How To Alienate Your Audience in 10 Easy Steps: Audiences


A satirical look at how regular concert goers negatively impact the future of classical music.

An engaged, enthusiastic, and diverse audience is one of the strongest measurements for justifying an orchestra’s value. During my years as a violinist in various orchestras around the country, I have witnessed audiences lose their enthusiasm for live concerts and turn their backs to orchestras as the result of behavior not just from those inside the ensemble but from those around them.

After covering music directors, musicians, and managements, this is the final installment which looks at how audience members are alienated at classical music concerts. There is only one group remaining and it is only appropriate to shine the light on how the existing audience members alienate each other. And while I’ve never encountered all of offenses below at a single concert, although they have all happened more than they should, they have been compiled into one big list. I have witnessed all of these from both the stage AND as a patron and in the spirit of stopping the madness, here’s the step-by-step guide on how audience members can help identify – and hopefully break – the cycle of alienation.

 Wear your coronation outfit.

Going to a symphony concert is your time to show the world why you matter. You embody the wealth and attitude that others envy so don’t skimp on anything! From head to foot you should be utterly decedent. Only when the lady owns a tiara, sequin ball gown, fur coat and all of the accoutrements is she truly ready. For gentlemen, mirror the lady’s outfit in a masculine way. When entering the hall, be sure not to use the coat check for the lady; what a pity it would be for the mass public to miss appreciating such a fine fur coat.

While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to look nice or dress up for a concert, it isn’t necessary to go overboard. There are some people that go to a concert to be seen, that’s fine as long as there is an understanding that some people actually go to concerts to hear the music. Coat checks aren’t there for merely for convenience and since big, heavy coats absorb sound (especially full length fur coats) and have a negative impact on how a hall sounds, it is strongly recommend that you take advantage of the service. While symphony orchestras seem to nickel and dime people, the couple of bucks invested on coat check is a worthy option to create more personal space. In fact, the more progressive venues provide the service free of charge!

Leave your mark.

Be certain to use extra sprays of cologne or perfume before leaving your house. Your signature scent will haunt and intrigue all. Even when you leave your seat for intermission, you really never left. Perhaps, if anyone is lucky, your special bouquet will travel home with them, and inspire them to be more like you.

Simply put, there’s a reason why so many workplaces have fragrance policies. Some concertgoers may have allergies and many more simply don’t want to smell anything overpowering in public places. If you hear much coughing or sneezing in your vacinity, you might just be the reason. So unless you plan on buying an entire section worth of seats to create an appropriate buffer zone, keep the perfume to a minimum.

Don’t take cough medicine.

Everyone knows that most cough medicines can dull the senses and/or make you sleepy so skip the tussin. Don’t worry about cough drops either, they just leave a funny taste in your mouth.

Nothing ruins a sweet moment in the music like someone hacking up a lung so most venues offer free cough drops at key points throughout the hall. If they aren’t easy to find, ask any usher. My favorite cough drop is Ricola. Not only does Ricola work extremely well, many varieties are wrapped in a waxed paper, which is quiet when unwrapping and will help you feel less self conscious. At the very least, if there aren’t any cough drops around, try coughing into your arm or a handkerchief. If you can’t stop coughing, leave until you can control it.

Only you can hear your noises.

When the orchestra is playing, you won’t be heard opening a candy wrapper or sharing a witty remark about how you heard that the oboe player is going through a nasty divorce. Even when the orchestra is playing softly, the hall is certainly built to carry sound toward the audience not the other way around so your sound will stay with you.

If you must open candy with a crinkly wrapper do so at an appropriate moment when the music is very, very loud. Of course, this means you’ll need to know the music and if the work isn’t familiar then you probably don’t need that candy in the first place. For those daring to throw caution to the wind, you’ll inevitably get caught opening it up during a grand pause and I can guarantee you’ll feel foolish.

And do we even need to mention that chatting is entirely unacceptable, regardless of the music’s volume. The best way to share your witty thoughts is to save them for intermission. That way, you’ll have something to talk about while you are waiting in the ridiculously long line for the restrooms.

Leave the cell on for emergencies.

While it is recommended you turn your cell phones, pagers, and watch alarms off that only applies to the unimportant. After all, what if your broker needs to contact you about a sudden change in your investments? If a guilty conscience tells you to turn keep the ringer volume down, it shouldn’t prevent you from using the text feature of your iPhone or Blackberry. And really, who can hear the sound of your fingers tapping on a tiny screen, text away!

The best thing for cell phones, Blackberrys, and iPhones, is to have them turned off. Silent, vibrate, or any other sound reduction feature DOES NOT QUALIFY AS “Off.” Having devices powered down reduces the temptation to check texts and other messages that will undoubtedly disturb those seated to either side. While texting would seem innocuous enough, the light alone will rob your fellow patrons from total emersion into the concert.

Perfect the judgmental stare.

Whether it is before the concert starts or at intermission, be sure to scope out those who are beneath you. People need to be taught a lesson, if they aren’t dressed as you dress yourself, you need to scold them silently with a well practiced stare. When staring, be sure to look down then up so that it is not a mistake you noticed the jeans or scuffed up shoes. Shame on them for disgracing society with that kind of public appearance. Also, be certain to correct these people at a moment’s notice. If you over hear someone say, “I really like the TchaiCOWsky,” be sure to walk up and say, “It’s pronounced TchaikOFFsky dear.”

