Whether you are the person sheepishly turning off the ringing cell phone during the quiet movement, or the annoyed and indignant person sitting next to the offender, there’s no denying there are certain rules and etiquette for orchestral concerts. We cover a trio of topics including the big questions of What to Wear and When to Clap by way of some articles written by violinist Holly Mulcahy and originally published at her blog, Neo Classical.  They are used here with her permission.

What To Wear To The Symphony

By: Holly Mulcahy, published at Neo Classical, 12/29/2014

Nobody wants to feel out of place when they go to a symphony concert, yet so many patrons wonder if what they are wearing will be acceptable. As helpful and welcoming the orchestras try to be by inviting patrons to wear what they want and emphasizing to come in what is comfortable, many people still want to feel like they are fitting in.

If you show up to a concert and sincerely don’t care what you wear, that’s just fine! You are doing what many orchestras invite you to do. But if you are the type of person who needs an idea of what to wear, are concerned you will be over or underdressed, or want some kind of guideline, I’ve come up with a simple guide to give you confidence in your attire for your next concert experience.

Consider the starting time

Afternoon Matinee Concert

  • Women: Pants are fine. Jeans are fine, just bump it up a notch. If you wear jeans, wear a dressier top, wear fancier shoes, and add an interesting piece of jewelry. Dresses and skirts are fine, but keep the sparkles for the evening concerts.
  • Men: Slacks or jeans with a button down shirt.

Regular Evening Concerts

  • Women: Dressier pants or skirt and blouse, or a dress. Dresses can be a variety of lengths.
  • Men: Dressier jeans with a blazer or trousers with dress shirt. Suit and ties also work nicely.

Galas, Fundraisers, Special Events

  • Women: Dressy slacks and blazer, Cocktail dresses, full length gowns. If you worry about being underdressed and don’t have a gown or cocktail dress, a sharp black outfit whether it’s pants or a dress, will usually help. No jeans.
  • Men: Even if the event says “Black Tie” you will likely see many men in suits. So a nice dark suit is fine, unless you are with a group from your company and everyone has agreed or is  expected to wear a tux or tails. No jeans.

Consider Ticket Cost

If the average price is $20 or less for a symphony ticket, you’re likely looking at a lighter fashion commitment. However if the average price is somewhere in the $60 on up range, you’re looking at a bit dressier.

Consider Concert Type

A pops concert is not going to be as formal as a regular classical symphony evening; most people tend towards jeans or other casual attire. A children’s concert is a more relaxed than a regular classical symphony afternoon matinee concert. A concert advertised as a Gala or fundraiser is usually the dressiest possible.

Call the Symphony Offices

If you feel pretty good about the guide I’ve put together so far but still feel uncertain, don’t hesitate to call the symphony offices. They will likely tell you to come in what you feel comfortable, but they can also tell you what the majority of patrons generally wear.

Own Your Look

If you are still feeling insecure about your outfit, have gone through all the steps, have called the symphony offices, and asked all your friends what they think, then just own your look with confidence. Wearing what you want is fine, just stand up straight, look like you meant to dress exactly that way, and walk with purpose. If you are the only person wearing jeans, you are probably making someone else wish they had worn theirs! The moment you decide you are not dressed right, or not fitting in, you will forget the whole reason you came to the concert in the first place.

When To Clap At The Symphony: A Guideline

By: Holly Mulcahy, published at Neo Classical, 04/06/2015

One of the most popular debates about orchestra concerts is when to clap. There are two types of clapping experts; one that assures you that clapping between movements is ok and that there are really no rules and the expert that says only to clap when the piece is completely finished.

Ironically, both types of experts have historical and/or traditional elements and facts that can justify their beliefs. But instead of arguing what is best and why, I wanted to share some general guidelines I’ve observed both from the stage and as an audience member. This guideline should not be considered rules, but merely observances of what typically happens during orchestra concerts so the newcomer (and seasoned patrons) can feel more confident with their timing of when to applaud and not feel out of place.

During the course of a concert, audiences will usually applaud twice before the music even starts. This is the easy part!

