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The Concert Ritual

Every kind of music has its rituals. We need ritual to help performers and audience get into a musical frame of mind, and to contain the power released by the music.

The rituals for classical music can be confusing. They have developed over hundreds of years, in many different countries, and date back to societies that were very different from our own. Concert rituals aren’t always the same, but here is an idea about what to expect: In an orchestra, the leader of the violin section is called the concertmaster. Often the concertmaster stays backstage until the rest of the orchestra is ready to begin. Then the concertmaster comes onstage and takes a bow as the audience claps. The concertmaster turns to the orchestra, a tuning note sounds, and the musicians tune their instruments. The audience should stay quiet during tuning.

Next the conductor comes onstage. As the audience applauds, the orchestra may stand up to share in the applause. The conductor shakes hands with the concertmaster as representative of the orchestra.

My wife and I took some friends
to a symphony concert. They had
never been in a concert hall before,
and scarcely knew what to pay
attention to! They were amused
by the audience’s clothes, dazzled
by the chandeliers, and confused
by the human traffic onstage—all
that entering, exiting, bowing,
standing up, sitting down. While
we were clapping after the first
piece, the conductor turned to
the audience, bowed, and left the
stage. My friend turned to me with
a worried look and asked, “Where’s
he going?”

As the players sit back down, the conductor turns toward them (away from the audience), and begins the music. The conductor’s job is to direct the musical flow with gestures. (Most conductors use a little white stick called a baton, but some use only their hands.) You won’t see the front of the conductor again until the first piece is over. That may be a short time, or it may be more than an hour.

The music may start and stop a few times within one piece of music. The musicians may pause between big sections to refocus their energy or to retune before playing the next part. Eventually, when the whole piece is over, the audience claps, and the conductor turns toward the audience to accept the applause.

Then the conductor leaves the stage. If the applause keeps going, the conductor will come return to the stage. He or she may ask the orchestra or individual players to stand to share the applause. Then the conductor will exit again, but he or she will return for more bows as long as applause continues.

After all of this clapping and bowing, entering and exiting, the conductor finally ends up offstage, while the orchestra and audience get ready for the next piece. Sometimes some furniture has to be rearranged, or some players have to be added or subtracted.

Sometimes the stage crew has to rearrange furniture, or players have to add themselves in or take themselves out.

Eventually, when everybody is ready, the conductor will come onstage again to lead the next piece. If there is a featured soloist, he or she will walk onstage with the conductor, and you might notice the conductor staying a bit more in the background during the applause, allowing the soloist to be the focus of the audience’s attention.

As a musician, I love it when the
audience gets excited and makes
a big racket at clapping time. I
don’t care whether they shout
the correct word, or shout “Yeah!”
or whistle, or do a teen scream.
(Watch out, though: I hear that in
some European countries, whistling
means disapproval.)

Why do orchestras change size?

An orchestra is a flexible idea, not a standardized group of instruments. Today’s orchestras can expand or shrink in order to play music composed for the wildly different orchestras of different times and places. They can also meet composers’ needs for special instruments not normally part of an orchestra—such as saxophone, accordion, drum set, synthesizer, or guitar.

Chamber music rituals

In a chamber music concert or a recital, there is usually no conductor, so the musicians do all the bowing and walking in and out.

Rituals of Opera and Ballet

The orchestra for opera and ballet is usually not onstage, but in the orchestra pit in front of the stage. In this setting, the concertmaster doesn’t usually make a special entrance. After the orchestra has tuned, the audience claps for the arrival, in the pit, of the conductor.

Opera and ballet have lots of quirky rituals. The most surprising ritual is that the story may be interrupted without warning for the taking of bows. The performers may break character to accept the applause, or they may freeze while the audience claps, and then return to the action.

When the curtain comes down at intermission time, the main performers sometimes come through the curtain to take a bow.


Most performances have an intermission in the middle, a chance for performers and audience to take a break. The musicians leave the stage; you may leave your seat. You will know that intermission is almost over when the lights dim in the lobbies, or when bells or announcements sound.

Giving and Receiving

If all the clapping and bowing at a classical concert seems peculiar and oldfashioned, it might help to think of a concert as an energy exchange. The musicians send out musical energy, which the audience receives. At the end of a piece, it is time for the audience to give something back by clapping, and time for the musicians to receive it, by bowing.

Standing Ovations, Shouting, Whistling, etc.

An audience can show extra enthusiasm for the performers by standing up while they applaud. You may shout “Bravo!” if you like. (To be politically and grammatically correct, shout “Brava!” for a female performer, and “Bravi!” [BRAH-vee] for a group.)


Nowadays people generally respond politely to classical music concerts, but just a couple of generations ago things were much wilder. A new composition could cause a riot, or its composer might be carried through the streets in triumph. Even today, singers at a certain Italian opera house have to be ready to dodge produce thrown by the audience.

In my opinion, a bit more passion
would enliven our concert life.
Go ahead and let the performers
know that you care about their
performance: clap or shout or boo
with gusto.

Introduction to Classical Music
  Music Categories
  Musical Instruments
  History of Classical Music
  Discover the Classics
     Vol. 1 | Vol. 2 | Vol. 3 | Vol. 4

Glossary of Musical Terms

A-Z of Opera
  Synopses of Opera
  Index of Operas by Composer
  Opera Libretti

How To Enjoy A Live Concert
  A Note from the Author
  The Listener's Job Description
  Part 1: Before the Concert
  Choosing a Concert 
Kinds of Concerts 
Styles of Presentation: Formal, Informal, and Beyond 
Buying a Ticket
Sections of the Theater 
Getting Ready 
Getting There 
  Part 2: At the Concert
  "Concert Manners" 
The Concert Ritual 
Reading the Program 
Instruments of the Orchestra 
Ways to Listen 
Meeting the Performers 
Essential Life Support 
  A Brief Glossary

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