Are we too gentle (or worse, genteel) with music?

Over the summer, I read a New York Times Magazine article which recounted how Greek police, proudly displaying recovered works of art following a museum heist, dropped a Picasso and then just picked it up and replaced it like it was a bag of flour that fell off the kitchen counter. In the accompanying video, you can watch with horror as a barehanded officer just plops that roughly thirty-million-dollar canvas back onto the shelf, no problem.

The bigger picture of the article is how uncomfortable we are with art—when an object is elevated with that title, it becomes, in a very real sense, untouchable. The writer herself, as a young child, remembers the museum alarms going off and the docents charging after her when she reached out to touch a painting because she liked the vivid red.

Reading this article led me to question why we do the same thing with music, in particular “classical” music, to use the most recognizable term. 

Some orchestras and small groups are becoming better about relaxing the concert experience by bringing a fresh, contemporary vibe with ambient lighting, digital visuals, and drinks in the hall (but sadly not on stage). The music itself, organized collections of sound waves and silences, is not bound to the period in which it was written. It transcends time. However many organizations still hold onto stuffy, nineteenth-century traditions, which in a way restrict our art and are out of touch with new audiences.   


Pardon my addressing the orchestral dress issue from the gentleman’s perspective only: White tie … or worse yet, black tie. The very traditional Philadelphia Orchestra made wide waves at the beginning of the 21/22 season by eschewing tails for all-black. Fifteen years ago, violinist and arts writer Holly Mulcahy wrote an engaging post from the players’ point of view for Inside The Arts. Among her major points, she questions, 

Why are orchestras still making the musicians wear 19th century outfits when the audiences   are being encouraged to come in anything they want? Why should an orchestra player wear   white tie and tails or black formal dresses when those that show up are in jeans? 

Holly Mulcahy, Inside the Arts, Nov 2011

Strangely, at about the same time that blog post was written, I felt so “professional” when we finally started wearing white ties and tails in the Winston-Salem Symphony, but I’ve now seen the light and believe that it just doesn’t work in our context, in our locale. The WSS, which once had five different dress codes for musicians depending on the concert series, now does everything in all black, no tie, and jackets are optional. It’s hip, it’s relaxed, but it’s all business, and non-stuffy. I personally prefer to wear a jacket because I think it finishes the look, but many of my colleagues in the string and percussion sections appreciate the flexibility of going jacket-free. I hope some of the other ensembles in which I perform soon follow suit.


Arriving at the concert hall for a relaxing evening of music should be just that: relaxing. However, whether by necessity or not, the air travel experience of the last twenty years has found its way into our industry. These days, an already intimidating lobby- and find-your-seat experience is only made worse by metal detectors and checking your CDC vaccination cards. 

Venues (and the arts orgs that rent them) would do well to look at their own environment every now and again through the lens of a newcomer. Did patrons receive a preconcert communication about what they can expect when they arrive at the hall? Is lobby signage clear, and does it stand out visibly from the rest of the decor? If there are long lines at the box office, at Will Call, or at the coatroom in the half-hour before the downbeat, is there an effective way to mitigate those lines by adding additional terminals, booths, or tables? 

On the aforementioned topic of CDC cards (most venues are requiring proof of vaccination or a negative test this year), a colleague of mine had the idea to issue special, green-colored tickets, easily recognized by ushers, to patrons who submit their proof ahead of time, thereby skipping the line. A TSA Pre-Check, of sorts, for the concert hall.  Brilliant.

Silence your phones (but keep them handy).

“Photography and recording of any kind are strictly forbidden.” I actually heard this announced at one of the last pre-Covid concerts I attended. I simply cannot believe any arts organization in their right mind would pass up free advertising. Don’t live stream the whole show, but PLEASE post your selfie with us in the background. Throw fifteen seconds up on Insta or TikTok and tag us. If you’re having fun, let your friends know. And maybe bring them with you next time.

Put your hands together

According to a WQXR article, music critic and writer Alex Ross relayed that the audience silence between (and during) music is a relatively new development. Until the late nineteenth century, it was common practice for audiences to applaud during the music, as one would do today at a rock concert or after a solo ride in a jazz club. Romantic-era composers such as Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Wagner were among the first to discourage audiences from their rowdy custom. Schumann went so far as to declare,

I have dreamed of organizing concerts for the deaf and dumb, that you might learn from them how to behave yourselves at concerts, especially when they are very beautiful. You should be turned to stone pagodas.

Robert Schumann, from his Schwärmbriefe, 1835

Conductors soon followed suit, and since European audiences were well-heeled in this new decorum, early 20th-century American concert audiences—where the well-to-do followers of European fashion could escape the vulgarity of common life—became similarly restrained. 

I don’t mind applause after a movement before the entire work is played. I, like Brahms (who felt dismayed when he received silence during the premiere of his first piano concerto), would think I really kicked it over if we didn’t get chuckle, applause, and a foot shuffle after the trombone/bass duo in Pulcinella.

Un-Classical Music

Lastly, it seems that the recording industry wants to introduce new listeners to “classical” music in much the same way they did in 1951. Why does the new listener need to hear Mozart or Haydn, or Beethoven, first? 

I became a fan, sitting on my bedroom floor at the age of thirteen, by stumbling across Mahler 1 on the radio. I went out the next week and bought a tape. A tape! Then I bought a tape of Shostakovich 5 and Debussy La Mer because I liked the cover art—but discovered really loud things that I could rock out to (lots of it in Shostakovich). A teacher turned me on to John Adams at seventeen—particularly The Chairman Dances and Short Ride but eventually Harmonielehre and beyond. And soon after that, I was all-Hindemith, all the time. 

By all means, if you are a musician or a fan and you like something, tell a friend! The Berg violin concerto has all this crazy-sounding stuff and then there’s a Bach chorale played by four clarinets. Two musics on top of each other, three centuries apart. Totally cool!  Bartok’s Mandarin rocks out from beginning to end.  Maria Huld Markan Sigfusdottir’s Oceans really gets to me; I’m not sure why.

Better still, invite a friend out for a night at the orchestra, and give them no primers about the music (unless they ask, of course). It could be a pairing of Menotti and Mahler, no Mozart anywhere on the page. Allow them to fully experience it, and perhaps they might find a color so vibrant and pure they’ll want to reach out and touch it for themselves.

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