What can I say about Sam Bergman? Well, the facts are he’s a violist in the Minnesota Orchestra, serves in a leadership position with the musician’s orchestra committee, the news editor for Arts Journal, mini-blogger extraordinaire, rabid baseball fan, and proprietor of Urtext v2.0. Plus, he’s funny.
Sam’s Take a Friend to Orchestra contribution utilizes that last expertise to give everyone a health dose of humor while simultaneously convincing those readers who have almost invited a friend to a concert to actually do so. Sam calls his contribution "How to Be an Elitist Snob in 20 Easy Steps" but I call it "Everything You Wanted To Know About The Orchestra But Were Afraid to Ask".
It may be long, but it’s also a quick read; you’ll be laughing out loud and wanting more by the time you’re through reading it.
How to Be an Elitist Snob in 20 Easy Steps
When people ask me what it’s like to play in a symphony orchestra
for a living, I generally respond that it’s just like everyone else’s
job, with all the office politics, boring meetings, and meddling middle
management, except that the last few hours of the work week take place
on stage, in formalwear, with 2,500 people watching to see if you screw
up. That having been said, it is a job which a great many people pay to
watch us do, and this gives rise to certain, shall we say, specialized
areas of concern.
As you may have heard, the classical music biz has been going
through a bit of a crisis for the last few, um, decades. Entire books
have been written declaring that our industry has, in fact, ceased to
exist, or is at least in the final convulsing spasms of near-death. The
fact that the authors of such cheery tomes are almost invariably
self-promoting idiots who wouldn’t know a business plan if it walked up
and bit ’em in the ass doesn’t change the basic perception that
classical music is something of a dinosaur. Which, of course, it is. I
mean, the whole point of an orchestra’s existence is wrapped up in the
fact that we spend a great deal of our time playing music that everyone
has heard before. (Of course, this differs from the careers of Tony
Bennett and Bruce Springsteen not at all, and nobody’s writing books
declaring them to be dead.) But one of the more ludicrous facts of life
in 21st-century America is that no one takes you seriously as an
entertainer if your core audience is rude enough to sport an average
age above 24, and, let’s face it, most people don’t make the switch
from Weezer to Wagner until a lot later than that. In fact, I suspect
that a case could be made that the majority of classical music fans
begin listening when they get old enough to feel embarrassed at rock
concerts, and then decide that some of this Beethoven stuff might not
be too bad, and is undeniably less likely to result in a drug arrest or
a sprained back.
Consequently, the audiences who show up at our concerts tend to be a
rather interesting cross-section of elderly diehards, middle-aged
converts, and college music majors, with a sprinkling of squirmy
high-school boys who think they’re impressing the taffeta-wrapped
female specimens next to them with their grasp of high culture. (They
aren’t, but who are we to point this out? They’re buying tickets, and
the girls always seem to get something out of the music, even if the
boys have zero shot of getting anything out of them in return.) And
while there is a certain percentage of this audience for whom the
routine of a symphony concert is old hat, most people seem to have a
hard time knowing how to go about being a good audience member. It’s
really not that complicated, but, like anything else in life, it’s not
gonna feel natural until you’ve done it a few times. And how are you
supposed to do it a few times when no one ever tells you what ‘it’ is?
With that in mind, I am pleased to present the following handy set
of answers to any questions you might have about the orchestral concert
experience, plus a few you haven’t thought of yet. On behalf of the
world’s symphony orchestras, I thank you for your attention to these
guidelines, and hope that they may alleviate any ‘concert stress’ you
may have previously experienced.
- Before buying your tickets, for God’s sake, check to see what we’re
playing. Being a fan of the genre writ large does not obligate you to
like everything we do, and a boatload of in-concert grimacing could be
prevented by a cursory glance through the program book before you get
in line at the box office. If you often find yourself humming
Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ while unloading the dishwasher, you might want
to think twice before shelling out a couple hundred bucks for great
seats to a world premiere by a composer described in the program book
as ‘controversial’ and ‘challenging.’ On the other hand, if you’ve been
to a handful of concerts featuring Bach, Brahms, or Haydn, and have
frequently had trouble staying awake in the slow movements, new music
may just be your thing, even if you’ve never considered it before.
Glance through the schedule, keeping an eye out for such key phrases as
‘programmatic’ or ‘percussion concerto,’ and take a chance. And
finally, if your favorite classical masterworks are available on albums
with names like ‘Acoustic Landscapes,’ or are frequently heard at
weddings, really, save your money for the next Josh Groban concert.
