Here’s something you don’t see at the symphony: crowd members holding up lighters or phones.

There’s a certain decorum expected at classical music concerts. Unlike at rock shows. Audiences have a different way to convey their appreciation, with polite applause at appropriate intervals. Which is why the reaction at one recent Mozart performance in Boston was so surprising.

The Handel and Haydn Society was nearing the end of their concert, when one patron yelled “Wow!” Everyone throughout the symphony hall heard it. Who was it?

To find out, David Snead, the president of the Handel and Haydn Society, e-mailed everyone in attendance. Snead wasn’t annoyed; he was intrigued.

It turns out that the exclamation came from a 9-year-old named Ronan. His grandfather, who had brought him, said that Ronan has autism and is usually non-verbal. The “Wow!” was out of character for him.

The story made the rounds online, and caught my eye. Is there anything wrong with symphony audiences breaking protocol to express their emotion?

Claques, claps and coughs

Nowadays, these audiences are expected to applaud only at the conclusion of a piece, not between movements. Audiences weren’t always that sedate. There was a time when audience members freely talked during concerts, and applauded whenever they wanted to. Some were downright rowdy.

Conventions changed. In the 18th and 19th centuries, France saw the emergence of claques. These were organized groups who were hired to clap at performances at theatres and opera houses. The idea was to influence the audience. Sort of like holding up an “applause” sign at a TV taping.

Fast forward to our modern etiquette. The Kamloops Symphony posted a Symphony 101 guide, and included a section called “When exactly do I clap?” They explained when to let loose and when to sit still, but added this caveat: “If you feel moved to applaud before one of these ‘allowed’ times, feel free to do so. Nobody on the stage is going to glare at you or try to make you feel bad. They’re probably going to be quite pleased to hear that you are enjoying the performance.”

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra has a similar guide online, and notes that “holding applause between movements is considered to be respectful of the performers’ concentration and mindful of musical continuity.” However, they add that “most artists appreciate applause at any time during a performance.”

The TSO also helpfully advises what to do if you need to cough: try to “bury” it in a loud passage of music, quietly exit the concert hall (if you’re coughing a lot), unwrap some lozenges in advance, or take cough medicine if you have a cold.

Incidentally, researchers have looked at the phenomenon of coughing during classical concerts, and conclude that it often happens intentionally. The Independent in the UK reported on a study showing that the average symphony concert-goer coughs at double the normal rate, i.e. twice what would be expected the rest of an average day. The volume of coughing increases during slower, quieter and more complex passages.

Possible reasons? One researcher concluded that the coughing is a way to demonstrate active participation, comment on the performance, document your presence or push unwritten boundaries of courtesy.

Testing the limits

There have been plenty of stories of audience members breaching those boundaries. Last year, Riccardo Muti, conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, stopped a performance after an audience member coughed loudly. Muti put down his arms, turned to face the audience and, according to someone who was there, muttered “It’s impossible.”

Cooler heads prevailed at one California performance of a Stravinsky piece, where a woman yelped during a timpani drum crash. She said she the noise woke her up from a state of what she called “meditative bliss”. The audience laughed; the conductor turned around and winked.

Then there was the concert-goer who yelled “Bravi!” during a moment of silence in a Mahler performance by the Berlin Philharmonic in London. The reviewer at The Guardian devoted his entire recap to the incident, writing that “There is no greater musical violence an audience member can commit than to scar this unique moment…with a selfish, solo shout…it’s musical hooliganism that’s psychopathic, narcissistic and destructive.”

I can’t comment. Everything I know about classical music and its etiquette came from Bugs Bunny cartoons. “The Rabbit of Seville”, “What’s Opera, Doc?” – now those are classic.

What I do know is that music, of any type, is supposed to move us. It moved Ronan in Boston. Which is why Snead did what he did when he learned who was responsible for the “Wow!” He arranged a private cello performance for Ronan as a thank you.

What was Snead’s first thought when he heard Ronan at the concert? “I was like, ‘That’s fantastic’. There’s a sense of wonder in that ‘Wow!’ He touched my life in a way that I’ll never forget.”

Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxmanconnect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at I would love to hear from you. More articles like this coming, with original posts every week about communications, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, etc., etc.

May 22, 2019

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