How to Be an Elitist Snob in 20 Easy Steps
When people ask me what it’s like to play in a symphony orchestra for a living, I generally respond that it’s just like everyone else’s job, with all the office politics, boring meetings, and meddling middle management, except that the last few hours of the work week take place on stage, in formalwear, with 2,500 people watching to see if you screw up. That having been said, it is a job which a great many people pay to watch us do, and this gives rise to certain, shall we say, specialized areas of concern.
As you may have heard, the classical music biz has been going through a bit of a crisis for the last few, um, decades. Entire books have been written declaring that our industry has, in fact, ceased to exist, or is at least in the final convulsing spasms of near-death. The fact that the authors of such cheery tomes are almost invariably self-promoting idiots who wouldn’t know a business plan if it walked up and bit ’em in the ass doesn’t change the basic perception that classical music is something of a dinosaur. Which, of course, it is. I mean, the whole point of an orchestra’s existence is wrapped up in the fact that we spend a great deal of our time playing music that everyone has heard before. (Of course, this differs from the careers of Tony Bennett and Bruce Springsteen not at all, and nobody’s writing books declaring them to be dead.) But one of the more ludicrous facts of life in 21st-century America is that no one takes you seriously as an entertainer if your core audience is rude enough to sport an average age above 24, and, let’s face it, most people don’t make the switch from Weezer to Wagner until a lot later than that. In fact, I suspect that a case could be made that the majority of classical music fans begin listening when they get old enough to feel embarrassed at rock concerts, and then decide that some of this Beethoven stuff might not be too bad, and is undeniably less likely to result in a drug arrest or a sprained back.
Consequently, the audiences who show up at our concerts tend to be a rather interesting cross-section of elderly diehards, middle-aged converts, and college music majors, with a sprinkling of squirmy high-school boys who think they’re impressing the taffeta-wrapped female specimens next to them with their grasp of high culture. (They aren’t, but who are we to point this out? They’re buying tickets, and the girls always seem to get something out of the music, even if the boys have zero shot of getting anything out of them in return.) And while there is a certain percentage of this audience for whom the routine of a symphony concert is old hat, most people seem to have a hard time knowing how to go about being a good audience member. It’s really not that complicated, but, like anything else in life, it’s not gonna feel natural until you’ve done it a few times. And how are you supposed to do it a few times when no one ever tells you what ‘it’ is?
With that in mind, I am pleased to present the following handy set of answers to any questions you might have about the orchestral concert experience, plus a few you haven’t thought of yet. On behalf of the world’s symphony orchestras, I thank you for your attention to these guidelines, and hope that they may alleviate any ‘concert stress’ you may have previously experienced.
- Before buying your tickets, for God’s sake, check to see what we’re playing. Being a fan of the genre writ large does not obligate you to like everything we do, and a boatload of in-concert grimacing could be prevented by a cursory glance through the program book before you get in line at the box office. If you often find yourself humming Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ while unloading the dishwasher, you might want to think twice before shelling out a couple hundred bucks for great seats to a world premiere by a composer described in the program book as ‘controversial’ and ‘challenging.’ On the other hand, if you’ve been to a handful of concerts featuring Bach, Brahms, or Haydn, and have
frequently had trouble staying awake in the slow movements, new music may just be your thing, even if you’ve never considered it before. Glance through the schedule, keeping an eye out for such key phrases as ‘programmatic’ or ‘percussion concerto,’ and take a chance. And finally, if your favorite classical masterworks are available on albums with names like ‘Acoustic Landscapes,’ or are frequently heard at weddings, really, save your money for the next Josh Groban concert. Pachelbel’s Canon just isn’t what we do.
- Reading a review of a concert is not generally a good way to find out if you will like it. Critics tend to be failed musicians, or at the very least, music history majors (which amounts to the same thing,) and frequently harbor some pretty dark views of the whole business. Furthermore, most critics have been cowed over the years into declaring every new musical work as a thing of utter genius, especially if it’s completely impenetrable to human ears, the theory being that if we can’t understand it, it must be because there’s something wrong with us. There are some excellent critics out there, but the bottom line is that usually, they’re giving you their opinion without giving you any frame of reference as to where your tastes do or do not coincide with theirs. It’s like deciding whether a Red Sox game is worth your money based on a Yankees’ beat writer’s recap of yesterday’s game.
