I’ll Clap Between Movements And Boo If I Want To

There’s been an interesting thread having to do with audience participation going around some of the more prominent classical music blogs around the country.  It has to do with audience participation;  should you clap between movements or boo after a performance that fell short artistically?  Although there appear to be some definitive rules in place, nobody seems to know who made them. But one thing is certain, we all know who enforces them; our fellow patrons.

Whether it’s the glare of disgust from the third generation subscriber at your clapping after the second movement or the more than obvious eye roll from the guy in the $800 suit to your right if you don’t join in with the standing ovation, pretty much every orchestra venue in America has their own unofficial behavior police.

For those who may be unfamiliar with The Rules, here’s how it works:

  1. Show up on time and get in your seat, speak in quiet tones and don’t bring up any controversial subjects.  Instead, try to make puns off of Glenn Gould’s name, here’s an example: “I hear tonight’s pianist is wonderful but they’re not as good as Gould“.  (hahahahaha).
  2. Read the program book (don’t skip the ads!).
  3. Sit quietly until the piece is done and don’t clap between movements! If you lose track of which movement you’re in then sit in a paranoid state of fear laced with a cold sweat until you hear at least 50 other people start to applaud.
  4. If the orchestra finished the piece without the players breaking into a fist fight, then it was a smashing success and deserves a standing ovation.
  5. Keep clapping until the conductor has at least four curtain calls and has acknowledged every player on stage and starts bringing out the stage crew.
  6. Go home.

The rules are safe, the rules are fair, and most importantly, the rules are reliable.  If you stay inside the lines everything will be filled with a sense of euphoric bliss

Unfortunately, the rules are boring, suppress opinion, and promote mindless participation.

If something between a movement strikes you as being wonderful and it stirs up an emotion worth expressing, then you should clap.  All around knowledgeable music guy Alex Ross recently wrote an entry in his blog about the subject of clapping between movements that includes some quotes from veteran soloist, Emanuel Ax that are worth taking the time to read.

Avoid The Lure Of The Dark Side?
For the record, clapping between movements is fine and dandy in my book.  As a performer, I love it when folks clap between movements of something I’m playing.  But what about the dark side of audience participation; expressing displeasure over a bad performance?

San Francisco music reviewer, musical archeologist, and martial arts guru Lisa Hirsch has been contemplating this issue recently at her blog, the Iron Tongue of Midnight (ya gotta love these blog titles why don’t newspapers give their columns such catchy names?).  In some recent entries she contemplates the pros and cons of expressing discontent over a performance which include (but are not limited to) booing, throwing fetid produce, and hurling spiked fruit with malice and intent.

I weighed in with some of my own opinions about expressing negative feedback after a performance in a blog entry last April and again in a longer piece published at The Partial Observer entitled Are We Just Too Nice In America? How the docile nature of the American classical music patron helps make classical music dull.

In the end, all of this business with strict rules of conduct and aversion to booing has to come from a sincere lack of confidence among the bulk of orchestra patrons in their own understanding of classical music.  Unfortunately, things won’t change anytime soon unless a sizeable percentage of patrons are able to grow an artistic spine and in order for that to happen, there’s going to have to be some big changes made on the front lines.

How Do Orchestra Managers Fit Into All Of This?
Right now, the vast majority of orchestral organizations seem content with developing their audience into a herd of ambivalent cows.  Everyone is to blame; managers and musicians alike.

However, this doesn’t deny that there’s still a severe problem with audiences today; a lack of knowledge, understanding, or experience to support enough confidence to make a decision.  We can wait 20 years for public schools to hopefully begin educating a new generation of patrons who will break this mold or we can all start to change things now, today.

Look at professional sports for a comparison; educated fans know when the players have done something special or if they aren’t giving their “A” game.  Consequently, their level and direction of active participation (cheers or cat-calls) is directly influenced by the athlete’s performance.  They feel safe making those expressions because they know the difference between good and bad.

Orchestra managers can work toward breaking this cycle of producing Stepford Patrons and begin to start educating audiences (here’s one good suggestion Orchestra Docents).  They have the needed flexibility to initiate and follow through on a good audience enrichment program aimed at increasing active participation.

I’ll get everyone started: how about building some local customs for expressing satisfaction and dissatisfaction with performances?

  • If you didn’t think the performance was up to par, slap your rolled up program on the rear of the facing seat (just don’t simultaneously whack the person sitting in the seat).
  • If you didn’t like a particular player’s solo within a piece but the rest of the work was excellent, then stop applauding immediately when the conductor acknowledges the soloist (don’t worry, they have a thick skin they wouldn’t have gotten to where they are without it).
  • If a performance was particularly outstanding stomp your right foot on the ground in rhythm to your applause.
  • If the performance left you with an overwhelming sense of indifference then make a cricket noise in place of applause (learning how to make a cricket noise is fun too).

Regardless of what ideas a community comes up with, it won’t take long for it to catch on.

Most importantly, developing an enrichment process will teach patrons how to have some confidence in their critical opinions and increase their participation level with their respective organization.  That’s the real benefit.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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