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Orchestra Etiquette Part I

A view through the centuries on proper behavior.

by Holly Mulcahy
June 7, 2010

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Orchestra Etiquette Part I

Whether you are the person sheepishly turning off the ringing cell phone during the quiet movement, or the annoyed and indignant person sitting next to the offender, there's no denying there are certain rules and etiquette for orchestral concerts.

While playing the Verdi Requiem last month, I heard a cell phone go off. The offender was seated pretty close to my position on the stage and I caught a glimpse of the incensed woman seated next to the tuneful cell phone's owner. The woman's very direct, and frankly, well practiced insistent look said more than words. And then I caught the slightest glimmer of a self-satisfying smirk on the woman's face as the offender frantically silenced his phone. Despite the fact that I felt sorry for the man, he was warned in print and with an announcement before the concert.

The etiquette rules for concerts these days are pretty easy to find: on an orchestra's website, in concert programs, and sometimes within announcements before a concert starts. But, instead of reciting the obvious, I thought it would be fun to analyze the evolution of concert behaviors and etiquette through the past two centuries.

The first bit of advice comes from a book published by Carlton & Phillips in 1854 (anonymous author). This is a book for young men training to be gentlemen: The Book of Manners: A Guide to Social Intercourse.

"When there is either singing or music in the company, you should be profoundly silent. Never scratch your head, pick your teeth, or pick your nose in company. Do not lounge on sofas, nor tip your chair, nor elevate your feet in company."

The next book in my collection is Social Etiquette, written by Emily S. Bouton in 1884. This book humorously details a bit more on the correct behavior during concerts.

"One of the sins of commission of which many people are guilty, is that of going late to entertainments. When the house is fairly settled down to enjoyment, with attention absorbed with what is going on upon stage, the advent of one, two or a half dozen persons is enough to disturb everybody, and cause the interest in the performance to be entirely broken. It is an injustice to the performers because they must do the work, once accomplished, of catching and holding the attention of the audience. Some of their best points may be lost in the rustle and noise of the moment, and if so, much of their vantage ground which cannot be regained. It is an injustice to the audience, because they have paid a certain sum of money, not to see and hear a portion of what is to be presented, but the whole of it from beginning to end. What right has anybody to rob them of a part by drawing their attention away in spite of themselves or their interest in what is going on. The proper way, if you chance to be late, is to wait quietly near the door until an interval in the performance gives you an opportunity to gain your seat without annoyance to others.

Many of you, doubtless, remember the story of two women who were entertaining each other during a concert by a busy conversation, unheeding the angry looks of those around, when suddenly the music ceased, leaving a piping voice in the midst of the unique announcement that she "liked them better fried in lard." Imagine her mortification when a roar of laughter followed her words. But it served her right, for she and her companion were guilty of a gross disregard of the first principles of justice and courtesy. Because they were not interested, they deliberately ignored the fact that others were, and did not hesitate to interfere with the enjoyment of all in their immediate vicinity.

Do not fidget as such places. It is maddening to sit behind anyone who is constantly moving this way and then that, bobbing here and there between you and the stage. Especially is this true if she chances to be crowned by that abomination at a public entertainment-a large hat. If anyone is nervous and finds it hard to keep quiet, then only so much the more need of self-control.

Do not have your pockets full of something to chew during the evening, working your jaws and munching away vigorously. It is not a pleasant spectacle, and the grinding noise comes in to the perceptions of those near you with a savagely irritating effect, unless their souls are so possessed in peace that outside influences fail to disturb the harmony."

One of the more interesting books in this etiquette book collection is Wealth by the Wayside or Secrets of Success written by C.H. Haight in 1891. This is a unique book geared more on how to live life fully with enjoyment than how to behave in society. I thought the chapter on music was especially beautiful. While it doesn't tell anyone how to behave in a concert, it really captivates the author's passion for music which gives readers a perspective that they may not have thought about.

"Music may be compared to a diamond. Many treat it as children do the unpolished gem, as a mere plaything, unconscious of the beauty that lies concealed within it. Some, however, polish it so highly, and cut it so artistically, that its rays shed a flood of light into the hearts of many. Some people love music just as the botanist loves flowers, for the pleasure there is in dissecting them. The anatomist's pleasure may be legitimate and useful, but it lacks that spontaneity and flow of soul that make real enjoyment in any state or time.

It is a curious fact, that nearly all the great music of the world has been produced in humble life, and has been developed amid surroundings of poverty, and in the stern struggle for existence. There is scarcely a composer know to fame, and whose works are destined to endure, who lived long enough to see his work appreciated and accepted by the world for what it was really worth. The aristocracy has contributed very little to music, and that little can be spared without detriment.

Music was the first sound heard in the creation, when the morning stars sang together. It was the first sound heard at the birth of Christ, when the angels sang together above the plains of Bethlehem. It is the universal language, which appeals to the universal heart of mankind. Its thrill pervades all nature-in the hum of the tiniest insect, the tops of the wind-smitten pines, in the solemn diapason of ocean. And there must come a time when it will be the only suggestion left of our nature and creation; since it alone, of all things on earth, is know in heaven. The human soul and music are alone eternal."

It almost seems trite to follow that book with the next ones in my collection. But as the new century was comfortably underway, it was apparent the views were becoming less about the art and more about the proper way to keep up the pageantry of society. Next month I'll introduce the addition books in my collection from the 20th century.

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