A Guide to the Symphony Orchestra Concert Experience

Attending a symphony orchestra concert is often a very personal, and often emotional experience.  The classical music concert hall (to many) may seem shrouded in customs, expectations, and the need for prior knowledge about the music, instruments, or composers, etc.

The Aurora Symphony would like to take moment to demystify some questions and concerns often expressed by new concert goes, and seasoned concert attendees alike, to help shed some light on how to attend a concert to get the most from your audience experience.

When to Arrive for a Concert:

Arriving on time for an orchestra performance is important to ensure a smooth and enjoyable experience for both you and fellow attendees. Here are some general guidelines for when you should arrive for an orchestra performance:

  1. Check the Start Time: Start by checking the official start time of the performance. This information can usually be found on your ticket or on the event’s website or program.
  2. Plan to Arrive Early: It’s generally recommended to arrive at the venue at least 30 minutes before the scheduled start time. This allows for ample time to find parking, navigate the venue, and settle into your seat.
  3. Consider Traffic and Parking: Factor in the time it takes to travel to the venue and any potential traffic or parking delays. It’s better to arrive a bit early and have time to spare than to rush and risk missing the beginning of the performance.
  4. Late Seating Etiquette: If you do arrive after the performance has started, be mindful of the orchestra and fellow audience members. Ushers will typically guide you to your seat during an appropriate break in the program, such as between movements or during applause. It’s considered courteous to wait until an appropriate moment to be seated and then do so as quietly as possible.
  5. Special Considerations: If the performance has specific pre-concert talks or other activities, check whether you’d like to attend those as well. Some audiences enjoy pre-concert lectures or discussions to enhance their understanding of the music being performed.

In summary, arriving at least 30 minutes before the scheduled start time of an orchestra performance is a good rule of thumb. This allows you to account for potential delays and enjoy a more relaxed and pleasant experience, while also demonstrating consideration for the performers and fellow audience members.

What to wear – Formal or Casual

Dressing appropriately for an orchestra performance is a sign of respect for the musicians and the event itself. The level of formality can vary depending on the orchestra, the venue, and the type of performance, but here are some general guidelines on how to dress for an orchestra performance:

  1. Formal Attire:
    • Men: A classic choice for men is a dark suit or tuxedo, ideally paired with a dress shirt, a tie or bow tie, and polished dress shoes. A white dress shirt and black suit are often a safe bet.
    • Women: Women have more flexibility but can opt for a floor-length formal dress, a dressy pantsuit, or a skirt or cocktail dress paired with dress shoes. Elegant accessories can add a touch of sophistication.
  2. Semi-Formal Attire:
    • For some orchestra performances, especially those in less formal settings, you may opt for semi-formal attire. This could include a dark suit for men and a knee-length dress or dressy separates for women. A tie or bow tie may still be appropriate for men.
  3. Casual Attire:
    • Casual attire is generally not recommended for most orchestra performances. However, for certain modern or informal events, you might be allowed to wear business-casual clothing. In this case, slacks and a dress shirt or a nice blouse with a skirt or dress pants could be suitable.
  4. Footwear:
    • Wear comfortable and appropriate footwear, such as closed-toe dress shoes. Avoid sneakers, flip-flops, and overly casual shoes.
  5. Accessories:
    • Keep accessories tasteful and minimal. A simple necklace, earrings, or cuff links can add a touch of elegance.
  6. Outerwear:
    • Consider the weather and have a suitable coat or jacket, especially during the colder months. However, remove your coat before entering the performance hall.
  7. Avoid Jeans and Casual Wear:
    • Jeans, t-shirts, shorts, and overly casual attire are generally not appropriate for an orchestra performance, as they can be seen as disrespectful to the formality of the event.
  8. Avoid Excessive Perfume or Cologne:
    • Be mindful of strong scents, as they can be overpowering to those seated nearby.
  9. Plan Ahead:
    • It’s a good idea to plan your outfit in advance and make sure your clothing is clean, well-fitted, and free from wrinkles. This ensures that you’re both comfortable and respectful of the event.
  10. Check the Event Details:
    • Occasionally, orchestra performances may have themed or unique dress codes, so it’s advisable to check the event’s website or program for any specific recommendations.

Remember that while dressing appropriately for an orchestra performance is a sign of respect, it’s also important to feel comfortable and confident in what you wear. If you have any doubts about the dress code for a particular performance, it’s a good idea to contact the venue or check the event’s official guidelines to ensure that you’re dressed suitably for the occasion.

