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