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If You’re Listening And You Know It, Clap Your Hands!

Quite a few opinions have (re)surfaced recently about people smushing their palms together at classical music concerts, particularly between movements. Here are some of mine!

• Once upon a time in a faraway land, talking, eating, and throwing stuff at performers during a show was standard behavior. (It still is, at most other types of shows.) Applause was dispensed when something was applause-worthy: at the end of a piece, end of a movement, or even at the end of an impressive run or high note. Then, one day, real-time appreciation gave way to grave silence and condescending sneers of disapproval from those who deemed themselves In The Know. (Thanks, über-serious German guys!) What happens now/next is, actually, up to all of us. If the Oxford English Dictionary can evolve to include the word “mansplaining” (so necessary), then we, too, can adapt to change.

• If someone claps during a concert, it means that he or she has not a) fallen asleep, b) left, or c) descended into an overwhelmingly foul mood. Any of these scenarios is an automatic win in my book.

• If you are nervous about whether or not you “should” clap at a given time, then I would like to apologize on behalf of the classical music community. What a shame that you have been made to feel this way. I offer my personal promise to do better.

• Human beings make noise. Yes, even you! We all cough, sneeze, crinkle things, wriggle, burp, fart, tap our feet, and clap when we are moved to do so. If you wish to exist in pure silence, might I suggest that you stay home, or maybe visit an ashram.

• If I hear clapping at an unlikely moment in a performance, it brings me immense satisfaction. Why? It means that someone who might not yet “know the rules” <eye-roll> is occupying a seat. What a relief! How many of you have bitched and moaned about classical music audiences dying out, or griped about the seemingly insurmountable challenge of bringing in new audiences? Guess what: new audiences are just that — new to classical music. Welcome them with open arms. Celebrate the fact that they made it into the theater. Allow them the freedom to enjoy a new experience wholeheartedly and without reservation. If you don’t like the noise, get used to empty halls.

• In my experience, the most obvious indicator of whether or not applause is warranted at a given moment is the body language of the performer. As artists, it is our job to draw audiences into our world, not just play AT them. If you make a lot of commotion with your instrument and limbs, you are generating an atmosphere of excitement — and why shouldn’t an audience react accordingly!? Conversely, if you truly suspend the silence you’ve created with your body and breath, people will feel reluctant to disrupt the magical spell you’ve cast. You are every bit as responsible for suggesting when you want people to applaud as social traditions are.

• Let’s imagine that there was indeed a strict “no clapping between movements” policy. If you finished playing the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto and the audience DIDN’T applaud, I can guarantee that you would want to walk offstage right then and there and defenestrate yourself.

• Great art accounts for audience reactions. President Obama’s speeches come to mind: what if, in the moments following one of his climatic cadences, he had been met with crickets instead of applause or cheers, simply because it wasn’t yet The End? To quote an asshat who garners applause that is pretty much exclusively inappropriate: “Very Sad!”

• A live performance is a two-way street. Performers are every bit as affected (or not) as the energy that the audience provides (or doesn’t). Audiences should not be there solely to consume what the performer provides; if an audience provides nothing in return, the performer can feel uninspired, disheartened, or flat-out defeated.

• To summarize: if you feel moved, please express it. Tactfully and respectfully, but don’t ever let anyone shame you into anything else. Our sub-genre of music is literally the only one that encourages restraint. Can we all just agree to get over ourselves already? It’s only music! It’s meant to make life better, not worse.

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