June 6, 2020

The etiquette box: The culture of classical music needs redress

It's time for classical music presenters to think outside the box


At Austin’s Central Presbyterian Church for a recital by world-renowned violinist and teacher Miriam Fried, I was immediately struck by a note in the program booklet. On one page of the sparsely written brochure, there was a short list of two pieces to be performed and the name of the artist. On the other page, a box highlighted a list of concert rules  — rules that ran much longer the list of music. The rules section was titled  “Concert Etiquette in a Box.”

The box listed the familiar procedures that everyone who has ever been to a classical concert is aware of on some level. Be quiet. Clap at this point in the music. Don’t clap at that point. Most presenters are a bit more understated in their presentation and don’t necessarily set off a rulebook in boldface type inside of an actual box.

But don’t dare think outside of that box.

To be fair, Fried’s Oct. 22 recital was different than most. It was the inaugural weekend for the Texas Strings Festival, newly evolved and expanded from the Texas Strings Camp which has been run for the past few years by Austin-based violinist Pasha Sabouri. Fried’s concert was more a lecture-recital, presented on the heels of a master class with the artist the previous day. Although there were a handful of people present who had heard about the concert through primarily radio advertisements, the audience was primarily middle and high school-aged students who were bussed in for the occasion. Most were from small underfunded Title 1 schools and it was clear from the students’ collective demeanor that these young people had been prepared for something memorable.

They were an excellent audience: engaged, interested and quiet, but not repressed. The atmosphere was completely appropriate given that we were in fact in a church hearing music by J.S. Bach, the ultimate church musician.

As I listened, I recalled the last time I was at a concert in Central Presbyterian Church, for an official South By Southwest music festival event. Queer singer/songwriter Stephin Merritt, best known as the guiding force behind the band The Magnetic Fields. The two occasions couldn’t be more different.

Merritt’s set, organized in alphabetical order, A to Z, started with a ballad about how the only girl he ever loved was a guy named Andrew, in drag. It was a quintessential only-in-Austin kind of event. Merritt’s deep, rich bass-baritone, decorated with an edge or late night whiskey drinking and cigarette smoking, was accompanied his own ukulele and a cellist as they performed against the backdrop of an alter, and surrounded by floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows. The audience listened with rapt attention.

During Merritt’s concert, I had the feeling that if I spoke out loud, or fidgeted with my phone, I wouldn’t necessarily get marched out by an usher, but that everyone around me would turn and hiss in my general direction. And yet there was no box of rules in the program.  It was strangely exhilarating.

After years of complaining to myself and anyone who would listen about the oppressive nature of classical music concerts — particularly those by symphony orchestras or opera companies — there I sat with just one question on my mind. Why don’t Merritt’s audience need a box of rules? Why wasn’t there an FAQ on the presenter’s website that suggested appropriate attire? (Did you know that just about every symphony orchestra and opera company seems to have such an FAQ on their website?)

Why did I not feel oppressed?

The answer lies somewhere in the satisfaction of being in a room full of people who have all tacitly agreed to come and have the same experience together: to sit and listen, passionately and intently, to that which we may never have the chance to experience again. At Merritt’s concert there was applause and laughter in between every single one of those 26 alphabetical songs. Did you know you weren’t supposed to do that at a classical concert? It’s against the “rules.” It’s outside the box.

“For me, that silence, that awkwardness, represented everything which is off with the culture around classical music.”

In Austin, how to dress for classical concerts — another rule laid out by the prevalent culture — is less of an issue than in some other cities. We’re laid back here and for the most part, people come as they are no matter what the occasion.

If you go to a concert by the Austin Symphony Orchestra, you’ll see a little bit of everything. At this season’s opening night concert, I sat in front of a couple in black-tie, but immediately behind them was a hipster in skinny jeans and a western shirt. I wore whatever I normally wear to concerts these days:  jeans because it’s Austin and a jacket because I’m now a man of a certain age.

The ASO audience clapped at the “right time,” but there was a rather pregnant pause at the end of the night at which point the conductor, Austin Symphony Music Director Peter Bay, quickly turned to the audience and quipped, “That’s it!”

For me, that silence, that awkwardness, represented everything which is off with the culture around classical music. That silence was the sound of repression and worry. And there was a gigantic question that resonated in that moment: Is it OK to clap now?

