After publishing the articles What to Wear to the Symphony and When to Clap at the Symphony, there were a flood of comments questioning why these topics were even relevant. For When to Clap, there were comments saying, “Whatever! Everyone already knows this!” And for What to Wear, “Wear what you want. End of discussion.”
But it’s not the end of the discussion and not everyone knows this! Of the many reasons I wrote those two articles, one of them was the enormous volume of search terms that kept coming up when I would check my website traffic. Most popular search terms were: “What do I wear to a symphony concert” and “How do I know when to clap.”
What is obvious to musicians and regular classical music connoisseurs is definitely not obvious to others. Many musicians and regular concert goers left some rather terse comments on both my Facebook posts and on the articles themselves. But treating these questions with such tossed off comments as if everyone should automatically know or instinctively understand is just one more way potential audiences can get pushed away.
There is no such thing as stupid questions, only stupid answers. That is something most everyone has heard, yet the manner in how some questions are answered can be off-putting. For my article, What to Wear at the Symphony, one person wrote: “Wear what you want. End of discussion.” This may have been an exasperated music expert tired of the discussion, but future audience members are actually asking these questions. They should never be shut down, shut out, or made to feel like they ought to know something. Simply keep quiet or answer the question without the snark!
Over the past couple years I’ve collected some really awesome questions from audience members that offer a fresh and unique perception or perspective. Here are some that caught my attention:
1) Why is the timpani player smelling his drums?
It took me a while to understand what this audience member was asking. But looking back at the timpani, I saw exactly what she was asking. The timpanist was putting his ear close to the drum heads, tapping lightly and trying to retune the drum while the orchestra was playing. But looking at it through an audience perspective, it did look like he was smelling his drums. His face (especially his nose) was right next to the drum head.
2) Why are the string players’ hands quivering?
This must look very strange for those who are new to the symphonic scene. Looking again with different eyes, I was astounded how much a section of violinists left hands can look like birds doing a strange ritualistic mating dance. The quivering, or vibrato, is a way to round the sound and create a more beautiful texture. The opposite effect of leaving the hands still creates a different color. Perhaps it would be interesting to demonstrate the difference in some family concerts.
3) What are the white rags under the violinists’ chins? It looks so gauche against the black outfits.
Many violinists and violists choose to add a bit of protection from the chinrest rubbing against their necks. Skin is fragile and some people break out or have allergic reactions if they don’t have a barrier between their neck and instruments. I never had an issue with a white cloth until seeing this through the audience’s eyes. Is it possible to coordinate cloths to concert black? Yes.
4) Why is nobody looking at the conductor?
Admittedly, this does look suspect from the audience point of view. After all, why have a conductor if nobody is staring up at him or her during the concert? Occasionally this topic comes up and some conductors even go one step further showing how their orchestra can play without them. As when driving in a car, focus is on so many things at once. The road and other cars are essentially our music parts. The conductor is our GPS and radar detector, metaphorically of course. The point is, peripheral vision is a must to make music.
5) In between movements, the clarinets, oboes, or French horn players take apart their instruments. Why?
If one is used to listening to a recording with multiple movements, there is only a slight pause between each movement. But during live performances there is a ballet of sorts that takes place between movements. Wind players disassemble their instruments to swab out condensation, release the water, and reset for the next movement. Sometimes it adds extra time between movements, and since nobody else is generally moving that much on stage, wind players catch more attention during the pause.
6) Why is the concertmaster late?
It does look dubious when the most visible seat is unoccupied when the concert is set to start. I’ve even overheard some audience members in big cities remarking about how funny it was everyone applauded for the late musician. The lateness of the concertmaster is just another way audiences know the concert is starting and gives an extra minute to silence cell phones while the orchestra tunes.
7) It looks like the trombones are sleeping!?
I’ve seen this too! Going to the orchestra concerts as a kid, I use to joke about it with my brother. But for brass players who may not play a single note for 45 minutes, sometimes closing their eyes and listening to the music keeps them focused. While it may look disrespectful, it is never (usually) done with malice. Some musicians also don’t like staring at the conductor or colleagues for extended periods of time and find staring at their own feet difficult on their necks. Most important after a lengthy period of time of sitting without playing is entering with the right pitch and style. It is not easy! Take pride in your orchestras when the brass players nail their first entrance after sitting for so long. It’s much harder than one would expect.
8) Is there a reason you wear black mostly?
To some, what seems like a classy color may seem dark and depressing to others. We generally wear black so there is some uniformity on stage. Additionally there is a better focus if everyone on stage is dressed in the same color. Black just happens to be the most agreed upon color at the moment. There’s always room for discussion about different uniform options and different levels of formality, but what most musicians have in closets is black formal. To change that could cost a lot to the musician, and typically, while partially a tax write off, required uniform or dress is not reimbursed by the orchestra.
To those who know a lot about orchestras: Don’t treat any question as a stupid one, and please don’t answer with any hint of condescension or feigned surprise. Look forward to the questions because these questions keep you better connected to a preservation of something you love. These questions prove there is an active interest in the symphonic arts and there is a new concert goer in your presence.
To those who hesitate asking questions: Ask! And keep asking. Be bold and ask because people close to something they know well need gentle reminders that others are trying to understand and appreciate an art form in which they have grown to love themselves.
The photo above is The Chattanooga Symphony & Opera’s excellent principal timpanist, Colin Hartnett.