When should I applaud?

Applauding during an orchestra performance is a common way for the audience to show appreciation and enthusiasm for the musicians’ efforts. Here are some general guidelines on when to applaud during an orchestra performance:

  1. After the entire piece: The most common and expected time to applaud is at the end of a complete piece, also known as a “movement.” A piece typically consists of multiple movements, and you should wait until the conductor lowers their hands or turns to acknowledge that the piece is finished.
  2. Between pieces: If an orchestra is performing a concert with multiple pieces, it is customary to wait until the entire piece (not just a movement) is completed before applauding. The conductor or a soloist may indicate when the entire work is finished.
  3. At the soloist’s discretion: In a concerto or piece featuring a soloist, it is common to applaud after the soloist’s performance in addition to applauding at the end of the entire piece. The soloist will often acknowledge the audience with a bow, signaling an appropriate time to applaud.
  4. For exceptional moments: Occasionally, an exceptional solo or performance moment within a movement may elicit spontaneous applause. If the audience is moved by a particularly breathtaking or virtuosic passage, it’s acceptable to applaud briefly. However, be mindful not to disrupt the overall flow of the piece.
  5. Follow the cues: Pay attention to the behavior of the audience around you. When in doubt, follow the lead of the majority. Some concerts or performances may have slightly different expectations depending on the cultural norms and the type of music being played.
  6. Hold applause in some situations: Some pieces, particularly in the classical genre, are designed to create a mood or atmosphere that continues from one movement to the next. In these cases, it’s best to wait until the entire work is completed before applauding.
  7. Respect the quiet moments: Be mindful of the dynamics of the music. In very soft or contemplative passages, it’s essential to refrain from applauding, as it can disrupt the intended atmosphere.

Remember that the specific etiquette can vary, so it’s a good idea to check the program or listen for any announcements before the performance begins. Overall, the goal of applauding during an orchestra performance is to show your appreciation for the musicians while being considerate of the performance and fellow audience members.

Use of Electronic Devices

Using electronic devices at an orchestra performance is generally discouraged for several important reasons:

  1. Distraction: The most immediate concern is the potential for electronic devices to be distracting to both the audience and the performers. The bright screens, lit-up faces, and the sound of notifications can disrupt the concentration of both fellow concertgoers and the musicians on stage.
  2. Disrupting the Experience: Orchestra performances are meant to be immersive, providing a unique and sensory experience. By using electronic devices, you risk diminishing your own experience as well as that of those around you.
  3. Aesthetic Impact: The glow from screens, even when dimmed, can be aesthetically disruptive and distracting for other audience members. It detracts from the ambiance and the visual aspects of the performance.
  4. Noise and Sound Interference: Sound from key presses, camera clicks, or notifications can be audible and disruptive, especially during quiet or softer passages of the music. This can detract from the overall quality of the performance.
  5. Privacy and Respect: Musicians on stage have a right to privacy during their performance. Recording or photographing without proper authorization can infringe on their rights and make them uncomfortable. It’s essential to respect the performers’ focus and artistic space.
  6. Legal and Copyright Concerns: Many orchestra performances feature copyrighted music. Recording or sharing parts of a performance without permission may lead to copyright violations and legal consequences.
  7. Venue Policies: Most concert venues have policies against the use of electronic devices during performances. Ignoring these policies can result in eviction from the venue or other consequences.
  8. Audience Etiquette: The use of electronic devices during a performance is often considered a breach of audience etiquette. Being respectful of the rules and norms of the concert environment is essential for a harmonious experience.
  9. Documentation Exists: Professional orchestras often record their performances for archival and commercial purposes. High-quality recordings are typically available for purchase or streaming, making it unnecessary to capture your own low-quality recording.

If you do have a legitimate reason to use an electronic device during an orchestra performance, such as accessing program notes on a dedicated app or responding to an emergency, it’s crucial to do so discreetly and with minimal disruption. In most cases, however, it’s recommended to fully immerse yourself in the live experience, enjoying the music in the moment and respecting the rules and norms of the concert environment.

