Ruining The Concert Experience For Newcomers


I was having a conversation last week with another arts industry expert who asked me, “What do you think is preventing people from coming to concerts?” I said it’s the perceived rules. There are assumptions that one must come dressed a certain way, assumptions that if one doesn’t know when to clap they are not worthy, and assumptions that if one doesn’t understand the music or its history, they are a less important and/or won’t enjoy it so why spend the money on a ticket.

These perceived rules do the opposite of inviting audience into the concert halls. But are they strict rules or merely social traditions?

Clapping between movements, for example, is debatable. But when a new audience member does just that, they are often looked at by fellow audience members in a fashion that can be perceived as shaming them. Why would that new audience member want to come back after being made to feel ignorant and not welcome?

Veteran audience members’ behaviors can be a surprising hurdle in getting new patrons to return to concerts. Their looks of disapproval at patrons who come underdressed (in the veteran’s opinion), looks of disapproval when clapping happens in the “wrong” spot, looks of disapproval when a new patron mispronounces a composer’s name or an orchestral work. These all make someone feel small.

In general, people want to feel intelligent, they want to feel like they belong, and that ultimately makes people feel invited and valued. Our industry does little to help this. Sure, we encourage people to “wear what you want!” and we offer clapping guidelines, but until we can unlock the peer relations of fellow audience members trying to boost their own self esteem by showing off how smart or better they are, there is not a super welcoming atmosphere.

Here is my suggested guideline (not rules) in helping welcome others to the arts:

  1. Music directors should take a more active role in guiding when to clap. Veterans and newbies alike will be on the same level then. For example: Tchaikovsky Symphony #6 has a notorious loud and fast third movement followed by a quiet and heartbreaking fourth movement. Many people want to clap between movement 3 and 4, many don’t know if it’s allowed. But can you imagine if the conductor stood on the podium before that work began and gave permission to clap and feel/express the energy after movement 3 and encouraged the audience to feel the despair as the 4th movement began? Or on the contrary, what if the conductor invited people NOT to clap after movement 3 to feel the palpable tension as we all waited, holding our breath for movement 4? Either example is acceptable, and it invites the audience into the process, into the experience in a more visceral and meaningful way. Nobody is left feeling the pressure of fitting in because the music director is directing the audience in addition to their orchestra.
  2. Executive directors need to find a creative way to help newcomers (and veterans for that matter) with noises during concerts. Talking, opening wrappers, eating food, and ringing cell phones can ruin an experience for so many. What would happen if there was a creative brainstorm to identify solutions to cleverly invite an audience to turn phones off, not unwrap candy, not talk, etc. One book I highly recommend helping groups creatively solve issues such as these is Yes, And by Kelly Leonard of Second City Chicago. This book should be on the shelves of every board member, staff member, and orchestra member. I highly recommend it!
  3. Audience members who are veterans should be reminded that they are supporting an artform they love. New people coming in are the lifeblood of the organizations, and future ambassadors of that art, if we’re all lucky. Veterans: cut people slack and be open and welcoming. Be grateful someone wants to experience or try the art you hold dear. Encourage without being patronizing. Everyone hears and experiences something differently. Your veteran ears and heart can be enhanced by someone else’s perspective and you, as an experienced concertgoer, should be seeking new ways to hear old music anyway!

The goal is simple, invite people in. Make it a welcoming atmosphere where everyone feels included and intelligent, and audiences will want to return again and again.

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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17 thoughts on “Ruining The Concert Experience For Newcomers”

  1. Would it help if the conductor at the beginning of the concert asked for hands of those in the audience who were at their first symphony and then asked regular concertgoers to welcome the newcomers?

    • In 2017 when we performed “Hercules vs Vampires,” the conductor did this. I think it broke the ice, and was a conversation starter for the audience. The newbies were welcomed and invited to return again. A shorter show in a more intimate venue, it was a great show for newbies. (Arizona Opera)

    • These “conventions” raise the bar for the uniniated. The German promoter and creator of classical music events, Folkert Uhde, founder of the Radialsystem in Berlin, recently said: Moses did not come down from the mountain carrying rules for concerts.
      Lets change the formats to something more lively – or the format will be gone …

      Here is a little anecdote that I observed some years ago at a sold out classical concert with about 1.000 people in the audience.

      The theme was “From Sultan to Mozart” and the Bremer Philharmonic Orchestra had invited a classical ensemble from Istanbul. First played the former, than the latter. Then both ensembles played jointly a Mozart Symphony. After the first movement: clapping from a few people in the audience. The elderly subscribers sushed them to their clapping. The conductor Markus Poschner turned around and said: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, we have guests tonite that are apparently not too familiar with customs here. That doesn’t matter to me at all. I am very happy to welcome you (looking at the few new members in the audience from the turkish community) and you may express your feelings any time you like. That shut up the subscribers.

      If any of the new audience members ever came back, I do not know. But I am sure the first reaction of the regular audience shocked the newcomers.

      Small wonder, that 9 out of 10 first time goers to classical music concerts never come back (study for the association of american orchestras a few years ago).

      I propose to read up an Aubrey Bergauers (formerly with the California Symphony Orchestra) post on developing new audiences.

  2. In history when Beethoven, Mozart, Donizetti and others were presenting their masterpieces in both Symphony and Opera, the audiences would become so appreciatively enthusiastic that not only applause but standing and shouts of bravo OFTEN came between movements – powerful emotions and approval had to be released to the musicians/conductor. Considered very acceptable and encouraging to the artists on stage, exactly what those artists hoped to convey.
    I am now resolved that anytime I hear the “misplaced” applause of a concert goer, I will join in with them so that they are not embarrassed to show their appreciation!

