Concert etiquette. Yes, that old chestnut, doing the rounds again, getting bloggers, reviewers and audience members all hot under the collar….. To quote my friend and fellow blogger ‘Specs’: “audience behaviour seems to be such a ‘hot topic’ at the moment, it might as well be in a furnace balanced on a bonfire surrounded by lava. (And since that’s a fairly accurate description of being inside the Royal Albert Hall much of the time, perhaps the two are connected.)”

Aside from all the hand-wringing and eye-pulling on the subject of applause (when, how and why – of which more in a subsequent article), there is the question of general behaviour at concerts. Some people say that the etiquette of classical music – sitting quietly during the performance, trying not to disturb fellow concert-goers with coughing, turning the pages of the programme, or trying to silently opening blister packs of cough sweets (it’s impossible, I know) – is what makes classical music elitist, but the same etiquette is expected of theatre- or cinema-goers.

When we go to a live concert, we choose to do so in the knowledge that we will be sharing the auditorium with other people. These other people are, en masse, known as the audience, and without them there would be no concerts. Audiences are human – living, breathing, moving, sentient human beings – and when you go to a concert and become part of the audience, you accept that you are going to be surrounded by people who might move, or make a very small noise or tiny disturbance…… The vast majority of us who attend concerts do so with a sense of courtesy towards our fellow concert-goers and we enjoy the experience of sharing this wonderful music with other people in the special space that is the concert hall.

Sadly, a minority of concert goers seem to have a problem with this….. I was upset to read a post by a Facebook/blogging acquaintance who reported that during a concert at the Edinburgh Festival he moved slightly to cross his legs and was promptly punched on the shoulder by the person sitting behind him and ordered to “stop moving around, you fool!“. That the concert-goer reacted so aggressively to what I am sure was a very slight movement on the part of my acquaintance is disturbing in itself; that it happened at a classical concert, that art form where one expects civilised, courteous behaviour, is really quite shocking. Unfortunately, this is not the first incident of this kind I have encountered. Some months ago at a concert at the Wigmore Hall, I witnessed a man some rows in front of me smartly whack the couple in front of him with his programme because they were being just a little bit smoochy. It happened not once but twice during the evening and it was an unnecessary and overly aggressive reaction, in my humble opinion.

Concert venues do their absolute best to ensure the experience is pleasant for everyone. There are regular reminders to switch off your mobile phone and other electrical devices which might disturb the concert (watch alarms for example), to stifle coughing as far as possible (the Wigmore sensibly sells cough sweets at the desk in the foyer and most venues will allow you to take a bottle of water into the auditorium) and to be tolerant of other concert-goers. I am not overly troubled by coughing, nor am I especially bothered by the whole “applause between movements” business. But talking during the performance is a big No No for me – it’s discourteous to other concert-goers and disrespectful to the musicians – as is checking your Facebook timeline on your smartphone. And crowd-surfing is not recommended either….. (see below)

It seems to me that some concert goers would prefer to have a private concert, just them and the musicians, without the bother of tiresome other people and their irritating natural human attributes. To which I say, if that’s how to you want to experience music, I suggest you stay at home and listen on the radio or on disc in the quiet privacy of your own home.

Good behaviour at concerts was inculcated in me from a very young age. My parents took me to many classical concerts when I was a little girl – mostly at the old Birmingham Town Hall – and I learnt to sit quietly during the performance and to stifle my yawns: my mother used to tell me that yawning was very rude as “the musicians might notice and think you are bored!“. Having now been on the other side, so to speak, as a performer, I can safely say that when one is involved in the business of performing, one doesn’t really notice the audience that much (I doubt you could spot someone yawning in the audience from the stage of the Birmingham Town Hall!), but it also helps if you can sense the audience are still alive and engaging with the performance. I love that collective sigh that one hears just before the applause comes, or the sense of people listening incredibly intently, the atmosphere so thick, so powerful you could almost reach out and touch it.

