Concert Etiquette

by Edna Landau 

Dear Edna:

 I am a violinist in an Artist Diploma program at a conservatory and am currently preparing for some recitals, including my first in my home town. This includes thinking about what I am going to wear. I notice a trend among female violinists to wear strapless gowns and have heard that this is because the sound of the violin projects better when placed against the bare skin. I can’t help but think that they also believe it can’t hurt to look a bit sexy on stage since audiences like that. Is there a danger here of going overboard? —fashion conscious

 Dear fashion conscious:

 There most certainly is a danger of going overboard. Your main concern in a recital should be to display the musical gifts with which you have been endowed. Anything that causes the audience to divert their attention from that dilutes the impact of your performance and affects the memory of it that people carry away with them. Your chosen concert dress should certainly be elegant and show you off at your best. It should also be so comfortable and secure that you never have to think about it while performing. Nothing is more disconcerting than an artist on stage periodically pulling up a falling strap or the bodice of a dress that has slipped a little too low. You should also make sure that you are properly supported by more than your accompanist (!). My good friend and colleague, Monica Felkel, of Young Concert Artists suggests having someone video you beforehand in your concert dress, both playing and bowing. You will immediately be able to judge whether you are revealing more of yourself than you intended. When in doubt, err on the conservative side. You will undoubtedly still look beautiful and people will remember you for your artistry.


Dear Edna:

As a singer, I am often faced with the dilemma of whether to discourage audiences from clapping between movements of a song cycle. I realize that instrumentalists confront this issue as well but I think that there may be something particular about the mood that is established in a marriage of music and words that is easily shattered by applause after each song, some of which may be rather brief. Needless to say, all artists are grateful for a sign of appreciation from their audience but in this situation, it can be very challenging to sustain the flow of the entire work and not to lose one’s concentration. What do you think is the right thing to do? —D.L.

Dear D.L.:

Much has been written about this topic, ranging from a lively discussion on ( to a revelatory article by Alex Ross, entitled “Why So Serious?“. In that article he describes concerts in the 19th century during which audience members moved about and applause frequently broke out after individual movements, and sometimes even during them. The practice of withholding applause only became widespread in the early 20th century. There are many performers and music enthusiasts today who long for the spontaneity of the 19th century and advocate for easing up the formal concert behavior to which we have become accustomed. This is certainly reflected in the proliferation of alternative concert venues and more informal modes of dress.

My own feeling is that we should try not to alienate audiences by expressing displeasure when they clap between movements of a work, especially if the music reaches such a high level of excitement (for example, after the first movement of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto) that it is hard, and perhaps unnatural, to refrain from clapping. We want newcomers to classical music to come back for more and not to sit in fear that they will violate proper protocol. In orchestral circumstances, it might be possible for a conductor to hold off applause at a seemingly inappropriate moment by keeping his or her baton outstretched. However, when you are alone on stage with a pianist and feel strongly that people should refrain from clapping until the end of the work, I believe you have two options: 1) ask the concert presenter to print in the program that the artist would like to present this work as one continuous whole, without interruption, and respectfully requests that any applause be held until after the completion of the final song 2) you choose to speak to the audience just before this work, sharing a welcome insight about it, and then incorporate in your remarks your hope that should they enjoy your performance, they will choose to save up their applause for a hearty ovation at the end. One important note of caution: If you know you are performing for a highly knowledgeable and experienced concertgoing audience, it is better to take your chances and not opt for either of the above choices. You may still want to speak to them but you should avoid the caveat.

Copyright Edna Landau

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