“We should welcome applause whenever it comes.”
– Emanuel Ax, pianist (The Musician’s Way, p. 183)
Should audiences at classical concerts only applaud according to strict rules of etiquette?
I’d say no. Listeners should applaud when they feel like it.
Nonetheless, countless people are baffled by the applause practices at classical performances to the point where they find concertgoing to be an awkward experience.
Confusion about Applauding at Classical Concerts
Here’s what President Obama had to say about this topic at a 2009 concert at the White House:
“Now, if any of you in the audience are newcomers to classical music and aren’t sure when to applaud, don’t be nervous. Apparently, President Kennedy had the same problem. He and Jackie held several classical-music events here, and, more than once, he started applauding when he wasn’t supposed to.
So the social secretary worked out a system where she’d signal him through a crack in the door to the cross-hall. Now, fortunately, I have Michelle to tell me when to applaud. The rest of you are on your own.”
I don’t think that audiences should feel awkward about when to applaud. It’s up to us performers to lead from the stage such that concertgoers know what’s expected of them and, concurrently, they can let go of inhibitions and not stifle an urge to show their appreciation.
In other words, we need to be able to inform our audiences about when to clap and also be adept at graciously handling outbursts of applause.
The confusion over applause primarily surrounds whether listeners should clap between the movements of multipart compositions, so I’ll focus on that issue.
How can we performers inform audiences about the applause convention we have in mind?
Printed programs won’t suffice because not everyone is inclined to read a program.
Instead, our on-stage presentation itself should be the source of applause cues.
So, when we perform for listeners who might be unsure when to clap, we can use both verbal and non-verbal communication to clear the air.
We might announce before we perform, but, regardless, our musicianship, body language, and stage deportment should signal what we want.
If an effusion of applause interrupts, though, I concur with Emanuel Ax: We should warmly accept such applause and show our gratitude with a nod.
The Concensus Grows
Classical pianist Stephen Hough opined on this subject in a 2009 piece for The Telegraph, “Clap between movements? Please!” He says, “There are certain movements in the repertoire that absolutely demand applause.”
On March 8, 2010, author and music critic Alex Ross gave a talk in London for the Royal Philharmonic Society titled, “Hold Your Applause: Inventing and Reinventing the Classical Concert.”
Ross reveals how concert etiquette has evolved over time and questions whether present-day practices straitjacket listeners. He concludes, “What I would like to see is a more flexible approach, so that the nature of the work itself dictates the nature of the presentation—and, by extension, the nature of the response.”
Note that neither Ross nor I advocates for a particular applause convention. As I see it, there’s no one “right” way to handle applause at concerts because there’s no “right” way to feel about a composition. Nor is there one superior manner of concert presentation.
Every Performer’s Responsibility
Whatever genre of music we perform, we should modify our presentation style to fit our repertoire, stage personality, the venue where we appear, and the public before us.
Sound simple? I suppose that it will be, as soon as we musicians make it so.
For guidelines to refine your stage presence, see p. 171-189 of The Musician’s Way.
Related posts can be found under the category Stage Presence.
© 2010 Gerald Klickstein
Photo licensed from Shutterstock