Further reading:

Clapped Out

Getting Rid of Claptrap

How to Save Classical Music according to Stephen Hough

Scientist Kicked out of Classical Concert for Trying To Crowd Surf


A concert is an occasion, an event, and as such has its own special etiquette and “rules of engagement”.

As the audience we have certain responsibilities, including arriving on time, sitting quietly during the performance, showing our appreciation for the performer and being courteous towards our fellow concert-goers and the performer, who has worked so hard to create this performance to share with us.

The age of the smartphone constantly threatens to disrupt these “rules” (coughing and the noises of living, breathing human beings are acceptable aspects of the live concert experience), and venues continually remind audiences to turn off their phones (and other electrical devices such as watches with alarms) prior to the start of the concert. It is, sadly, all too common for a phone or two to go off during a performance, but generally this is tolerated and met with a sigh or tut from audiences members (fortunately, I have never been party to the kind of reaction as described in this article).

But it’s not just a ringing phone which can disturb concert goers: I was forced to watch most of a concert by Yuja Wang at Queen Elizabeth Hall via the video function of an iPhone belonging to the person seated in front of me. Not only is it generally forbidden to film or photograph at concerts, it is also extremely distracting to have a phone screen glowing in the gloaming of the concert hall. And the other night at Wigmore Hall, where Igor Levit completed his Beethoven Sonatas odyssey, the young man seated on my right checked his phone every 10 minutes, presumably to check in with his Facebook chums. This was done silently but the lit up screen was an intrusion on my enjoyment of the concert. It does make me wonder why people bother going to concerts if they can’t do without their phone for a couple of hours. It is also discourteous to the performer: never mind that we were sitting in Row X – if you’re checking your phone, you’re clearly not concentrating on the performance.

In a programme of late Beethoven no less. Why would one even go if one isn’t prepared to put everything aside for those sonatas?

@Tmcguitars on Twitter

Of course performers have responsibilities to the audience as well. In creating a concert, the performer makes a virtual “contract” with the audience (and a formal one with the venue/promoter), and the audience are complicit in that by attending the concert and fulfilling their side of the arrangement, as noted above. In a recent blog post, music journalist and writer Jessica Duchen describes a concert where the performer seemed displeased that the hall was only half full and manifested his displeasure via his performance. Whatever was going on with the performer, it seems singularly unfair to the audience to treat them with antagonism. They have, after all, paid to hear you play (that “contract” again) and even if you’re tired or ill, you have made the commitment to perform.

The green room at London’s Wigmore Hall

Then there are the responsibilities of the venue towards performer and audience. The vast majority of venues are very well run, with friendly, helpful staff and pleasant areas and bars where people can meet and socialise. Performers are well-looked after with proper facilities to warm up and get changed, important aspects which help make the performer feel comfortable and at ease (as far as possible) ahead of the concert. But I have come across stories of performers being told to change the programme at short notice, because the promoter demands it, and a recent case where the performer arrived at the venue and was not permitted a proper warm up on the piano, nor was the tuner given an appropriate amount of time to prepare the instrument. There was no green room, and no refreshments for her. Of course she gave the recital, because she is a professional, but I suspect the experience left a sour taste in her mouth and it is unlikely she will hurry to perform at the same venue again.

A concert is a shared experience, with shared responsibilities. When these coalesce in a virtuous circle of good practice, courtesy and commitment, we should all be guaranteed an enjoyable and engaging experience.


Hall half full, glass half empty – blog article by Jessica Duchen

British pianist Stephen Hough has sparked a lively debate by suggesting in an article that classical concerts could be “shorter” to attract younger or new audiences, or allow venues and musicians to offer two concerts in one evening. He has also hinted that intervals could be ditched in favour of a performance lasting around 70 minutes, and that concerts could start at different times (in the UK the standard start time for an evening concert is 7.30pm) perhaps to allow two performances in the same evening. Reactions online to these suggestions have ranged from outrage (at the thought of anyone messing around with the “traditional concert format”) to applause (for creative thinking).

