Finding the Audience Etiquette Balance

How can choruses be welcoming hosts – particularly to new audiences – while still creating concert experiences that everyone can enjoy?

Loud snoring. Ring tones with a calypso beat. Vibrating hip pockets. Wriggling toddlers. Flashing photography. Misplaced clapping. Mis-timed trips to the restroom. Uninvited dancing.

Every performer or audience member has tales to tell about behaviors that interrupted the flow of an otherwise beautiful concert experience. Some of us have even been perpetrators of said behaviors.

In the days before cell phones, one concertgoer recalls sitting next to a man wearing a Swatch (remember those?) that was ticking so loudly that it drowned out the Brahms symphony being performed. “It took all my self-control to keep myself from hurling the guy over the edge of the balcony,” she says.

Fast-forward to several years later, when the same concertgoer had young children in tow. “I was trying desperately to find a balance,” she says, “between keeping them quiet so as not to disturb others versus stomping all over their natural enthusiasm brought out by the music.”

That, in a nutshell, describes the challenge for music presenters considering guidelines for behavior in the concert hall. On one hand, they want to do all they can to ensure everyone’s enjoyment of the music. On the other, they don’t want to come across as finger-waggers who make newcomers feel they don’t belong.

“I always have trouble with the word ‘etiquette,’” says Martha Westland, executive director of the San Francisco Bach Choir. “It conjures up visions of box hats and white gloves, with disapproving glances at miscreants down the row. But it does bring up important questions about what is considered proper, correct, or acceptable, and who gets to decide.“

Being a Good Host

Matt Lehrman, a consultant with Audience Avenue, LLC , asserts that it is the responsibility of presenting organizations to set clear expectations for audience behavior. “Today, arts organizations emphasize being welcoming, inclusive and comfortable,” he says, “Like a good host, we must never let a well-intentioned audience member be embarrassed by their behavior. Our job is to guide them, protect them, and create an environment that is welcoming and forgiving.”    

A number of choruses have made it their mission to become that kind of ‘good host.’ “We have to understand that some folks know nothing about choral concerts,” says Jen Rogers Belledin, president and CEO of the Phoenix Chorale. For the sake of newcomers, it’s important to communicate about audience etiquette because it “can help to eliminate stress, concerns, or confusion about how to act or what to do when.” Not only that, she adds, “seasoned audience members appreciate the newbies knowing what to expect.”

Changing Times, Changing Behavior

Of course, what constitutes “proper” concert behavior has changed tremendously over the years, and continues to evolve. Opera houses in the mid-17th century were destinations for drinking, gambling, and socializing, “where the music was treated with noisy indifference, at best, or vocal contempt, at worst,” writes historian Alexander Lee in History Today (September 2017). Later, concert halls tended to draw the social elites, who, according Lehrman, “were acculturated into strict social structures and group behaviors.” Some of those prescribed behaviors—refraining from clapping between movements, for example—persist to this day in many symphony halls.

Choral concerts may or may not reflect the formality of a typical symphony concert. Choruses present a wide range of musical styles from many cultures, in places and spaces far from the concert hall. The Young Professionals Choral Collective in Cincinnati, for example, performs in local drinking establishments, where getting up close and personal with audiences is part of the experience. It is not uncommon for audience members to talk—even shout—at the performers.

Even within a single chorus’s season, the programs may call for very different kinds of interaction, and may be designed to attract different audiences. A performance of the Brahms Requiem will have a feel that’s different from a program of rhythmic world music and, naturally, a different kind of concert etiquette. Children and youth choruses might make different decisions about handling young – and perhaps noisy – audience members than an adult chorus would – and an adult chorus might even decide to handle children in the audience differently depending on program or venue.

How to Help Your Audiences

Set up conditions that lead to good behavior. As artistic director of Anima, the children’s chorus in Chicago, Emily Ellsworth has learned not to be “police-like” in enforcing certain behavior. “I remember one concert where the conductor glared at a crying baby and the mother had to slink out embarrassed,” she says. “It just put a pall on the whole concert.”

A better approach, she says, is “less control and more engagement.” From her perspective in San Francisco, “We can set up conditions that lead to right behavior. We want to behave in a way that enables us to get the full effect of the experience,” she says. “But in the end, the only people we can control are ourselves.”