To my colleagues who work in classical music, I have a request. Let’s stop with the rules. If there is in fact something wrong with classical music, consider that it has everything to do with how we talk about it and nothing to do with anything else.

And, if you are hearing music by Bach in a church performed by an internationally-known soloist who has been performing this music for nearly seven decades, being reverential is OK, not snobby or elitist.

Likewise, some guidelines in the program may be entirely appropriate for a roomful of teenagers new to classical music-going.

But for an auditorium full of adult ticket buyers? Those adults paid good money for that ticket — let them show up and act however they want. They might actually come back.

Chris Johnson
Chris Johnsonhttp://www.kmfa.org/
Chris Johnson hosts Rideshare, the afternoon music program for KMFA, where he is also the station's Music Director. He previously worked for Houston Public Radio where, in addition to hosting a daily music program, he was a regular contributor to the station's daily arts magazine, The Front Row. He's been published in the Houston Chronicle, Indianapolis Star-Tribune, Arts + Culture Texas, and the Journal for the Society for American Music.


  1. I think the oppressive nature of classical concerts is overstated. In forty-five years of attending, I’ve worn everything from ripped jeans to a tux without feeling any hostility directed toward me. The need to remain quiet during the music is a given, part of the deal we make in attending a communal experience–I’d say the same applies at the theater or the movies, or ought to.
    The real point of contention is clapping between movements. I’d say there’s good reason not to do so: when such applause comes, it tends to be half-hearted, serving only to interrupt the concentration of the performers. It simply makes sense to hold off and give a proper ovation at the end, unless (as happens on occasion, usually with a concerto) a performance is so exceptional (and the ending of a movement so dramatic) that the applause comes naturally. Audience members who aren’t sure when to clap can follow the lead of those who do.

    • I agree the whole thing about “rules” at classical concerts is overstated – and the uptightness about these “rules” doesn’t usually come from classical music groups or institutions themselves. They desperately want people to come and to be moved; the only “rule” is the fairly obvious “don’t do something that will disturb or distract the people near you.”

      To me it seems misguided, if not actually disingenuous, for Chris Johnson to use concert etiquette guidelines printed in the program for a concert ** aimed at kids from under-resourced schools ** – most of whom, likely as not, had never been to an event like this before – and use it as a stick to beat classical concerts generally. Especially when Johnson uses, as his favorable comparison (i.e. no printed rules necessary), a SXSW concert where there was probably no one who’d never been to a concert before.

      By the way, the reason so many orchestras and opera companies have guidelines about what to wear to a performance in their website FAQs is that ** it actually is a frequently asked question. **

      There are plenty of people for whom “Wear whatever you want” is not an adequate answer: they’ve never been to a classical performance, don’t know what to expect, and don’t want to look or feel clueless. So the orchestras and opera companies offer them a clue.

      Three years ago a classical blog (belonging to the very bright and articulate concertmaster of the Chattanooga Symphony) offered some real advice on what to wear to an orchestra concert if you genuinely have no idea.
      Three years later, I *still* occasionally see in my inbox a comment thanking the author for those guidelines.

  2. As a professional classical orchestral musician for over three decades I’d like to refute some of your statements. Many orchestras are offering a variety of experiences: We have a group playing at craft beer locations, we have informal chamber music concert after symphony concerts, we have concert for little children where the kids sit on stage and get a hands on experience with instruments, we have casual classical concerts where there is commentary and believe me a lot of joking and laughing, we also have young people’s concerts which are also informal and fun for the kids who are bussed in.

    My point being that one can get fun, loud, informal programming where ever we want but there is only one place to go for the great symphonic literature played at a highly artistic level. Throughout our society there are places where one wants to experience some reverence some occasion to meditate deeply, some contemplation, some respite from the hectic bustle of daily life. A symphony orchestra concert can offer a depth of experience, which can reach into one’s soul. Why not make it unique?
    In my experience no one has ever been banished for clapping in the wrong place, for wearing torn jeans, or for smiling. The orchestra world is working on being more inclusive. I am sorry that someone felt it necessary to publish a list of “rules” when I perform whether it’s a chamber concert in my home or on the stage of Orchestra Hall when I move someone to tears I feel that I have made a difference in someone’s life!


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