Concert Etiquette: The New Rules

Chatting over coffee one day, the Southbank Centre’s Director of Music Gillian Moore told a surprising story: over the years she had been harassed by audience members for supposedly displaying bad classical concert behaviour. If an international figure on the classical music scene could be made to feel uncomfortable in her own concert hall, is it any wonder that first timers are intimidated by the unwritten rules of concert etiquette? I commissioned Gillian to write Concert Etiquette: The New Rules


by Gillian Moore

Concert etiquette screen grab

One evening in the not-too-distant past, I was in my usual seat in the Royal Festival Hall listening to a wonderful concert. For this particular concert, a great orchestra was being conducted by one of the world’s top conductors in one of the most popular concertos in the repertoire. The soloist was also an A-lister, giving a performance which was at once daring and polished. It was one of those times when I was able to do the mental calculation of offsetting the long and unsocial hours of my job against the enormous privilege of being paid to sit and listen to music like this, night after night.

In the seat next to me that evening was a good friend who happens to be a well-known figure in the London music business. Like me, she was at the concert in a professional capacity, doing her job. But, as soon as the music started we were both, like everybody else in the room, caught in the spell of this incredible music making. A few times we exchanged a smile or a look at another particularly pyrotechnic or especially affecting passage.

We both felt humiliated and upset, told off like naughty schoolgirls

But in the split second between the closing flourish of the concerto and the audience erupting in a roar of approval, we got a rude shock. The woman in the seat behind vigorously poked my friend on the shoulder. ‘You were moving your head up and down during the music,’ she said. ‘You need to learn to behave in concerts, or stay at home!’ Despite being seasoned, professional concert-goers – ladies of a certain age with a degree of hard earned confidence – we both felt humiliated and upset, told off like naughty schoolgirls. My friend stared resolutely ahead, blinking rather too deliberately, and I had to decide what to do.

Unfortunately, this incident was just the latest in a series I’d experienced in the preceding months. There was the time when I was angrily told to stop talking when, during the last few moments of audience hubbub as the orchestra walked onstage, I was explaining something about the music to some eager and concentrated A Level music students beside me. Then there was the occasion when a man took the trouble to reach across several seats to give me a poke in the shoulder and a thunderous look during a free, informal open rehearsal of Mendelssohn’s Elijah in the Royal Festival Hall, after I’d got out my mobile phone so that I could follow the text. Classical music can be a bruising business – protective shoulder pads are advised.

The rebuke was way out of proportion

Much more seriously, there was the case where a young girl who had been involved in a joint Barbican/Southbank Centre education project with Sir Simon Rattle was reduced to tears by a fellow audience member who comprehensively, loudly and lengthily reprimanded her for taking a snap of Sir Simon as he took his bow at the end of the concert. Yes, there are good reasons why photography is not allowed in venues, but this 12-year-old didn’t know otherwise, and the rebuke was way out of proportion. Sir Simon got wind of the incident and took the trouble to write to the girl and apologise afterwards. Perhaps she’ll be back; perhaps not.

On the occasions where I had been the direct object of the disapprobation, I’d simply swallowed my humiliation and moved on. But after the alleged head-bobbing incident, I took a deep breath and out it came: the speech I’d rehearsed in my head over the years but never dared utter. ‘Madam, I’m sorry if you think we spoiled your enjoyment, but I think your complaint is wholly unjustified. We were simply enjoying the music. It so happens that my friend and I are here in a professional capacity and we will be back. But we could easily have been first-time concert-goers, and you would have put us off for life. I would politely request that you think about the effect of your own behaviour on other audience members in future.’

It’s not a straightforward issue, and I admit to mixed feelings myself

Now, as I write this article, I’m trying to calculate the percentage of people reading it who will be on the side of the shoulder-pokers. I’d guess it will be a significant number. It’s not a straightforward issue, and I admit to mixed feelings myself. I really don’t like people talking during the music, even if that’s what happened in Mozart’s day, and I have to work hard at being forgiving when a mobile phone goes off in the hall (although I will confess that it has, just once, happened to me, in a most spectacularly embarrassing way). And – pet hate – I become murderous at those people who shout ‘bravOH!’ before the last sound has faded, just to show that they know the music. For the record, head-bobbing has never bothered me.

Sartre said that Hell is other people. Yes, going to a concert certainly involves the messy, sometimes noisy business of being up close and personal with other human beings. But that’s surely the joy of it: the collective experience is one of the reasons that we brave all weathers and leave the comfort of our living rooms and noise-cancelling headphones. For me, one of the most thrilling aspects of a live concert is experiencing a huge number of people listening together to one thing, from the loudest climaxes to moments of silence.

Research suggests that many people are put off coming to classical concerts because they don’t know the rules. There are many initiatives, like the OAE’s award-winning Night Shift, which have tried to relax those rules, while some orchestras and venues publish friendly guides: what to expect, what to wear, when to clap and when not to (the jury is still out on that one).

Here are my own alternative rules for classical concerts.

1. Love the experience of sitting in a comfortable seat with no distractions, listening to glorious music for an hour or two.
2. If you don’t know the music, read up about it on the internet beforehand, or arrive early, get a drink and buy a programme. The more you put in, the more you get out.
3. When the music is playing, stay as silent as possible: there are often a lot of very quiet moments.
4. Check, double-check and check again that your mobile phone is switched off.
5. When the music stops, clap if you want to. There is a convention not to clap between movements, but it’s not a strict one.
6. Wear what you like.
7. Be nice to the person sitting next to you, even if they break one of the rules above. This might be their first concert.

Gillian Moore is Director of Music at London’s Southbank Centre. The 2015/16 classical music season begins on 23 September.

This content was first published on Sinfini Music, reproduced with permission, Universal Music © 2015