Toward that end, Anima concerts have “a through-line or a linking idea with natural rises and falls within sections,” Ellsworth says. “We’ve also gone to shorter concerts, without intermission, sets without applause to move things along, and visual interest whenever possible, including movement, images on screens, lighting effects, etc.”

Be explicit about how you’d like audiences to behave. For example, if you’d prefer no applause between movements or pieces, have your chorus manager or music director make that announcement from the stage, with an explanation of why it is important. And include a note in the program. “Conductors can also hold the applause at bay by keeping their hands up at the end of a movement,” says Moxley. 

Offer more than one reminder about silencing cell phones. Most choruses make the announcement at the beginning of the concert, and in the concert program. But since the phones often come out again at intermission, it pays     to repeat the request. “It can be as simple as ushers holding up a cell phone and walking through the aisles,” says Moxley.

Some choruses have created a policy statement about concert etiquette. The Boulder Chorale’s recently created policy includes the expected requests to refrain from talking and to turn off cell phones, along with a specific note about handling disruptive children. Even if audience members don’t read the entire policy, says the Chorale’s executive director Ethan Hecht, “I do think it provides our ushers with the support they need.” The policy concludes with this rationale: “It is important to respect the rights of each listener to enjoy music performed in a concert hall environment without distraction. We reserve the right to address and resolve any disruption during a performance.”

Provide a more accessible entry point. A casual performance experience can give a new audience an opportunity to get to know your organization in a more relaxed atmosphere. “Being quiet in a concert may be traditional, but it isn’t the only way to experience a concert,” says Belledin. “We need to break down the barriers and help people, positively, to become an audience together.”

Toward that end, The Phoenix Chorale opens its rehearsals in Trinity Cathedral to the public during annual Arts Walks, so that people can wander in and out without the barriers of what to wear, where to park, when to clap, etc. “It’s a free- for- all,” says Belledin. “People can take pictures and videos and observe the rehearsal process. We let them have that moment to say, ‘Look at this cool thing I am doing.’”  

Offer context to enhance understanding. Some organizations offer a “First-Time Concertgoers Guide” that provides information about the group, the performers, the music, the conductor, as well as the basic “rules of engagement.” Findings from Chorus America’s Audience Impact study suggest that audience members crave this kind of “curatorial insight” about the music and the performers.

“Think about it from the audience’s perspective,” says Moxley. “What are they seeing and hearing? The more comfortable they feel and the more knowledgeable they are, the more they’ll feel part of the family and want to come back.”

Pay attention to the tone and timing of your communication. “When we first passed our policy, I put a link to it every place we had information about tickets,” says Ethan Hecht of the Boulder Chorale. “My marketing person pointed out that that's not the friendliest way to greet people. We now only have it on the main ticketing page and in the program book itself.”

Incorporate technology … but with awareness. Some choruses try to deflect the intrusion of electronic devices by inviting audiences to take the requisite selfie at prescribed times during the concert. “People live with technology,” says Belledin, “so it’s something you have to consider. It’s trendy to go to a concert and document the fact that you were there.” The Phoenix Chorale allows photos while the artists are walking on the stage, or when they’re taking a bow, but discourages it otherwise.

For some groups, the use of social media is part of the concert experience. At      a recent concert addressing gun violence, Tonality encouraged the use of cell phones at a prescribed time in the concert to get the message out to the community at large. “At the same time, we wanted the music to hold people’s attention enough so that they would want to be with us,” says Blake, “to be present to the stories and not want to be on their phones.”

A Trust Relationship

Concert etiquette, at its best, is about making space for the beauty of the music to shine and to enrich our lives. When approached in this way, the issue becomes less about certain behavior and more about making a connection.

As Ellsworth of Anima says, “We want to give our home audiences an experience, rather than ‘just’ a concert.” Blake of Tonality agrees. “I think if we can make concerts more interactive, in general, we will not have to worry so much about how people act.”

“You have to be very present to the exchange between the audience and the choir. There is a trust relationship there that is sacred and special,” says Belledin. “We need to create experiences where everyone wants to be engaged for that period of time, so that you come out transformed, transfixed, transported.”