Pachelbel’s Canon just isn’t what we do.
- Reading a review of a concert is not generally a good way to
find out if you will like it. Critics tend to be failed musicians, or
at the very least, music history majors (which amounts to the same
thing,) and frequently harbor some pretty dark views of the whole
business. Furthermore, most critics have been cowed over the years into
declaring every new musical work as a thing of utter genius, especially
if it’s completely impenetrable to human ears, the theory being that if
we can’t understand it, it must be because there’s something wrong with
us. There are some excellent critics out there, but the bottom line is
that usually, they’re giving you their opinion without giving you any
frame of reference as to where your tastes do or do not coincide with
theirs. It’s like deciding whether a Red Sox game is worth your money
based on a Yankees’ beat writer’s recap of yesterday’s game.
- When getting ready to go to the concert, think for a minute
about what you want to wear. If you’re a man, your suit from work is
fine, if you’re really comfortable in it, but your favorite pair of
khakis and a polo shirt might be a lot less constricting when you
consider that you’re going to be sitting in one place for a couple of
hours. And honestly, very few people dress up for concerts anymore in
most American cities, and no matter how casually you dress, there’s
almost guaranteed to be some college kid who got assigned this concert
by his music history prof sitting two rows in front of you, and he’s
going to be dressed like he’s going duck hunting, so seriously, comfort
first, okay? Women, you too. This is not the place for your rustling
silk prom gown. Do you see the women on stage wearing elaborate dresses
with ruffles and huge shoulders and plunging necklines? No, you do not,
and a good general rule of thumb is that you should not be more
formally dressed than the people holding the instruments. Because trust
me, we are not comfortable, and you should be.
- When you arrive at the concert hall, you may be forced to
hang around in the lobby for a while before the house is opened. During
this period of time, you may notice large boxes full of cough drops
positioned strategically next to the doors to the auditorium. Take
some. No, seriously, take some. Because you will cough. Everyone does.
And most of the time, it’ll just be a single cough, or a subtle
clearing of the throat, but once in a while, it’ll turn into an
unstoppable hacking, heaving, chest-constricting fit, and you need to
be prepared for that eventuality. We don’t use microphones in there, so
the hall you will be sitting in is built to be little more than a giant
echo chamber, and the people in the third tier really don’t have any
interest in your phlegm. Oh, you say you brought a bag of your own
cough drops? Throw them away, and take some of ours. Because you
brought the kind that come in individual crinkly cellophane wrappers,
that’s why, and if you start to unwrap one of them in the middle of a
soft passage, you’re going to hear the crinkle and freeze, and then
you’re going to try to open it really, really, really slowly, so that
the whole room is subjected to five minutes of tentative crinkling, and
there’s just an excellent chance that eventually, one of us in the
orchestra is going to snap and come into the crowd and beat you to
death with a bassoon, and it would suck if you were the one to have to
pay with your life for a hundred years of other people’s crinkling.
- Turn off your cell phone.
- Now turn it off again.
- We don’t care if you’re a doctor on call. Go see a damn movie.
If you’re staying here, the cell phone is off. Not set on vibrate, not
set to ring softly. OFF. Thank you.
- Upon entering the auditorium, the usher will hand you a
program book. This contains interesting information about the music
we’ll be playing. If it’s the Mozart and Beethoven, you can skip it
unless you really care a lot about the minutiae of composers’ lives.
Having known many composers, I can pretty much assure you that they are
very odd people, and the less you know about them, the more comfortable
you will be. However. If you took the daring route, and are attending a
performance of some seriously new music, you should glance over the
program notes, especially if the title of one of the pieces suggests
that there might be a story behind it. Sometimes, the story is pretty
cool, and sometimes, it involves really awesomely dark stuff like
murder and suicide and rape and so on, and you’ll honestly get a lot
more out of the big crashy, boomy sections if you know what’s supposed
to be going on.
- If the concert you have chosen includes a work with a chorus
or a solo singer, the program book may also contain several pages of
lyrics, both in the original language of the piece, and in English. It
is perfectly all right for you to follow along with these lyrics during
the performance. But do keep in mind that there are 2,499 other
concertgoers in this room with you, and they have all been given the
same program book as you, and it therefore stands to reason that they
will be coming to page turns at the same time as you. And while one
person turning a page is a relatively quiet operation, 2,500 people
doing it sounds like a flock of pigeons descending on a loaf of Wonder
Bread, and we don’t need that. It won’t kill you to turn the page a
little early or a little late. Just watch the people on either side of
you, and turn when they’re not. It won’t matter, since everyone else
will still be doing the pigeon thing, but you will be able to bask
quietly in the pride that comes with not being a clueless moron.