Recording & Photographing Performances

Photographing or recording orchestra performances without proper authorization or inconsiderate behavior can be discouraged for several reasons:

  1. Distraction: The use of cameras, phones, or recording equipment during a live orchestra performance can be distracting to both the performers and the audience. The bright screens and camera flashes can disrupt the ambiance and focus of the event.
  2. Quality Concerns: Most consumer-grade recording equipment, including smartphones, cannot capture the full audio and visual quality of a live orchestra performance. Attempting to record may lead to poor quality and disappointing results, both for the person recording and anyone who may later view or listen to the recording.
  3. Copyright and Legal Issues: Orchestra performances often involve copyrighted music, and recording or photographing without permission can infringe on these copyrights, potentially leading to legal consequences.
  4. Artist and Venue Policies: Many orchestras and concert venues have specific policies against recording or photographing performances. Ignoring these policies can result in eviction from the venue or other consequences.
  5. Artistic Integrity: Orchestra performances are a unique form of art that is best experienced in person. Focusing on capturing the performance through a lens or screen can detract from the emotional and sensory experience that live music provides.
  6. Privacy and Respect: Musicians and performers on stage have a right to privacy and may find it uncomfortable to be constantly filmed or photographed during their performances. Respecting their space and focus is important.
  7. Audience Consideration: Other audience members may not appreciate the intrusion of bright screens, camera clicks, or the obstruction caused by people holding up devices to record. It’s important to be considerate of the comfort and enjoyment of fellow attendees.
  8. Documentation Exists: Many orchestras professionally record and document their performances for archival purposes. These recordings are typically of high quality and are made available for purchase or streaming. Relying on these official recordings is a better way to enjoy the performance at its best.

If you do wish to photograph or record an orchestra performance, it’s important to check the venue’s policy, obtain the necessary permissions, and be discreet and respectful in doing so. Ultimately, it’s often recommended to fully immerse yourself in the live experience and appreciate the orchestra performance in the moment rather than through the lens of a camera or a recording device.

About the Members of the Orchestra

People often attend a symphony orchestra concert, and thoroughly enjoy the music that is performed; however, many often wonder…  Who are these people listed in the program with a special title? What role do they play in the performance? How does everything work together to produce the performance I am hearing.

Let’s take a moment to peer behind the curtain to learn about the various roles represented on stage, and gain a better understanding of the performance we see, hear and experience.

The Conductor

The conductor in an orchestra plays a central and multifaceted role in shaping and directing the music performed by the ensemble. The conductor’s role is both musical and interpretive, and it involves various responsibilities, including:

  1. Musical Interpretation: The conductor is responsible for interpreting the musical score and translating it into a cohesive and expressive performance. They make decisions regarding tempo, dynamics, phrasing, articulation, and overall musical style, ensuring that the orchestra conveys the composer’s intended emotions and ideas.
  2. Rehearsal Director: Conductors lead rehearsals, working with the orchestra to refine the interpretation and execution of the music. They guide musicians in fine-tuning their parts, addressing technical challenges, and ensuring that the ensemble plays together with precision and unity.
  3. Communication: Conductors communicate their musical vision to the orchestra through a combination of gestures, facial expressions, and verbal instructions. They convey their interpretation and guide musicians in real-time during performances.
  4. Leader: Conductors provide leadership and direction to the entire orchestra. They set the overall artistic direction of a performance and are responsible for maintaining the ensemble’s focus and cohesion throughout a piece of music.
  5. Tempo Control: Conductors control the tempo (speed) of the music, and they may use a baton or their hands to indicate changes in tempo, rhythmic patterns, and transitions within a composition.
  6. Cueing: Conductors cue individual sections and musicians, indicating when they should start playing or when they have solos or prominent passages within the music. This ensures that the orchestra performs together seamlessly.
  7. Balance and Blend: Conductors work on achieving a balanced and well-blended sound within the orchestra, adjusting the volume and dynamics of different sections to create a harmonious overall performance.
  8. Articulation and Expression: They guide the musicians in shaping the music through expressive techniques, such as varying dynamics, using different bowings or fingerings, and emphasizing phrasing. Conductors help the orchestra convey the emotional and artistic nuances of the composition.
  9. Program Planning: In some cases, conductors are responsible for selecting the repertoire and planning the program for a concert season. They may choose a variety of compositions to create a well-rounded and engaging series of performances.
  10. Auditioning and Hiring: In collaboration with orchestra management, conductors may be involved in auditioning and hiring new musicians to the ensemble.
  11. Collaboration: Conductors often collaborate with guest soloists, composers, and other artists to bring unique perspectives and talents to the orchestra’s performances.
  12. Educational Outreach: Some conductors engage in educational and community outreach programs to promote music education and appreciation, both within the orchestra and in the broader community.

