“The expectation is that we sit.” Is concert behavior at odds with human experience?

You know the drill. Take your seat, don’t move, sit quietly, then applaud enthusiastically only at the appropriate times. Is this prescribed concert behavior the best way to engage audiences? Susan Key—special projects director for the San Francisco Symphony—examines this question.

Empty SeatsThere has been a lot of discussion lately in arts circles about the importance of listening to our audiences. For me, the point was underscored by an audience question during our March 17 Forum in San Francisco:

Sitting in the audience can be a very passive experience. I mean, my head is spinning. I have lots of thoughts going through it. But I’m not supposed to move… the expectation is that we sit. We’re well behaved. …but we’re not supposed to do anything. And I wonder whether on occasion there could be a little bit more—like in rock concerts [when] people get up and dance.

Her question brings up an issue that I think orchestras ignore at their peril: the distance between the multi-textured human experience embedded in the works on our concerts and the human behavior we prescribe for their consumption. Classical music is built on a foundation of the most basic human expressions: song, dance, lament, courtship. Because these “primal moves” (as Michael Tilson Thomas calls them) are so highly elaborated and nuanced, the music is best appreciated through quiet, attentive listening. But it is an imaginative, experiential understanding of the music that allows an audience member the fullest and most rewarding listening experience. This quality of understanding is most effectively created through direct musical experiences—which no doubt accounts for the fact that the best predictor of concert attendance is whether an individual has played a musical instrument in the past. Given the declining levels of music education over recent decades, an increasing number of audience members come without this personal history. And when they are told specifically not to move, not to engage in those activities which might give them a direct way into the piece, it’s no wonder that they find the experience frustrating or incomplete or even unsatisfying.

We need to give audiences more paths to great listening experiences: biographical and historical contextualizing, personal contacts with musicians, and musical guideposts to the piece. But more than anything, these paths need to recognize the way people learn and connect to information: it needs to resonate on an emotional, kinesthetic level, not just intellectual. While program notes offer background information, they are not designed for the kind of vital connections this audience member was seeking. (There is, in fact, a study that reading program notes actually diminishes enjoyment of the listening experience—a disturbing idea to those of us who have written reams of them! Listen to an interview with the author of this study.

During the recent American Mavericks festival in San Francisco, we experimented with some new approaches to the “pre-concert lecture.” We engaged actor/writer David Prather to develop a short theater piece about Charles Ives and the Concord Sonata. For a second concert, we engaged Pat Plude, Pam Quist, and Eliza Brown from the Walden School to develop interactive audience engagement strategies—including a Cage-style “happening.” I was extremely nervous beforehand: what would our audience think? Would they engage in singing? In following a set of seemingly random instructions?

I needn’t have worried. The pre-concert activities could not have gone better. The audience was energetic, engaged, and eager. Dozens of audience members later thanked us, saying that the activities had prepared them for the music—especially the Cage Song Books—better than any lecture could have.

Not all concerts feature such challenging repertoire, of course—but that only means that we are more likely to get by with “same old, same old” audience preparation.

Should we encourage dancing in the aisles during an orchestra concert? Probably not—because, as I said earlier, the medium is best absorbed through quiet, focused attention. But what’s wrong with offering waltz lessons in advance of a Schubert performance? Or leading the audience in a sing-along of the “birch tree” folk song Tchaikovsky used in his 4th Symphony? Or providing venues for our audiences to engage in discussion with each other and with the artists during intermission? Technology can be part of the answer—but only part. Nothing will replace direct, human interaction.

Different approaches will resonate with different audiences. But I suggest that we take up the questioner’s challenge, and offer our audience member more than a polite chuckle at her suggestion that a classical music experience might involve some of the same levels of engagement as a rock concert.

—Susan Key


  1. Rick Robinson says:

    Thank you Susan! This is one of my favorite topics… because it is time we face the fact that IF we want to attract audiences who don’t agree the terms we impose on a traditional concert, can we provide alternate products that or settings that meet them halfway? I have suggested the idea of a dance floor in the back of the main floor for persons who listen best on their feet. An alternate and non-permanent solution in many halls is to PERMIT audience to stand, pace and move in any available spaces that would not disturb anyone else. Ushers can monitor that no one becomes disruptive. Persons might even “conduct the orchestra” in this space if it is darker enough! This would give so many people a way in! My sister like to play “air violin” when she hears an orchestra.

    Of course this doesn’t allow people to make any noises, talk or sing along as folk like to do. For that you need to pipe the music into a seperate space along with quality video of the performers. I have advocated a “classical club” space in our halls both for this purpose as well as a pre- and post-concert continuation of the musical evening. A VEEJAY could oversee all these technological balances in a well-funded club that could become the envy of rock venues! NWS is doing this outdoors… why not inside for us in the north?

  2. Susan Key says:

    Fantastic ideas, Rick! I’d love to hear from more orchestra folks about what they have done / would like to do along these lines. Susan

    • Rick Robinson says:

      Thanks Susan. I would like to hear from ANY other orchestra musicians! Sadly, they must avoid such discussions like a rocker must avoid symphony concerts. Fortunately, there is a lot we can do independently of the orchestra… such as the Classical Revolution (.org) movement or my mission with CutTime® (.com).

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