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Live Performance Etiquette: Clapping and Other Courtesies

Whether it’s the third-grade pageant at your child’s school, a university concert, the local ballet’s presentation of the “Nutcracker,” or a visit to the symphony, chances are you’ll attend a live performance during the holiday season.

Live performances demand that we observe a set of courtesies that show respect for the performers as well for as our fellow concert goers. Americans seem to have forgotten many of these standards and behave at a play or choir concert in the same way they would at an outdoor ball game, wandering in and out, talking out loud, eating at their seats, and fiddling with their cell phones. It’s all very disrespectful.

A few weeks ago, at our school’s production of “The Threepenny Opera,” a man and his children who were sitting behind me opened rattily potato chip bags and munched and crunched their way through a student soprano’s solo. Though she probably didn’t realize that half of three rows were thoroughly distracted during her performance, I felt sorry for her because she had worked so hard to perfect her part only to have it marred by salty snacks consumed by thoughtless people. A few weeks later at our community holiday concert, every time the audience applauded, two small girls leaped from their seats bouncing, clapping, and shouting as if they were cheering a touchdown. Sadly, their parents did not utilize the moment to explain the difference. Perhaps they don’t know themselves.

Much like our language, etiquette changes and evolves to be consistent with contemporary standards, but for evolution to occur, people must have a common understanding to begin with. It wasn’t too long ago that audiences showed their displeasure by throwing rotten vegetables at the performers—something that would certainly get you tossed from the hall (or worse) today. While I am not suggesting that we return to those times or to snobby “pinkies up” behavior that is intended to intimidate, I am advocating that we deploy a common set of courtesies that ensure everyone can see, hear, and enjoy a performance without disruption.

Here are some tips:

Dress up a bit. A concert or play is a celebration, the proud presentation of hours of study and weeks of practice. Show respect for the performers by looking your best.

Leave babies and small children at home. No one wants the sound of a crying child to obscure the performance of an actor or musician whom they have paid to hear. When children are with you, require them to sit in their seats and be quiet. Do not let them play with electronic games because these make bright light and irritating sounds.

Pick up a program when you arrive so you can follow the performance and know what to expect.

Be in your seats at least 10 minutes before curtain time. Arriving late is not acceptable because it disturbs both performers and patrons. If you do arrive late, ushers may ask you to wait to be seated until a suitable break in the performance.

If someone is in your reserved seat, don’t make a scene, but get an usher to resolve the problem.

To get to your seat, enter the aisle and slide with your back side facing those who are already seated. Say “excuse me” to each person you pass and thank those who stand or otherwise assist you.  If you are seated, swing your legs to one side so people can pass without tripping. Put objects such as handbags under your chair so they don’t become an unseen hazard. Leave your bulky coat and items such as umbrellas at the coat check.

Remain in your seat until intermission and do not wander in and out of the hall to talk on your phone, greet others, or get refreshments.

Turn off all electronic devices so they don’t ring, buzz, or light up. Never text, take pictures, or talk on your phone during a performance. Smartphones have brought a new term into contemporary etiquette, it’s called “manner mode,” and it means placing your phone on silent mode vs. vibrate, so it is just that—silent!

If you are a physician or someone else who is on call, give your phone to an usher so he or she can come get you if needed.

Never take food or drink to your seats, including bottled water or coffee. Finish before you enter the hall.

If you have a cough, bring unwrapped cough drops with you and be quick to exit if a coughing jag happens.

Keep your feet on the floor and off the seats in front of you.

Remember, the excellent acoustics in a concert hall may render whispers and talking audible to many people seated around you. Be silent.

How and When To Clap

Applause is the way we show our appreciation for performers, but clapping at a play or concert is different from clapping at a sporting event. The rules aren’t complicated, but applauding appropriately helps avoid destroying the mood and interrupting the flow of the performance.

At the beginning of a symphony or concert, the concertmaster arrives on stage and the audience claps as a sign of welcome. After the orchestra tunes, the conductor and possibly a soloist will walk onstage. Applaud to welcome them. When the conductor steps on the platform, however, and raises his or her baton, it signals that the music is about to start and everyone should become silent.

Once the concert begins, the audience only applauds at the end of each piece. Confusion can occur when there is a pause in the music. People mistakenly assume the piece is complete and start to clap, but in fact, the pause may simply be the separation between movements. Pay attention to your program to help determine if you are hearing a pause between movements, or are at the end of a piece. Pauses in music are there for effect, to create a mood. Clapping during one of them can dispel the mood and interfere with the momentum the musicians have worked to create. To tell if a piece is complete, watch the conductor. When she or he lowers the baton, and drops his or her hands, the piece is done and it’s time to applaud. Another way to tell is that the conductor may turn around and acknowledge the audience. If you’re in doubt, don’t be quick to applaud, but instead, wait and take your cue from others.

At a play, don’t interrupt and interfere with the flow of the performance by applauding, shouting, or whistling, no matter how wonderful the scene. Instead, hold your applause until the end of each act. Applaud again at the conclusion of the performance.

A standing ovation is the supreme compliment to performers and musicians. Not every performance deserves one, yet people have started to render this honor as if it is a matter of course. Save standing “Os” for those times when they are truly sincere.

In addition to following these courtesies yourself, give your children a lasting holiday gift by practicing these skills at school programs, church, Saturday afternoon movies, and at their annual dance and music recitals.