- When getting ready to go to the concert, think for a minute about what you want to wear. If you’re a man, your suit from work is fine, if you’re really comfortable in it, but your favorite pair of khakis and a polo shirt might be a lot less constricting when you consider that you’re going to be sitting in one place for a couple of hours. And honestly, very few people dress up for concerts anymore in most American cities, and no matter how casually you dress, there’s almost guaranteed to be some college kid who got assigned this concert by his music history prof sitting two rows in front of you, and he’s going to be dressed like he’s going duck hunting, so seriously, comfort first, okay? Women, you too. This is not the place for your rustling silk prom gown. Do you see the women on stage wearing elaborate dresses with ruffles and huge shoulders and plunging necklines? No, you do not, and a good general rule of thumb is that you should not be more formally dressed than the people holding the instruments. Because trust me, we are not comfortable, and you should be.
- When you arrive at the concert hall, you may be forced to hang around in the lobby for a while before the house is opened. During this period of time, you may notice large boxes full of cough drops positioned strategically next to the doors to the auditorium. Take some. No, seriously, take some. Because you will cough. Everyone does. And most of the time, it’ll just be a single cough, or a subtle clearing of the throat, but once in a while, it’ll turn into an unstoppable hacking, heaving, chest-constricting fit, and you need to be prepared for that eventuality. We don’t use microphones in there, so the hall you will be sitting in is built to be little more than a giant echo chamber, and the people in the third tier really don’t have any interest in your phlegm. Oh, you say you brought a bag of your own cough drops? Throw them away, and take some of ours. Because you brought the kind that come in individual crinkly cellophane wrappers, that’s why, and if you start to unwrap one of them in the middle of a soft passage, you’re going to hear the crinkle and freeze, and then you’re going to try to open it really, really, really slowly, so that the whole room is subjected to five minutes of tentative crinkling, and there’s just an excellent chance that eventually, one of us in the orchestra is going to snap and come into the crowd and beat you to death with a bassoon, and it would suck if you were the one to have to pay with your life for a hundred years of other people’s crinkling.
- Turn off your cell phone.
- Now turn it off again.
- We don’t care if you’re a doctor on call. Go see a damn movie. If you’re staying here, the cell phone is off. Not set on vibrate, not set to ring softly. OFF. Thank you.
- Upon entering the auditorium, the usher will hand you a program book. This contains interesting information about the music we’ll be playing. If it’s the Mozart and Beethoven, you can skip it unless you really care a lot about the minutiae of composers’ lives. Having known many composers, I can pretty much assure you that they are very odd people, and the less you know about them, the more comfortable you will be. However. If you took the daring route, and are attending a performance of some seriously new music, you should glance over the program notes, especially if the title of one of the pieces suggests that there might be a story behind it. Sometimes, the story is pretty cool, and sometimes, it involves really awesomely dark stuff like murder and suicide and rape and so on, and you’ll honestly get a lot more out of the big crashy, boomy sections if you know what’s supposed to be going on.
- If the concert you have chosen includes a work with a chorus or a solo singer, the program book may also contain several pages of lyrics, both in the original language of the piece, and in English. It is perfectly all right for you to follow along with these lyrics during the performance. But do keep in mind that there are 2,499 other concertgoers in this room with you, and they have all been given the same program book as you, and it therefore stands to reason that they will be coming to page turns at the same time as you. And while one person turning a page is a relatively quiet operation, 2,500 people doing it sounds like a flock of pigeons descending on a loaf of Wonder Bread, and we don’t need that. It won’t kill you to turn the page a little early or a little late. Just watch the people on either side of you, and turn when they’re not. It won’t matter, since everyone else will still be doing the pigeon thing, but you will be able to bask quietly in the pride that comes with not being a clueless moron.