  1. Concertmaster enters, clap. The concertmaster bows, representing the orchestra, and then tunes. You can stop clapping once the tuning starts.
  2. Music Director enters, clap. Keep clapping; generally the music director will invite the whole orchestra to stand and share his or her acknowledgment.

Next up is the music. By now, you’ve probably thumbed through the program. Take note of how things are laid out in the program as these will be your clues when a good time to clap confidently might be. For example, here is a sample program I’ve come up with:

Really Edgy Title: Modern Composer (4:03)

Violin Concerto: Well Known Modern Composer (35:50)

  1. First Movement
  2. Second Movement
  3. Third Movement


Symphony #8: Traditional Recognizable Dude (30:04)

  1. Adagio; Allegro
  2. Andante
  3. Scherzo
  4. Presto

The first piece on the program is a single movement. In addition, in some programs a minute timing is offered to give an idea how long you are going to be listening to a work. At this point, you might not have an idea how this work will end so deciding when to clap comes down to how the work will end.

  1. If it ends loud your instinct will assist you and you will feel an urge to applaud. Additional visual cues can help: look at the body language of the musicians, especially the conductor.
  2. If it is a quiet ending piece, you still need to look at visual cues on stage. Sometimes when a conductor ends a quiet piece, they leave their arms up in the air, as if to suspend the moment. Once they put their arms to the side the piece is more than likely finished. Someone else will catch the clue and they will applaud. If unsure, don’t applaud until others have started.

The conductor will leave the stage. If applause continues, they will come back on for an additional bow.

The conductor returns to stage with the soloist. Both conductor and soloist accept the applause, and then the second piece on the program gets under way.

This is where the fun begins. Some concertos have fiery first movements that end in a flare that makes the audience want to jump out of their seats. Tchaikovsky’s concertos are famous for this!

  1. If this first movement ends in a flash and there is a sudden burst of applause, by all means join in. You might have even started it. There is absolutely nothing wrong with releasing some energy here. And a gracious soloist will bow slightly, hopefully smile, and then regroup. But if you don’t feel like applauding, you don’t have to!
  2. If the first movement has a quieter ending one, enjoy the feeling of transfixion and wait. There is no need to applaud. You still have two more movements to enjoy and sometimes breaking a moment like these can detract from the general effect of the mood the orchestra and soloist just set.
  3. If the first movement is not super flashy or quiet, say a Mozart concerto, some of the audience typically will applaud. You can join or not. It is highly unlikely the whole audience is applauding at this point though, so you might feel awkward if just 20 people applaud.
  4. The guideline is the same for the 2nd movements of concertos. Depending on how they end and the vibe from the audience should help dictate if you should applaud.
  5. The end of the final movement is easier. If it is a loud and fast ending, your instinct will guide you. If the work ends quietly, don’t rush to applaud, enjoy the feeling and wait for the body language on stage to relax and show the audience when the piece is done.

The soloist and conductor will both leave. Keep applauding. The soloist comes back and takes a solo bow. Keep applauding. If the vibe in the hall allows, the soloist and conductor usually come back out and acknowledge the orchestra and take general bow for everyone onstage. Keep applauding until the soloist and conductor leave the stage for good.

After intermission will likely be a symphonic work in several movements. Like the concerto before, some of the movements might beckon you to applaud. Sometimes even before the movement is finished, there can be some spots where every bone in your body is wanting to stand up and yell with joy. Some of the most memorable moments for me while performing have been when audiences just can’t contain their excitement or enthusiasm.

Generally, orchestras will tell you it’s ok to applaud between movements. However, sometimes it feels obligatory. If you have lost track of which movement the orchestra is on, or feel hesitant to applaud until the very end, wait for the visual cues. If it’s a quiet ending, watch the conductor and wait for him or her to put their arms down. If it is a fast and loud ending, visual cues will help, but typically people around you will be clapping so you can feel comfortable to join in.