Sometimes there is a temptation to prove or share your knowledge. Even if you are a seasoned concertgoer, it is never nice to correct a newbie concertgoer unless it is requested. If the newbie finds a love of “TchaiCOWsky”, it is likely they will search out more of his works and soon find the proper way to pronounce it. As for attire, concertgoers should wear what is comfortable in the hall and there are no “wrong” outfits. The thought that a newbie might not come back to a concert because they felt self conscious about how they were dressed makes me sad. Instead, I’m happy they feel we’re important enough to buy a ticket and come back for more concerts.

Keep impressing your peers.

Chit-chat before and after a piece lets you express your handel…oh sorry, handle on the subject of classical music and your local symphony. Be sure to share your thoughts on the pieces to be performed: “I had rather hoped they would have stopped programming TchaikOFFsky, it is becoming so pedestrian as of late.” Or after a piano concerto is performed, shake your head in udder disappointment and say, “I know she/he has technique, but so does a computerized piano. I had rather hoped for some more soul.” Adding the desire for soulful playing undermines any of your peer’s amazement of the technique.

Nobody really likes a showoff and ultimately, good manners are all about making others feel comfortable. Honest feelings about a performance or composer can really generate stimulating conversations but giving fake airs to appear more cultured is such a turnoff.

Shush like you’ve never shushed before!

Once the concert starts, keep a lookout for people whispering, taking cell phone calls, coughing, and flipping through programs (although it’s just fine if you need to – you’re important). Your duty is to shush these ingrates in a way that everyone in your seating area knows that you are a hero, a true protector of the art of classical music.

Never make a huge deal about a rude patron. One of the reasons ushers are around is to deal with rude patrons in an appropriate way. If a patron won’t stop chattering or making noise and an usher isn’t aware, alert them during the intermission. Making a shushing scene will only ruin the moment more than the chatter you’re trying to control.

Be THE clapper.

To truly share your wealth of knowledge of classical music, you need to prove that you, and ONLY you, know when the end of a piece is. Especially quiet pieces like the soul reaching Barber’s Adagio for Strings,  the heartbreaking finale to TchaikOFFsky’s Pathetique Symphony, or the awe inspiring Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony. Probably the best time to start the clap is before the notes have decayed too much, so that it is acknowledged by all that you were the most touched. If for some reason, someone beats you to the punch, it is your duty to be the first to stand for the ubiquitous standing ovation. Regardless if the performance was not up to your standard.

Arguably, there is no such thing as a precise moment when applause should commence. Nevertheless, common sense will be your best guide. If the last piece is super loud, super exciting, and you are 99% sure the concert is coming to an end, it is probably safe to clap while the sound is still trailing off. If you are positive the piece is complete but it is quiet, digest the last taste of music. Let it sit for a minute, and breathe. Count backwards from 50, and then maybe start clapping. If it is a piece in memorial honor of someone, just don’t clap until the conductor starts to turn around to face the audience.

The first one out of the hall and to the car wins!

The race is on, get to the car ASAP! First one out of the concert hall wins so shove, push, whatever it takes, leave while the ordinary saps are still acknowledging the performance with ovations and much applause.

If you have behaved poorly through the concert (See 1-9), then you should run like the wind to your car. Otherwise, stay and share the applause with your fellow concertgoers.

In conclusion, the audience is the most important component to classical music. Period. If there is nobody to appreciate the art, all that is left are musicians and academics stroking their own egos. After all, the relationship between musicians and audience members isn’t one-sided, instead, we’re partners.

About Holly Mulcahy

After hearing Scheherazade at an early age, Holly Mulcahy fell in love with the violin and knew it would be her future. She currently serves as concertmaster of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra. She spends her summers at the celebrated Grand Teton Music Festival. Believing in music as a healing and coping source, Holly founded Arts Capacity, a charitable 501(c)3 which focuses on bringing live chamber music, art, artists, and composers to prisons. Arts Capacity addresses many emotional and character-building issues people face as they prepare for release into society. Holly performs on a 1917 Giovanni Cavani violin, previously owned by the late renowned soloist Eugene Fodor, and a bespoke bow made by award winning master bow maker, Douglas Raguse.

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6 thoughts on “How To Alienate Your Audience in 10 Easy Steps: Audiences”

  1. Ahh, how could you neglect my personal favorite?

    Don’t forget to bring your infant, who might enhance the performance by babbling, cooing, or crying! And don’t take your wailing infant out of the concert hall! Everyone loves babies, right?

    I’ve seen it (and heard it) at least three times at different formal orchestra concerts.
    Why, oh why, didn’t the ushers step in?

  2. Fabulous article, holly!! But let’s not forget the uber-important audience members who find it necessary to loudly conclude their conversations during the magic moments of silence after the conductor raises his/her stick, but before the music starts. Loud audience remarks at this point are always very helpful in getting both conductor and musician to really focus, and are hugely appreciated. And although rare, did we mention loud post-dinner belching and farting from the first rows during dramatic pauses in pianissimo passages? Those are nice. And finally, here’s one unique to ballet and opera conductors, who are conducting in the orchestra pit . . . and get a tap on the shoulder from the (usually) oldish lady who has insisted on buying a front row center seat, and would appreciate it if the maestro would turn off his/her music stand lighting and conduct in darkness . . . or even better, to please just move . . . as she can’t see the dancers/singers on the stage because of the conductor and his/her bright light. All true, and unfortunately, NOT satire!!!! 🙂


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