re all newcomers to the classical music scene at some point in our lives. So if you’ve wondered what to wear or when to clap, here are a few etiquette tips when attending a classical performance, be it a solo recital, symphony concert, quartet salon, or the like.
1. Dress appropriately. As public events become more and more casual, symphony halls may be one of the few venues around where a higher standard of dress is not only welcome, but encouraged. As a general rule, avoid jeans and tennis shoes. Collared shirts for men are appropriate, as are skirts, dresses, or nice pants for women. Dress as if your grandmother were your date for the evening–and she never leaves home with a run in her stockings.
2. Be punctual. There’s no sneaking into a classical concert during the first piece if you’re late. If you are, many venues may even ask you to remain in the lobby until intermission. If you’re lucky, you may be able to sneak in between pieces, but not movements. Keep in mind that classical concerts may only have 2-4 pieces on the program (with multiple movements), so if you are late, you could end up missing out on a sizeable chunk of music. Try to be in your seat about 15 minutes prior to the concert starting.
3. Applaud when appropriate. Unlike during jazz or rock concerts when applause and shouting are welcome as the music is going on, applause at a classical concert is reserved for when
- a) the conductor enters,
- b) the conductor or announcer speaks or thanks patrons,
- c) an entire piece concludes (not a single movement),
- d) a soloist enters the stage, and
- e) a concert concludes.
4. Know when to make your escape. If you must use the restroom, try your best to hold out until intermission. And even if you find the concert a little tiresome, try not to leave at intermission unless you must. Don’t stand up to exit mid-music or even during the silence between pieces or movements. An important element of classical concerts is each individual’s effort to preserve a quiet, peaceful atmosphere for everyone’s enjoyment, so avoid doing anything that will draw attention to yourself.
5. Don’t talk, whistle, or whoop. Save the commentary for your friend/date/mom for intermission. A quick, “That was beautiful!” to your pal during applause is passable, but keep quiet during the performance. And unlike at other types of concerts, whistling and whooping for performers during applause isn’t appropriate in a symphony hall. If you really like the music, feel free to give a standing ovation instead of offering your best cat-calls.
6. No munching. As tempting as it may be to sneak out that crinkly, cellophane-wrapped chocolate bar, next time leave the snacks at home. Don’t even chew gum (or blow bubbles!) Some venues offer refreshments during intermission or following the concert, but hold out during the actual performance. The one exception? Cough drops! We can excuse one wrapper opening if it means saving your neighbors from a cacophony of coughs.
7. Turn off the phone. Don’t even put it on vibrate. Classical music has its quiet moments when even the scuffle of a shoe, the scratch of a head, or the buzz of a phone can be heard clearly. Let the music speak for itself without interruption.
8. Lastly, relax! Okay, maybe you’re getting the impression that classical concerts are only for the uptight and unforgiving. No way! Mind your manners, but enjoy yourself! After all, that’s what it’s all about.