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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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