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Top 10 Tips For Classical Concert Goers

I assume you’re reading this blog because you love Music. Maybe you play an instrument, perhaps just at home for fun, or you may have joined a band or orchestra. I expect you sing – most of us do around the house, or when we think no one is listening – maybe you have taken this further and joined a vocal group or choir. And, of course, Music surrounds all of us most of the time – on the radio, in the car, on our phones, in cafés and restaurants, and often just playing as a soundtrack in our heads.
But how often do you experience live music as a member of an audience?
The difference between listening to music at home and experiencing live is as pronounced as the difference between TV sport and going to a match. Certainly, both go hand in hand – just as the exposure to sport on TV, the pundits’ analysis and the number of camera angles foster an increased knowledge and love of the game, so our obsession with the music we listen to enhances the live experience of those pieces. But there’s nothing quite like Live Music – marvelling at the skill of the musicians, honed over years of practice; enjoying the physical sensations of the sound; sharing the same emotions with a couple of thousand other people; and, quite simply, taking time out from our routines (and away from the smartphone!) to be given space to think, sense, and wonder.
Going to a concert can be far cheaper than football. And, in the winter, considerably warmer too.
So – here are my Top 10 tips for concert-going. I’ve focused on orchestral music here because I think that has the biggest ‘wow’ factor for a new audience member: you’re only looking at two hours including interval, you’ll have an orchestra of between 60 and 80 players in front of you, the lights are up for you to read the programme, and the music is amazing.

Choose the concert that you think you’ll like.

The Saturday and Sunday broadsheets have listings and recommendations of concerts, but also take a look at the websites of orchestras and concert halls. Bachtrack is a good website for a first search. Most promotional material has a description of the music. Think about what you like. Do want to be challenged? Soothed? Transformed? Entertained with music you already know? Discover pieces you’ve never heard before? Think carefully, and then choose.

The most expensive tickets are not always the best.

My favourite seats in the Royal Festival Hall are the cheapest: I love to sit behind the orchestra in the choir seats, where you’re close to the orchestra – you can see the conductor as they see him – and the sound is immediate. You can get into most concerts for £10 – sometimes less (and it’s always worthwhile checking on reductions for students and under-18s: there are amazing deals out there). Concert Halls are designed for their acoustics, so the sound should be good wherever you sit.

Prepare for the concert in advance.

Go onto the internet and find out about the music – Wikipedia is as good place as any to start. Listen to the music in advance – find clips on Youtube or Spotify. Imagine you’re going to a rugby match for the first time – you’d want to know the basic rules as a starting point. Music is no different. Most orchestras’ websites now have excellent information about the orchestra, concert going, and the pieces in each programme. Find out as much as you can.

Find out what you can about the performers.

Most orchestras have details and biographies online. One of the reasons seasoned concertgoers will hear the same piece many times in their lives is not just because they like the piece – it’s to enjoy what the performers do with the music. No two performances are ever the same – one of the many miracles of classical music is the way in which the mind-set of the performers affects the impact of a piece of music. Its meaning can be very different depending on the performers.

Concert Halls are not sacred temples.

There’s no need to dress up if you don’t want to, and there are few codes of behaviour, other than to be quiet when you’re listening to the music (for your own benefit as much as anyone else’s). But they do provide special experiences. Think of the Match Day build-up for sporting events – this means that the match is the most important event of the day. Do the same for going to a concert – look forward to it!

Arrive early at the venue and soak up the atmosphere.

Have a drink. Buy a programme – for classical concerts, there are always interesting articles about the pieces to be performed, which really help in understanding them. In some cases, this might be interesting biographical information about the composer; in others, about how the pieces are constructed. Of course, you can just let it wash over you, which is perfectly OK – it’s a bit like the choice to watch the football with or without a commentary and the pre- and post-match analysis.

During the concert..

There really is very little concert etiquette. There’s far more in sport, I think! Just listen and enjoy it. There is a tradition – begun only relatively recently (the 19th century is recent for classical music) – not to applaud between movements of a symphony or concerto. The reason for this is to allow space for the impact of the music to be registered by the brain – once you’re into a symphony, you really are in your own private world. But it’s no big deal if people do applaud – with music from the classical era, it’s actually authentic (both Mozart and Haydn encored individual movements mid-performance)…The convention at the end of a performance is for the conductor and soloist(s) to bow and then leave the stage, only to come back a few seconds later to receive more applause. The more times they return, the more well-received the performance has been. (Though it’s also conventional when a concert begins with an overture for there to be just one round of applause.) At the end of a concerto (a piece for soloist and orchestra), it’s quite normal for the audience to cheer. It’s not normal in the UK for there to be a standing ovation at the end of a concert – if there is, you’ll know that it’s been quite special.

Order your drinks in advance!

There’s usually an interval of around 20 minutes. Or you’ll spend half the interval queuing.

After the concert..

Read the programme notes again – these help bring to mind what you’ve just heard and will remind you of memorable moments. Often, a critic will have reviewed the concert and this will feature in the culture section of the broadsheet newspapers as well as on various online sites. This is a bit like reading the match report the following day. Did you agree with the reviewer?

Decide what your next concert will be.

There will be some suggestions in the concert programme – why not follow those up? Alternatively, go back to Step 1!

Simon Toyne is Executive Director of Music of the David Ross Education Trust and Malcolm Arnold Academy, and is a Director of the Eton Choral Courses.
Read more of his articles here.

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