In fact what Stephen Hough is suggesting is not that new. Many musicians, ensembles, orchestras and venues have been experimenting with different ways of presenting classical music for some time, from rush-hour concerts at 6.30pm to Wigmore Lates, 45-minute lunchtime concerts or lecture-recitals. Earlier this year I met and interviewed John Landor whose innovative Meet the Music concerts allow audience members to get right up close and personal with the musicians and the music, literally, while the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment has for some time offered concerts in pubs and late-night “speed-dating” sessions where the audience can meet the musicians after the performance.

Trying to encourage “young people” to come to classical music concerts is an ongoing preoccupation of ………well, anyone with an opinion on the future of classical music, it would appear. There seems to be a current misconception about young people that because they are used to the instant gratification of the internet and platforms like YouTube, Spotify, Netflix et al, they are incapable of sitting through a concert or performance lasting more than 30 minutes, maximum, in one go. Personally, I think it is less to do with this and more to do with education – or lack thereof – that has inculcated in them the idea that classical music is “boring”.

Personally, I have never had a problem with the length of concerts. I think this is partly due to the fact that from a very young age I was taken to concerts and opera at which I was asked by my parents to sit quietly and attentively. In fact, my mother used to say to me that it was “very rude to yawn or fidget” during the performance “because the musicians can see you and will be offended if they think you’re not listening properly!”. Having been on the other side of the stage, so to speak, as a performer in recent years, I am not so sure she was right (I tend not to look at the audience, as a pianist, until I stand to bow), but I think her comments certainly taught me to be a well-mannered and attentive concert goer. In over 40 years of concert going I have only twice fallen asleep during a concert, once during a Prom which I had rushed up the M3 in the car to get to (and I also fell asleep momentarily at the wheel of the car during the journey). I also feel slightly embarrassed if I leave during the interval (again, something I rarely do).

The length of a concert is dictated by many factors, including the programme of music being performed, type of venue, and time of day. Sometimes performers like to run a whole 70-90-minute programme without a break (Pierre-Laurent Aimard did this a few year’s ago with his Liszt Project cycle at the Southbank), and certain works, such as Messiaen’s Vingt Regards, are best performed (in my humble opinion) without a break to allow listener, and performer, to appreciate the arc of the narrative. But some repertoire is very demanding for the soloist and an interval may be necessary not only for the performer/s to have a break, a pee and a drink, and regroup before going back on stage, but also for the audience to pause and reflect on what they have heard, have a break, chat with friends and go back for the second half with refreshed ears and mind.

And I think it’s easy to forget too that for many people going to a concert is very much a social experience: it’s not just about the music, though of course that is the greater part of the evening, but it is also about meeting friends, sharing the excitement of live music, the conversations afterwards about what you heard.

Other factors dictate how long one can last in the auditorium, such as comfort of seats (Cadogan Hall has the comfiest seats in London), climate (the Royal Albert Hall can sometimes be unbearably hot and airless), and quality of the “social areas” (bars, foyers etc).

So I think what Stephen Hough is really suggesting is that it’s important to keep thinking of creative and exciting ways to present classical music. Concerts may be short or long, with or without interval, or formal dress. Performers may speak to the audience beforehand, or be interviewed, or maybe there is a pre-concert talk, or a post-concert Q&A session. We don’t need “gimmicks” to sell classical music – and most young people can spot a gimmick which has been thought up by a focus group or a bunch of middle aged people trying (and failing) to get on down with the kids. The most important thing is not to patronise audiences or talk down to them.

This is a very interesting discussion – feel free to leave your thoughts on this subject in the comments box below.

Meet the Artist……Stephen Hough

Readers may be interested in the Music Marathon project at St John’s Smith Square, London which takes place over the weekend of 17 and 18 September as part of Open House London 2016. Soloists, choirs and ensembles will perform over a 24-hour period while the doors of St John’s will be open during the entire weekend to allow people to come in and explore the building, while also enjoying performances by a wide range of musicians (I will be performing there from 1.15-1.30pm on Saturday 17 September).