illustration of women in black dresses per classical concert traditions
Some of these orchestra and classical concert should be updated. (Illustrated by Julie Chow, University of California, Berkeley).

Classical Concert Traditions: Should We Keep Them, or Do They Need To Go?

The music is great, but a lot of rules imposed upon audiences and performers can hinder the enjoyment of live orchestra performances.

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illustration of women in black dresses per classical concert traditions

The music is great, but a lot of rules imposed upon audiences and performers can hinder the enjoyment of live orchestra performances.

If you’re a member of concert band or orchestra, you’re definitely familiar with these traditions. Do they really have a point though? Here are four that deserve a closer look.

1. Not Clapping Between Movements

This tradition sparks so much fire in me in the worst way, and it inspired this article. I was recently a performer in an ensemble conducted by Cynthia Johnston Turner. When going over our performance do’s and don’ts during rehearsal, she told us how silly she finds it that people are told not to clap between movements. If they do we should embrace the energy they give us. I couldn’t agree with her more; if people are moved, let them clap! Restricting the audience takes away the authentic experience of strong emotions, and it’s nerve-wracking to try to not mess up. Seeing pieces with movements live as an audience member makes me nervous to this day — and I’m a college-level classical musician.

I was under the assumption that this classical concert tradition has always been around. Nope! Classic.fm posted an article about how composers such as Mozart loved spontaneous applause: “Individual movements were even played all over again if they received a big enough reaction.” This way of listening died out over time — especially in the 20th century when recording equipment was introduced into the scene.

There are some pieces that explicitly request silence between transitions: “In the early 1900s, several noted conductors including the likes of Toscanini and Stokowski, began insisting on the sanctity of the symphony and the concert hall, demanding that audiences remain silent until a work’s conclusion.” Some musicians insist that all pieces should be listened to this way since they think that clapping between movements interrupts the flow and feel, which can be true in a handful of cases.

With all of that said, I’m still strongly against forcing the audience into silence between movements of a piece. To me, restricting the audience takes away from the musical experience much more than clapping ever could. If a composer specifically requests silence, the conductor can let the audience know that before the piece begins. The fact that silence is the default setting is not only incredibly annoying, but inhibits the authentic artistic experience.

2. Conductors Entering and Exiting the Stage

According to this stereotypical gendered quote from symphonynovascotia.ca, “The conductor will take a bow and then leave the stage” but “if the audience keeps clapping, he’ll come back out to acknowledge the applause.” Why? I have no idea, but if you’ve ever been to a classical concert, you’ve probably seen the conductor walk on and off and on and off and on and off the stage at the conclusion of the concert. Shouldn’t this lead to more ingenuity? It seems to be another case of ritual for the sake of ritual.

I was hoping to find something about how this started to gain a deeper understanding of why conductors do it, but I didn’t find anything origin-wise. Instead, I found a statement from professional cellist Yvonne Coruthers that reaffirms the ridiculousness of this ritual: “I’ve sat through many a concert and thought to myself, ‘are all of these entrances and exits really necessary?’” The only exception I could think of is if the conductor needs a break in between pieces and walks off stage to sit and breathe for a second before coming back. However, what I’m talking about is the end of the concert where they seem to try to get 10,000 steps on their Fitbit during the applause. All this does is add to the performative nature of classical concerts, where we should really be focusing more on the music than on checking boxes on the tradition to-do list.

3. Concert Black

Every classical musician has a sea of black attire in their closet. There are a few reasons as to why this is the case, both historically and today. In the 18th century, only men were allowed to perform in orchestras, and their uniform was typically a black-tie tuxedo. Strings.newsupdate.tv posted an article explaining that musicians would wear uniforms “like other household servants” as they performed in “ecclesiastical or noble households.” The Black Tie Guide gives some insight as to why these uniforms were so fancy: “For the first two hundred years of their existence, orchestras were not only associated exclusively with the upper class but also with the most formal of occasions for that class, short of attending court.” When women were brought into orchestras in the mid-20th century, “their onstage uniform naturally followed suit” with black attire.

