Thou shalt not talk. Thou shalt not clap in the wrong places. Thou shalt not unwrap cough drops in crinkly paper during the music. Thou shalt not use thy cellphone.
You can find the prohibitions, in various forms, printed in the back pages of concert playbills around the country, often under rubrics such as “The Ten Commandments of Concertgoing.” They’re supposed to be funny, but they’re also supposed to be followed. Disguised as humor, they are actually propagating a widespread and pernicious idea: that the performing arts in general, and classical music in particular, require specialized knowledge and a particular code of behavior — a code in which, if you don’t know it, those who do will be all too happy to instruct you.
And thus the future of our field rides in disproportionate part on questions of etiquette.
Etiquette dominates the public discourse about classical music — because music-lovers, veterans and newcomers alike, are too often unsure what else they should say about it. The rules, and the conventions, provide a kind of handrail for insiders, who clutch it as they move through sometimes uncertain terrain; but form, all too often, is a barrier to those on the outside. The rules and conventions are the most visible mark of insider knowledge. Many people who might feel uncertain talking about chord modulations, a singer’s passaggio, or the relative merits of seating the second violins on the conductor’s right will jump in with the self-righteous vehemence of certainty when it comes to questions of how to behave when listening to all of this. The whole experience of concertgoing too often seems to be focused on debates about knowing when to clap.
Get rid of the conventions? I’m not sure that’s the answer. In principle, true, I’m all for democratization. Let people come to concerts dressed any way they like; let people bring drinks into the concert hall (as they do at the Wolf Trap Barns), or eat meals during the music in a nightclub setting; let them clap when they like what they hear. Let’s be looser about following the rules, and remember that in 19th-century Italy, going to the opera felt much like going to a baseball game — with people hawking food and drink, comings and goings between boxes, conversations in the seats, and vociferous responses to the onstage action. And let’s remember that a loud “SHHH!” or even a disapproving glare can be far more disturbing to more people than one person’s quiet infraction — to say nothing of the man who, years ago, whacked a talkative friend of mine over the head with a rolled-up program.
I am allergic to self-righteousness. I’d like concert halls to be open to a generation of people who don’t mind texting, or snapping photos, during the performance — who see in this an expression of enthusiastic participation rather than a threatening specter of The Downfall of Civilization. I’d like people to feel that the music is something that belongs to them, something that’s theirs to consume, listen to and debate rather than representing some kind of privileged, sacrosanct territory.
In short: I talk a good line. In practice, though, I have a double standard. I have been guilty of turning around to give a significant look to someone who wouldn’t shut up after the music had started; I have been guilty of wincing in visceral annoyance when applause broke out between movements of a symphony when I was using the pause to process what had gone before and clear the head for what was still to come. And it is a truth almost universally acknowledged among serious concertgoers that the experience of being deeply immersed in a quiet, ethereal passage of music, only to be ripped from the moment by the sound of someone’s cellphone — that muted bubbly electronic jingle, which momentarily grows louder as the embarrassed owner yanks it from pocket or pocketbook in order to silence it — can give rise to a brief flash of pure, murderous rage.
Concert halls represent the intersection of art and society. In this space, this silent hall in which we are supposedly united in a mutual contemplation of high art, the social compact is exposed and tested at every turn, as 2,000 people explore the mores of coexistence. Here are debates about human rights: whether your right to blow your nose impinges on my right to hear music unimpeded and germ-free; whether my right not to smell your clouds of perfume takes precedence over your right to want to deck yourself out in your finest going-out accoutrements, especially when you’ve spent $300 for the ticket that I, as a critic, got free.
Clearly, we need guidelines, of some sort. Yet the Ten Commandments of Concertgoing aren’t it. That’s because those Commandments, like much of the classical music experience, are tacitly predicated on the idea that our music, our art form, and therefore our way of thinking, is superior to yours. In looking for a way to prevent those cellphone interruptions, we tend to lapse into a rhetoric that comes off as at once defensive and bossy: There is a “right” way and a “wrong” way to hear this music.
Concert-hall rules are born of a well-meaning, even poignant hope: that someone else can have the same reaction that we do to something we love. It’s a hope that’s eternally doomed to disappointment, since each person’s experience is by definition individual, personal, indescribable and unrepeatable. And in trying to realize the hope, people often forget the basic human truth that if you’re trying to win someone over to something you love, it helps to approach her not as a child, but as an equal.
The conventions of concert behavior are bound to evolve in the coming years. It would be great to juxtapose the formality of orchestra presentation with some concerts that are less formal; it would be great to work out a way to include and contain the smartphone, perhaps by setting aside designated areas for its use, like the score-reading seats, with their illuminated music stands, that are a feature of many great old concert halls. But one rule should be writ large atop all guidelines for concert-hall behavior. It’s a basic principle, in fact, of any form of etiquette: Thou shalt not impose thy beliefs on someone else.
Read our critics’ takes on etiquette in their respective fields: