The Symphony

One of the great joys of life is going to the symphony but here’s a question for you. Why does no one in the audience tap their feet to the music . . . or wiggle their fingers . . . or bob their head? I noticed this phenomenon last weekend. My friends and I sat in the balcony, second to the last row center, and had a great view of the orchestra as well as the whole audience.

First up was the premiere of Starbursts, a new work by a daring young composer, Jonathon Leshnoff.  It was startling and brilliant. It took my breath away; definitely toe taping and head nodding but no one except the orchestra moved. I gazed out over the audience. Everyone sat stock still.

Next came world famous Hilary Hahn and her magical violin. I can sort of understand why no one bobbed around during her enchanting version of Sebelius Violin Concerto. We were all too mesmerized by the sweet tones of the music and Ms. Hahn’s awesome technique to do much bobbing.

But then came Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird.  It there was ever a toe tapping hand keeping-timer composition, that is surely  it. Michael Stern, our excellent conductor, did a veritable ballet, dancing on his toes and swinging his arms in sweeping arks, but the audience, all of us, sat in somber silence.

I couldn’t help it. I began to tap my feet, just a teeny bit, but a wicked glance from the lady seated next to me made me stop.  No one else moved. Even during the liveliest parts, some people napped, or so it seemed. I guess that’s called enjoying the music.

Go to any other kind of musical event and none of this is so.  In fact, at some  concerts, if you don’t jump up and down, you can’t see the artists and you risk being trampled.

Why is this? What is it about symphony music that stops us from doing what comes naturally? I’ve asked my most ardent symphony-going friends and here’s what they say.

It’s tradition.

Good manners require you to sit still.

It shows respect for the musicians and the composer.

The music reaches higher levels (I’m not sure what that means)

One is transfixed . . .

Or spellbound.

The audience is old . . .

And stogy.

but my favorite is . . . And sleepy!

My symphony-going friends and I would love to hear from you if you have a better answer. Until then, may you enjoy peaceful, motionless listening.

Michael Stern and the K.C. Philharmonic Orchestra

2 Responses to The Symphony

  • Glenn Haynes says:

    I asked my Saturday Brunch Bunch the same question and got these rather unique answers:
    MD – “would be distracting”
    – “would be “square” or “uncool”
    LB – “floor angles making it difficult to tap feet”

    None of these seem accurate to me but I have no better answer!

  • Eric Williams says:

    Hi Beth,

    Thank you for sharing your enthusiasm about the Symphony. That certainly was a fabulous concert!

    There has been a great deal of discussion in musical circles about concert etiquette but for many people, it comes down to the fact that most “classical” concerts are shared experiences that deal with very subtle sounds. Movement tends to create sound (creaky old seats in the Lyric, clothing fabric rustling, shoes scuffling, and yes, toes tapping) and that sound can interfere with other concertgoers’ enjoyment of the music. Understandably, not everyone listens to music in the same manner and what might be considered well-mannered by one person is stultifying to another. Regardless of how others may listen to music, I hope you will continue to listen with the same joyful spirit that you describe in your blog.
    For some fascinating reading about the historical context of applause at concerts, check out these articles by Alex Ross:

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