Some musicians argue that “concert black” is appropriate today because other colors would distract the audience from the music. That argument seems pretty dehumanizing to me since the musicians are the reason we are able to hear the music, so we shouldn’t be worried about them being “too distracting.” It’s honestly a similar argument to the one used for not clapping in between movements, and we all know how I feel about that tradition.

Still, I’m not as quick to bury this tradition deep into the ground. There’s definitely something special about the appearance of a unified ensemble; it signifies a team, a group of people coming together to make something bigger than themselves. The comfort of the performers is leagues more important, however, so I think that we should have much more flexibility with uniforms than we seem to currently hold across the board. Besides, there are plenty of ways for classical ensembles to look uniform besides wearing a tux or a dress. Other options that would allow for more comfort and freedom of movement, whether through colors, type of attire or level of dress should be explored.

4. Sitting Still and Being Quiet

As pianoways.com puts it, “although it could seem natural to jump up, shout bravo, clap and cheer – you won’t, because one doesn’t do that in classical concerts.” This doesn’t seem to be a valid enough reason to go against what we feel naturally when listening to music. If I wanted a “because that’s just the way it is” response, I’d go to my parents. The article does provide some valid reasons as to why being still and silent is the move: helping the performers concentrate, simulating a meditative state for the audience and expressing enthusiasm together at the end of pieces as a collective. I get that, but we can’t ignore how inaccessible this tradition can be.

As an autistic musician myself, the whole “sitting still and shutting my mouth” concept doesn’t work for me. It just forces me to concentrate way more on the comfort of others, leaving little to no energy to actually enjoy the classical concert I’m watching. Some venues have sensory-friendly nights for autistic people or anyone with sensory sensitivities in order to prevent this from happening, among other instances that come up as an autistic audience member in a classical concert setting.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra offers some sensory-friendly concerts with the following accommodations: relaxed house rules, reduced volume and lighting levels, extra space for movement, available noise-reduction headphones, designated quiet room and support spaces and credentialed autism therapist volunteers on site. Venues hold nights of a similar nature for families as well, with the same intention of accessibility for all audience members. The Colorado Music Festival offers these concerts while promising a “relaxed environment perfect for introducing your kids to the orchestra.”

As we discovered by reflecting on other traditions, classical music was consumed in a much more social way, but that changed with the introduction of recording equipment into these settings in the mid-20th century. I personally don’t have a cut-and-dry answer on what we should do in this case. Everyone consumes music differently and has different needs, so it would be impossible to set a standard that would please everyone. I’d be curious to see what allistic people think of this, but can’t speak on their behalf as an autistic person. All of this being said, I’d encourage all venues to offer different concerts that accommodate all different kinds of needs instead of having the same kind of environment for every single performance.

So, Do These Classical Concert Traditions Need To Go?

That’s up to the program. There are always going to be people who insist that our traditions are part of why the environment of classical music is unique and beautiful. There are also people like me who have no problem throwing traditions away to build new ones from the ground up. There’s even everything in between in terms of opinions. With that said, a question I’ve heard frequently discussed is, “How do we get more people to enjoy classical music? What are we missing?”

It’s not the music: some classical music is boring as hell, but some of it is the most incredible thing you could ever hear, especially live. Being a part of a band or an orchestra is expensive, and going to a classical concert as an audience member means experiencing rules that are hard to follow and horrifying to break. The expenses of instruments are hard to resolve, and it’s not what I’m talking about at the moment. As a starting point, programs should look at what they can control, and that’s the environment of their venue. I’d encourage every venue to create as diverse and accessible of an environment as possible, and sometimes that’ll mean keeping the tux in the closet and letting the audience clap between movements.

Writer Profile

Jayar Brenner

Michigan State University
Double Majoring in Euphonium Performance and Music Education; Double Minoring in Nonfiction Creative Writing and LGBTQ+ Studies

Jayar Brenner is a junior at Michigan State University, and his passions lie in music, education, activism and writing. He is especially proud of his work through the Spartan Marching Band as a member of the uniform team, his brotherhood through Kappa Kappa Psi, and his volunteer work through the Tuba-Euphonium Social Justice Initiative.

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