A note to conductors

Many of you do a fantastic job helping an audience know when to clap. Many of you politely acknowledge, with a slight nod and smile, people’s applause between movements. Many of you show that a movement isn’t done just yet by keeping your arms visible to the audience and give a clear movement to let them know the piece is finished. But there are the exceptions:

  1. At the end of a loud and fast symphonic work, please don’t keep your hands in the air as if there is more music. People don’t know what to do with this and when you finally put your arms down, the applause trickles in very pathetically. Don’t do this! People want to release energy directly after a loud fast work. Let the audience know definitively that this is the end.
  2. Sometimes it’s good to share with the audience that there might be a trick ending. If your orchestra is performing Sibelius Symphony #5, or Tchaikovsky Symphony #6, share with the audience what happens in the work. Giving “permission” to clap after the 3rd movement in Tchaikovsky #6, for example, would bring relief to some and direction to others. After all, applause is a reaction to energy, and sometimes a good release is so therapeutic. But also restraining can be quite powerful. Either way, it can be nice to share your views.
  3. It’s not a great idea to shoot glaring looks or a frantic waving arm to “discipline” an audience member who has clearly clapped in a wrong point. People will remember your actions much longer than that of the offender(s).

A note to frequent audience members

Thank you for being a frequent audience member! You are the core of what keeps orchestral music alive and we are grateful! While most audiences are gracious with newcomers, some can be a bit prickly and it would be nice to adjust that point of view:

  1. While it is nice to feel educated and refined by not clapping when you deem not appropriate, it is rather unkind to correct people or complain about those who broke your rule by clapping in between movements.
  2. One of the best things about live orchestral concerts is the shared experience, and someone’s first time might be their last if they are made to feel stupid or unrefined.
  3. Be glad and quiet if someone claps out of place (by your rules) because this is a person who has made an effort to come to a live event that you also love. Be glad there are people supporting the arts!

A note to the new comer

Thank you for making time to come and try something new! We are always thrilled to see new people enjoying an art form that we’ve been dedicated and committed to for years. Go to your concert experience confidently:

  1. Don’t let your insecurities hold you back from attending a concert. You aren’t the only one who is experiencing this for the first time!
  2. If you are the only one clapping, don’t worry about it! Nobody really remembers this anyway; it will be the cell phone that people will fixate on. I promise!
  3. There are no rules, just a few guidelines I listed above. Coming to a live orchestral concert is more important than any rules, but if you still feel concerned about clapping in the wrong place, just wait and follow others’ leads.

This is my rule for everyone: You should never feel bad for clapping; however, you should feel bad for making others feel bad for clapping. For more on audience behavior, check this out.

Why Is The Timpani Player Smelling His Drums…

…and seven other awesome questions from the audience

By: Holly Mulcahy, published at Neo Classical, 05/11/2015

After publishing the articles What to Wear to the Symphony and When to Clap at the Symphony, there were a flood of comments questioning why these topics were even relevant. For When to Clap, there were comments saying, “Whatever! Everyone already knows this!” And for What to Wear, “Wear what you want. End of discussion.”

But it’s not the end of the discussion and not everyone knows this! Of the many reasons I wrote those two articles, one of them was the enormous volume of search terms that kept coming up when I would check my website traffic. Most popular search terms were: “What do I wear to a symphony concert” and “How do I know when to clap.”

What is obvious to musicians and regular classical music connoisseurs is definitely not obvious to others. Many musicians and regular concert goers left some rather terse comments on both my Facebook posts and on the articles themselves. But treating these questions with such tossed off comments as if everyone should automatically know or instinctively understand is just one more way potential audiences can get pushed away.

There is no such thing as stupid questions, only stupid answers. That is something most everyone has heard, yet the manner in how some questions are answered can be off-putting. For my article, What to Wear at the Symphony, one person wrote: “Wear what you want. End of discussion.” This may have been an exasperated music expert tired of the discussion, but future audience members are actually asking these questions. They should never be shut down, shut out, or made to feel like they ought to know something. Simply keep quiet or answer the question without the snark!

