28 Oct 2016

When to stifle a cough


A classical music concert can seem like a mystifying experience to an audience.

Everyone onstage looks like they are off to a meeting of Freemasons and there seem to be unwritten rules about where the audience is meant to participate or not.  Here are a few handy hints for deciphering what's going on:

Why does a lone violinist enter the stage after the rest of the orchestra and seem to want their own special round of applause?

This is the leader of the orchestra. He/she is the first of the first violins and gets their own dressing room. When a conductor has no technique, the leader of the orchestra will keep the show on the road.

Why does the orchestra stand when the conductor comes on stage?

This is meant to be a sign of respect towards the conductor, who will guide the orchestra on the journey through the concert. It doesn't look like it, but big orchestras do actually need conductors. They keep it together and help with all the awkward corners when things speed up or slow down.  Of course, with a conductor with no observable technique, see previous hint.

Should you clap between movements?

To clap or not to clap, that is the question.  Especially after the 1830s, symphonies were written to be appreciated as a whole, so often times applauding at the end of a movement is premature. It would be like applauding the end of a scene in a film simply because it had come to an end.  If the music is so exciting that you can't stop yourself clapping, then clap. The penultimate movement of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony sounds so final and so exciting, it's impossible NOT to clap. If Tchaikovsky didn't want applause, he shouldn't have written such exhilarating music.  The slow movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, however, ends in a very soft and serious manner, and you would no more applaud this than you would applaud a heartfelt speech at a friend's funeral. 

Should I cough at a concert?

Please don't. You wouldn't shoot a gun in the air, but some coughs sound just as loud in the concert hall. Stifle it, cough into your elbow or the armpit of your companion. And if you are going to cough, please pick a loud bit rather than a soft flute solo, and whatever you do, don't cough on a final chord. Your fellow audience members will love you for your restraint.

Photo: Conductor Guy Noble dusted off his tiara and pearls – and his best impression of the Queen – for our 2015 Last Night of the Proms concerts. Credit: Christie Brewster.