- By accepting the program book in the first place, you have entered into an implicit agreement with the orchestra to keep it on your lap. Because, due to an astonishing anomaly of acoustical law, a 32-page program dropped on a floor during a concert makes the same amount of noise as the complete works of Shakespeare dropped off the top of the Empire State Building onto a Chinese gong. You don’t want this.
- When the conductor walks out, you should applaud. You should not shout “bravo,” because he hasn’t done anything yet. What if he sucks? You’d feel damned silly. Just a nice golf clap is all that’s required at this point. And speaking of things that will make you feel silly, the orchestra is going to stand up while he walks to the podium. This is not a cue for you to do the same.
- If you wear a hearing aid, trust us: it’s working. If the music sounds really, really soft, all of a sudden, it’s because we’re playing really, really softly. Do not crank your hearing aid up to the maximum, because (and we realize that you have no idea that this happens) hearing aids turned up to the max emit a high-pitched squeal that can be heard by every single person in the hall except you. The music will get louder soon, and if it doesn’t, then it’s possible that you need to face up to the reality that you are finally, truly deaf, and concertgoing is probably not a wise expenditure of your retirement funds anymore.
- Please don’t talk while we’re playing. We know this seems silly, and we know you believe you’re capable of whispering some witty comment to your wife without disturbing anyone around you, but you’re just wrong. The concert isn’t that long, and you’re really not that funny, either, so just save it, okay?
- At intermission, you will see a small number of people who have approached the stage and are talking to the musicians. You are welcome to try this if you wish, but keep in mind that these are mainly people we already know, and the ones we don’t generally get classified in the ‘scary orchestra groupie’ category. If you’re cool with that designation, c’mon up. We love to talk about ourselves.
- It is considered bad form to boo at an orchestra concert, but I have no idea why. If it was an undeniably bad show, or if the conductor had clearly mistaken ‘violent thrashing’ for ‘leadership,’ or if the trumpets appeared to be more interested in giving you a migraine than in playing their part nicely, and you can’t believe you paid good money for it, go ahead and boo! Of course, many of your fellow patrons will stare at you in horror, but honestly, we know when we’ve blown it, and it would be somewhat refreshing to know that you know it, too.
- If you feel like cheering, that’s okay, too, but know that the “WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” that you break out at the hockey game is unlikely to be well-received here. Try shouting something that sounds vaguely Italian in your deepest, most masculine voice. No one will dare ask you what it means for fear of looking uncultured.
- After the concert, if you have occasion to speak to one of the musicians, do not ask us what we think of the conductor. We are unlikely to tell you the truth, and the question merely forces us to construct an elaborate half-lie with a pained smile on our face when we’re already very tired. And besides, we tend to hate almost all conductors, regardless of their individual merits, and we are therefore not reliable sources of accurate information on the subject. If you liked him, that’s all that matters.
- And while we’re on the subject of questions we hate, do not ask us if this is ‘all’ we do for a living, or if playing in an orchestra is ‘really a full-time job.’ Yes, it is. And most of us gave up our childhoods to get it, so we’d appreciate not being trivialized. Thanks.
- That having been said, we honestly don’t mind talking to you. We have performers’ egos, and your wanting to talk to us makes us feel important, even if you just want to rant about how bad the world premiere tuba concerto was, and how the rocket scientist next to you took five minutes to unwrap a cough drop.
- If you came to the concert because a particularly famous soloist was playing, and if you have made your way backstage in the hope that said soloist might sign something for you, or at least listen to you talk about how you used to take violin lessons when you were 10, know that you will get a lot farther if you have a small child in tow. And that goes double if the small child is carrying an instrument case.
So there you have it! The complete guide to becoming a knowledgeable fan of the only form of live entertainment still kicking thirty years after its death certificate was signed by every hack writer in the Western world. We can’t promise you’ll come out of the experience a better person, but we’ll do our best. And all cynicism aside, thanks for plunking down your hard-earned dollars to watch us work. Because most of us don’t really know how to do anything else, and believe me, you don’t want egos like ours in the cubicle next to you.
– Sam Bergman