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!
- Concertmaster enters, clap. The concertmaster bows, representing the orchestra, and then tunes. You can stop clapping once the tuning starts.
- 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)
- First Movement
- Second Movement
- Third Movement
Symphony #8: Traditional Recognizable Dude (30:04)
- Adagio; Allegro
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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- The rules are 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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!
- 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!
- 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.