- By accepting the program book in the first place, you have
entered into an implicit agreement with the orchestra to keep it on
your lap. Because, due to an astonishing anomaly of acoustical law, a
32-page program dropped on a floor during a concert makes the same
amount of noise as the complete works of Shakespeare dropped off the
top of the Empire State Building onto a Chinese gong. You don’t want
- When the conductor walks out, you should applaud. You should
not shout "bravo," because he hasn’t done anything yet. What if he
sucks? You’d feel damned silly. Just a nice golf clap is all that’s
required at this point. And speaking of things that will make you feel
silly, the orchestra is going to stand up while he walks to the podium.
This is not a cue for you to do the same.
- If you wear a hearing aid, trust us: it’s working. If the
music sounds really, really soft, all of a sudden, it’s because we’re
playing really, really softly. Do not crank your hearing aid up to the
maximum, because (and we realize that you have no idea that this
happens) hearing aids turned up to the max emit a high-pitched squeal
that can be heard by every single person in the hall except you. The
music will get louder soon, and if it doesn’t, then it’s possible that
you need to face up to the reality that you are finally, truly deaf,
and concertgoing is probably not a wise expenditure of your retirement
- Please don’t talk while we’re playing. We know this seems
silly, and we know you believe you’re capable of whispering some witty
comment to your wife without disturbing anyone around you, but you’re
just wrong. The concert isn’t that long, and you’re really not that
funny, either, so just save it, okay?
- At intermission, you will see a small number of people who
have approached the stage and are talking to the musicians. You are
welcome to try this if you wish, but keep in mind that these are mainly
people we already know, and the ones we don’t generally get classified
in the ‘scary orchestra groupie’ category. If you’re cool with that
designation, c’mon up. We love to talk about ourselves.
- It is considered bad form to boo at an orchestra concert,
but I have no idea why. If it was an undeniably bad show, or if the
conductor had clearly mistaken ‘violent thrashing’ for ‘leadership,’ or
if the trumpets appeared to be more interested in giving you a migraine
than in playing their part nicely, and you can’t believe you paid good
money for it, go ahead and boo! Of course, many of your fellow patrons
will stare at you in horror, but honestly, we know when we’ve blown it,
and it would be somewhat refreshing to know that you know it, too.
- If you feel like cheering, that’s okay, too, but know that
the "WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" that you break out at the hockey game is
unlikely to be well-received here. Try shouting something that sounds
vaguely Italian in your deepest, most masculine voice. No one will dare
ask you what it means for fear of looking uncultured.
- After the concert, if you have occasion to speak to one of
the musicians, do not ask us what we think of the conductor. We are
unlikely to tell you the truth, and the question merely forces us to
construct an elaborate half-lie with a pained smile on our face when
we’re already very tired. And besides, we tend to hate almost all
conductors, regardless of their individual merits, and we are therefore
not reliable sources of accurate information on the subject. If you
liked him, that’s all that matters.
- And while we’re on the subject of questions we hate, do not
ask us if this is ‘all’ we do for a living, or if playing in an
orchestra is ‘really a full-time job.’ Yes, it is. And most of us gave
up our childhoods to get it, so we’d appreciate not being trivialized.
- That having been said, we honestly don’t mind talking to
you. We have performers’ egos, and your wanting to talk to us makes us
feel important, even if you just want to rant about how bad the world
premiere tuba concerto was, and how the rocket scientist next to you
took five minutes to unwrap a cough drop.
- If you came to the concert because a particularly famous
soloist was playing, and if you have made your way backstage in the
hope that said soloist might sign something for you, or at least listen
to you talk about how you used to take violin lessons when you were 10,
know that you will get a lot farther if you have a small child in tow.
And that goes double if the small child is carrying an instrument case.
So there you have it! The complete guide to becoming a knowledgeable
fan of the only form of live entertainment still kicking thirty years
after its death certificate was signed by every hack writer in the
Western world. We can’t promise you’ll come out of the experience a
better person, but we’ll do our best. And all cynicism aside, thanks
for plunking down your hard-earned dollars to watch us work. Because
most of us don’t really know how to do anything else, and believe me,
you don’t want egos like ours in the cubicle next to you.
– Sam Bergman