Clapping Outloud in all the Wrong Places

Last night Sanan and I went to a concert of orchestral music at the Conservatoire de Paris. It was lovely…a collaborative event by a small London orchestra avec un petit orchestre Parisien. One problem with evenings such as this one is that they have a tendency to attract mainly friends and family instead of purely lovers of classical music. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, in fact it is a really good thing since great music has a chance to work its magic on more people.

However, it is almost predictable that a certain classical music etiquette issue will trip up some of these newcomers, that is, as you can guess by the title….when and where to clap.

I’m sure you all know that when an orchestra is playing a multi-movement work such as a symphony by Brahms or a Tchaikovsky concerto, one should not clap after each movement but only at the end of the entire work. So, just as if on cue last evening, after the first of four movements of Mozart’s Symphony #39, about 40% of the crowd clapped enthusiastically. After which, the people sitting next to them politely whispered the above classical music clapping rule. However, many of these were sitting next to people who also clapped and got no whisper in the ear. So after the 2nd movement only about 20% clapped. Then after the 3rd movement only 10%. This causes me to be amazed at the social dynamics of group learning on the fly. Without the whisper, they perceived that very few people were clapping and they were one of them and something was not quite right so they begin to follow the crowd.

After the entracte we heard Beethovan’s Triple Concerto for violin, cello and piano. Now, as if to complicate the above clapping rule, one needs to know that normally symphonies have 4 movements and concertos usually only have 3. And as if to screw things up even more, some works connect two or more movements without a pause so one can lose count. This is the case with this particular concerto. However, there was a pause between the fast first movement and the slow second movement giving the audience one last chance to see how properly educated they had become. I was pleasantly surprised how everyone in the large room knew the rule. No one was clapping. Evidently the clapping rule was probably a major topic of discussion among many during the break.

At this point, I need to tell you that during the intermission two young women had come in and taken the only two empty seats in the hall which were right next to me. Keep in mind they had not attended the previous training session on the clapping rule. So just when I was being impressed at how 500 people had climbed the steep learning curve of the classical music clapping rule (CMCR?), the woman right next to me lets out a really loud and enthusiastic but lonely applause!

I could feel in the first 3 seconds of her defiant clap that she was totally disgusted with everyone in the room. My friends in the orchestra had just played their hearts out, and all these snobbish people couldn’t even clap? What is this!? (Especially when the awkwardly dead silence between movements does admittedly cry out for something to cover up the variety of nervous ticks of the orchestra members.) Come on people! Do I have to show you how to clap!?

Then I could feel in the last 3 seconds of her clumsy clap a sense of panic – Oh, no, something is terribly wrong! No one else is applauding! Is there a rock I can climb under? People are even shushing me! (It is my theory that those who just learned the rule are the loudest shushers.)  I was glad the room was dark so that no one could see me turn red in embarrassment for her. And I supposed that no one would think that she was my out-of-control daughter. I hope you will not be disapointed in me for not whispering the clapping rule to her. I figured she would be motivated to find out on her own. It is actually quite terrifying to feel a complete stranger next to you go through such a radical shift of emotion in only 6 short seconds and not be able to help….like watching a playful child reach up to get a toy that landed on a hot stove.

Now I hope you haven’t read all the way to this point expecting some deeply philosophical wrap up of all of this, because I can’t deliver on that. I simply find it amazing how the communal education process works (and doesn’t work) in a live setting. We ARE capable of observing and following, much like children do, without someone turning it all into a lecture series….I suppose that’s the way it has been working now for several thousand millennia. So, observe what’s going on around you. There may be more to learn out there than you think.


David Brazzeal