The role of a conductor is not limited to classical orchestras; it extends to various types of ensembles, including symphony orchestras, chamber orchestras, choirs, and even contemporary or experimental music groups. Regardless of the context, the conductor serves as the guiding force that shapes the musical interpretation and brings the performance to life.

The Concertmaster

The concertmaster, often referred to as the “first violin” in many orchestras, holds a crucial and multifaceted role within an orchestra. Their role goes beyond that of a regular violinist and includes the following responsibilities:

  1. Leadership: The concertmaster is the principal first violinist and serves as the leader of the violin section. They are responsible for setting the standard for intonation, phrasing, and interpretation of the music for the entire violin section.
  2. Liaison with the Conductor: The concertmaster acts as a liaison between the conductor and the orchestra. They communicate the conductor’s instructions and interpret the conductor’s vision for the music to the rest of the string section, ensuring that the conductor’s direction is effectively conveyed to the musicians.
  3. Soloist: The concertmaster is often featured as a soloist within the orchestra, performing violin solos in various pieces. They are responsible for preparing and performing these solos with virtuosity and precision.
  4. Bowings and Articulations: The concertmaster, in consultation with the conductor, helps determine bowings and articulations for the entire string section. This involves making decisions about how the music should be played in terms of bowing direction, dynamics, and other expressive elements.
  5. Tuning: Before a performance, the concertmaster plays a crucial role in ensuring that the orchestra is in tune. They lead the orchestra in tuning their instruments and may provide the initial tuning pitch to the entire ensemble.
  6. Rehearsal Leadership: During rehearsals, the concertmaster often plays a significant role in helping the conductor refine and shape the orchestra’s performance. They may provide feedback and suggestions to the conductor and the musicians.
  7. Role Model: The concertmaster serves as a role model for other members of the orchestra, not only in terms of musicality but also in terms of professionalism, punctuality, and dedication to the ensemble.
  8. Administrative Duties: In some orchestras, the concertmaster may be involved in administrative tasks related to the orchestra, such as helping with auditions, coordinating sectionals, or managing music library resources.

The concertmaster’s role is a combination of musical leadership, communication, and artistry, and they play a pivotal part in ensuring the cohesion and quality of the orchestra’s performances. Their contributions go beyond simply playing the violin, as they help shape the overall sound and interpretation of the ensemble.

Section Principals

In an orchestra, a section principal, sometimes referred to as a principal player or principal musician, is a musician who holds a leadership role within a specific section of instruments. The role and responsibilities of a section principal can vary depending on the orchestra and the specific instrument they play. Here are some common aspects of the role of a section principal in an orchestra:

  1. Leadership: The section principal is the leader of their respective section, which typically includes the first chair or top position within that section. They are responsible for guiding and leading the other members of their section during rehearsals and performances.
  2. Musical Interpretation: The section principal works closely with the conductor to interpret the conductor’s vision for the music within their section. They help ensure that the section plays in a unified manner with regard to dynamics, articulation, phrasing, and overall musical expression.
  3. Communication: The section principal serves as a liaison between the conductor and the members of their section. They convey the conductor’s instructions and musical ideas to the section members and help address any questions or concerns that may arise.
  4. Technical Excellence: Section principals are expected to demonstrate a high level of technical skill and artistry on their instrument. They set the standard for intonation, tone quality, and technique within their section, inspiring their colleagues to perform at their best.
  5. Rehearsal Preparation: They are responsible for preparing for rehearsals by marking their parts, studying the music in advance, and helping the section practice challenging passages. This preparation is essential for efficient and productive rehearsals.
  6. Solo and Exposed Passages: Section principals often have solo or exposed passages in the music, which require exceptional playing. They must prepare these sections meticulously and perform them with confidence and precision.
  7. Auditions and Audition Committee: In some orchestras, section principals may be involved in auditioning and selecting new members for their section. They may serve on audition committees to assess the skills and suitability of potential candidates.
  8. Mentorship: Section principals often provide guidance and mentorship to the other members of their section, especially younger or less experienced musicians. They help foster a supportive and collaborative atmosphere within the section.
  9. Collaboration: Collaboration with other sections is crucial to achieve a cohesive orchestra sound. Section principals work with other section leaders to ensure that the various sections blend well and that the overall performance is harmonious.

The specific responsibilities of a section principal may differ between sections and orchestras, but their role is vital in maintaining the quality, unity, and musicality of the orchestra’s performance. They are not only exceptional musicians but also effective leaders who contribute significantly to the overall success of the ensemble.