  3. The thing that is challenging here is, we can (mostly) control what our staff and volunteers do. But we can’t really control what our patrons do. Some feel they’ve paid for a ticket and that gives them the right to do what they want, which may include talking during the performance, or shaming people who don’t meet their standards for behavior. Which, perversely, might include people who really are doing something they shouldn’t, like talking during the performance!

    There’s a certain point where, you know, you can’t fix stupid. I can recall a situation a few years ago where we really didn’t want any cellphones to go off during the performance. It was Mahler 9. So in addition to our standard recorded announcement about “please silence your cell phone,” I went on stage and made a personal plea. I explained why it was important. I did it in what I felt was a gentle and humorous way. Hey, I got a laugh, so I know someone was listening. But sure enough, right in the middle of the performance, the guy seated RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME has his cell phone ring – and he answers it! As Dave Barry used to say, I swear I’m not making this up. At least it wasn’t the last movement.

    At this most recent season’s closing concert for my orchestra, same thing. Phone rings in the middle of a Mahler symphony – this time the 1st, last movement – and the guy answers it! Different guy – but get this – seated IN THE FRONT ROW, directly beneath the conductor! Who promptly stopped and performance and asked him to leave the theatre.

    The clapping between movements is tough. It’s subject to the same Murphy’s law as above – sure, the conductor can ASK that no one applaud between the 3rd and 4th movements of Tchaikovsky 6th, but that doesn’t mean everyone will listen.

    We get a lot of clapping between movements, but the problem is, if you really acknowledge it, you offend the people who don’t think there should be clapping between movements. So typically, the conductor may turn and give a pained grimace of sorts, but doesn’t have the orchestra stand, the way he/she does at the conclusion of a work. So what’s that? Are we acknowledging the applause, or just tolerating it? In my view, if the orchestra doesn’t stand, you’re not really acknowledging/encouraging applause.

    I think the challenge is that in 2019, most audiences would be more comfortable with music in shorter doses. The whole concept of sitting quietly through a multi-movement work and then applauding only at the end seems more and more fraught ever year. Over time, we may just have to say, every movement stands on its own, and the orchestra will stand and acknowledge applause after each one. We’re not there yet, but I think that may be where we’re headed.

    • I totally agree with what you say about music in shorter doses. Regarding the phone issue…I really wonder if a bunch of creative types sat down and did what Kelly Leonard mentions in his book, Yes, And, to see what solutions might come about. Clearly asking people is not working. Regarding the other items, talking, etc., I do believe that people would take direction if they were invited, at least I’d hope they would. And for those who keep talking or making a noise, hopefully an usher would be quicker to help. I really recommend Yes, And. I’d be curious if you find it interesting.

  4. Speaking of Tchaik – there’s the notorious break in the 4th movt. on a dominant B maj chord where applause breaks out before the final E maj section ending the symphony. Some conductors prevent this by rushing through the required rest, playing havoc with the rhythm. As an old fuddy-duddy former professional musician believing that the sonata form is an arc of the composer’s thoughts from the 1st movt through the last, I’m annoyed at any applause before the ending of a piece. There are many other examples of premature (ejaculation) applause – one of my biggest pet peeves is the end of Butterfy 1st act after the duet ends while a gorgeous orchestral section that actually closes the act is never heard over the applause.

  5. Interesting you chose to not include any ways musicians might help improve the experience. I’ll give it a shot;

    1) Musicians should smile and turn towards the audience during bows. Act like you enjoy what you are doing.
    2) Help management by volunteering to thank the sponsors before the concert. People want to see the artists as people.
    3) Go into the lobby after the concert and mingle with patrons. Ask about their experience.

    Musicians can go a long way in helping make first timers comfortable.

  6. Some observations…(1) Re: cell phones, many orchestras project a “reminder” slide/image on the rear wall of the stage, so as people enter to find their seats, they will read the warning notice. It should be repeated during intermission, since many people use their phones during the break and forget to switch them off when they return for the second half. (2) Re: applauding in between movements, all the conductor needs to do is turn slightly to face the audience, give a quick nod/smile, then continue. This way, he is not being rude plus the folks who clapped will realize that the piece is not yet over. (3) Re: making newcomers welcome, why not ask your current subscribers to be “ambassadors” and identify them with some sort of lapel pin or maybe a boutonnière (donated by your local florist, of course), to identify them as “ambassadors,” then announce from the stage for the newbies to seek them out.

  7. This may not be any universal solution, but sometimes a half solution can be improved upon. On the first night of the Peninsula Music Festival thsi Tuesday the board chairman, a very jovial guy, was on stage and made a few announcements and then said, “I have a survey question. How many of you are here at the festival for the first time?” When a surprisingly large number of people raised their hands, he said, “That’s great!” and started to give them a round of applause to which the audience and orchestra members joined in. The next night, he said. “I have a new survey question, “How many of you have already silenced your cell phones?” It got a laugh, but I think that it got the job done. I don’t think this would be acceptable at the Chicago Symphony, but in a more community setting, I thought it pretty helpful. (At my local professional orchestra budget–$800,000–that I’m a long-time board member, our announcer once said, “Unless your ring-tone is the Beethoven 7th Symphony, please silence your phone.” ) BTW, I am just a visitor at the Peninsula Music Festival.


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