Over the past couple years I’ve collected some really awesome questions from audience members that offer a fresh and unique perception or perspective. Here are some that caught my attention:

1) Why is the timpani player smelling his drums?

It took me a while to understand what this audience member was asking. But looking back at the timpani, I saw exactly what she was asking. The timpanist was putting his ear close to the drum heads, tapping lightly and trying to retune the drum while the orchestra was playing. But looking at it through an audience perspective, it did look like he was smelling his drums. His face (especially his nose) was right next to the drum head.

2) Why are the string players’ hands quivering?

This must look very strange for those who are new to the symphonic scene. Looking again with different eyes, I was astounded how much a section of violinists left hands can look like birds doing a strange ritualistic mating dance. The quivering, or vibrato, is a way to round the sound and create a more beautiful texture. The opposite effect of leaving the hands still creates a different color. Perhaps it would be interesting to demonstrate the difference in some family concerts.

3) What are the white rags under the violinists’ chins? It looks so gauche against the black outfits.

Many violinists and violists choose to add a bit of protection from the chinrest rubbing against their necks. Skin is fragile and some people break out or have allergic reactions if they don’t have a barrier between their neck and instruments. I never had an issue with a white cloth until seeing this through the audience’s eyes. Is it possible to coordinate cloths to concert black? Yes.

4) Why is nobody looking at the conductor?

Admittedly, this does look suspect from the audience point of view. After all, why have a conductor if nobody is staring up at him or her during the concert? Occasionally this topic comes up and some conductors even go one step further showing how their orchestra can play without them. As when driving in a car, focus is on so many things at once. The road and other cars are essentially our music parts. The conductor is our GPS and radar detector, metaphorically of course. The point is, peripheral vision is a must to make music.

5) In between movements, the clarinets, oboes, or French horn players take apart their instruments. Why?

If one is used to listening to a recording with multiple movements, there is only a slight pause between each movement. But during live performances there is a ballet of sorts that takes place between movements. Wind players disassemble their instruments to swab out condensation, release the water, and reset for the next movement. Sometimes it adds extra time between movements, and since nobody else is generally moving that much on stage, wind players catch more attention during the pause.

6) Why is the concertmaster late?

It does look dubious when the most visible seat is unoccupied when the concert is set to start. I’ve even overheard some audience members in big cities remarking about how funny it was everyone applauded for the late musician. The lateness of the concertmaster is just another way audiences know the concert is starting and gives an extra minute to silence cell phones while the orchestra tunes.

7) It looks like the trombones are sleeping!?

I’ve seen this too! Going to the orchestra concerts as a kid, I use to joke about it with my brother. But for brass players who may not play a single note for 45 minutes, sometimes closing their eyes and listening to the music keeps them focused. While it may look disrespectful, it is never (usually) done with malice. Some musicians also don’t like staring at the conductor or colleagues for extended periods of time and find staring at their own feet difficult on their necks. Most important after a lengthy period of time of sitting without playing is entering with the right pitch and style. It is not easy! Take pride in your orchestras when the brass players nail their first entrance after sitting for so long. It’s much harder than one would expect.

8) Is there a reason you wear black mostly?

To some, what seems like a classy color may seem dark and depressing to others. We generally wear black so there is some uniformity on stage. Additionally there is a better focus if everyone on stage is dressed in the same color. Black just happens to be the most agreed upon color at the moment. There’s always room for discussion about different uniform options and different levels of formality, but what most musicians have in closets is black formal. To change that could cost a lot to the musician, and typically, while partially a tax write off, required uniform or dress is not reimbursed by the orchestra.

Final Thoughts

To those who know a lot about orchestras: Don’t treat any question as a stupid one, and please don’t answer with any hint of condescension or feigned surprise. Look forward to the questions because these questions keep you better connected to a preservation of something you love. These questions prove there is an active interest in the symphonic arts and there is a new concert goer in your presence.

To those who hesitate asking questions: Ask! And keep asking. Be bold and ask because people close to something they know well need gentle reminders that others are trying to understand and appreciate an art form in which they have grown to love themselves.