Paul’s Perspective: Etiquette for today’s Orchestra

In this month’s musings, I’ll share my thoughts on some of the toughest conundrums facing orchestras: outside, of course, of the financial challenges I’ve explained in the preceding months’ writings. These are some of the hot button topics that orchestra managers are often asked about. This will be my final column under the OPO banner, so I hope to make it a provocative one!


“What should I wear?” This is one of the questions most frequently asked of orchestra and box office staff. It reflects the unfortunate stereotype of orchestras being only for the wealthy and elite – there are literally folks that imagine that they must wear a tuxedo or ball gown, just to attend a concert! When asked this question, orchestra staff generally go to such great lengths not to offend anyone or play into the stereotype that they may say “just dress as you feel comfortable.” It’s well-meant, but for many, still doesn’t provide enough information. I prefer “dress as you would if you were going to a restaurant where a waiter will take your order.” Whatever that means to you, it will work. And audience members, the worst thing you can do, if you care about the future of the art form, is sneer at people who have worn a t-shirt or sandals or ripped jeans or whatever. If we make people feel excluded, those concert halls are just going to get less and less full.


One of my personal pet peeves is that orchestra men are asked to dress like a liveried servant from the Edwardian era, like they’re going to dinner at the Captain’s table on the Titanic. Most men no longer wear such formal attire as white tie and tails to be married, or to be buried, two places where it might have been more common in the past.

Orchestra women, on the other hand, are essentially just told to dress like Morticia Addams – “wear black.” The result is often some of the dullest outfits one will ever see, and even worse, frequently a poor match for the archaic formality of the men’s dress.

It’s true that many orchestra patrons still prefer this “traditional” look, but if you’re seeing it for the first time, it looks weird. Literally no one dresses like that other than orchestra musicians.

I think orchestras have emphasized uniformity and tradition to a fault. I think masculine dress (how most orchestras now define it, rather than “men” or “women”) should probably include a jacket, and yes, the color black may be involved in some way. But for feminine dress, I would like to see those frumpy concert black outfits gone for good. I think the feminine dress should be elegant, and formal, and OK to express some individuality. Bright colors OR black are ok, and I have no problem with sequins, shiny jewelry, sleeveless, or plunging necklines, all typically forbidden in orchestra collective bargaining agreements. Those kind of individual style choices should, of course, not be required, but they should not be forbidden, either.

I’m afraid that many orchestras will try to change from the past with uniform outfits that will make musicians look like oddly formal flight attendants. I personally think the answer is to dress like you’re doing something fun and exciting, and too much uniformity can be a problem. After all, it’s not like sports where you have to be able to tell one team from another!


The practice of not clapping between movements of a multi-movement work is typically viewed as “correct” practice by more experienced audience members. Newcomers, on the other hand, may have never encountered such a thing before, and anxiety about “when to clap” can be off-putting and discourage future attendance.

In fact, the practice of applauding only after the final movement is a relatively recent development in the history of Western art music. It only caught on toward the end of the 19th century – in Mozart’s day, it was the norm and even a mark of cultural sophistication to not just clap but to talk during a performance! Only novices who had never heard an orchestra before sat in silence. I’m not suggesting we go back to THAT, but it’s important to keep in mind that our current norms did not come down on stone tablets from above.

What makes it especially challenging is that there are situations where applauding between movements makes perfect sense, others where it really doesn’t, and others where opinions vary.

 Examples of movements where applauding after feels right and silence would almost seem weird: first movements of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Violin Concerto; first movement of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto.

Examples of movements where applauding after feels wrong and breaks the mood: 2nd movement of Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony; any slow movement in a Mahler symphony; probably anything marked “funebre.”

Tricky ones: the 3rd movement of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” symphony practically screams for applause, because it sounds like a finale. If silence is observed, however, it gives the drastic change of mood at the start of the 4th movement much more impact. I’d also say applauding after Scherzos can be OK if you’re going into an upbeat final movement (Beethoven’s 7th), but less so if you’re going into a contemplative adagio (Schumann’s 2nd).

It’s hard to generalize! Telling people to count the movements as they go by doesn’t always work, as many pieces have “attacca” movements that flow right into the next one without pause. Telling people to wait till others around them start to applaud can feel patronizing and contribute to a feeling of not fitting in. However, it’s a fact that silence is an important part of music, and the feeling a composer has tried to create can sometimes be disrupted by premature applause.

My feeling is this can only be managed in one of two ways: we just let applause happen, and if it’s at a time that feels right, the conductor should have the orchestra stand and acknowledge it. If not, they should wait for it to be over, but not acknowledge it at all; no quick turning around and flashing a pained grimace.

If they REALLY want to manage it, conductors need to carefully and kindly explain their preferences at the beginning of each multi-movement work. That can include saying when it’s OK (big first movements of concertos) and when they want to discourage it (after profound adagios). What is not going to work is what I hear suggested a lot, that we need to “EDUCATE” the audience. Does that sound like a fun night out to you, some guy in a suit comes out and lectures you about what not to do before the concert even begins? It’s not realistic for orchestras in 2023. It’s just off putting and confirms stereotypes people have about orchestras being for snooty rich folks.

For audience members, my advice is the same as I’ve read in a quote from conductor Marin Alsop, “Never applaud just because something is over, or in a perfunctory way”. Even when applause is appropriate – say, the end of Mahler’s 9th symphony – that’s also a situation where it’s really not desirable to have it start too soon. Some works inspire immediate responses – other times, even at the end of the work, let the music sink in and have its space for a moment. Think about what you just heard, and don’t be a premature clapper!


I believe that over time, we’re going to see more and more uses of devices at concerts. They may be used to follow scores or read program notes during the performances, and the use of a dark screen mode can eliminate the distracting bright light we usually associate with cell phones in the theatre. While more mature folks like myself appreciate a break from screen time, it’s unrealistic to expect that rising generations will buy into that. They want events to be interactive and sharable, and that means a smartphone.

What we can’t have is people talking on their phones during concerts, or letting them ring. People, it’s not that hard to silence a cell phone! How many times have we heard this scenario. First or second ring: not sure it’s their phone. Third or fourth ring: they realize it’s them and start fumbling for it. Next ring: a really loud one when they finally take it out. Finally it stops. It’s distracting and annoying to literally everyone in the audience. I’ve even seen someone take a call while seated in the row directly in front of the conductor! “Hello? Yeah, I’m at the symphony.” Sorry guys, it can’t be that important. Silence it.


Almost all orchestras offer family programs designed for younger minds and shorter attention spans. For the OPO, it’s the Symphony Storytime Series. If you’re a parent or grandparent wanting to introduce children to orchestral music, start with programs like that. Do not bring your 6 year old to a Bruckner symphony lasting over an hour. When that happens it’s often well-meaning, but it’s simply not considerate of others. As I noted earlier, silence is an important part of the classical music experience, and nothing breaks silence better than a fussy toddler or bored 8 year old. Only children who are mature enough to sit quietly without disturbing their neighbors should be brought to full length orchestra concerts. As I noted, there will almost certainly be other options designed with children in mind. Check those out first, before bringing little Johnny to Das Lied von der Erde. 


It’s not the music! It’s all the other baggage that surrounds concert going, especially feeling uncomfortable or out of place. Orchestra managements, conductors, and musicians can only do so much. All of us, as audience members, have a responsibility to help others enjoy the live concert experience. Don’t look down on people because of how they’re dressed, or because they clapped at the wrong time. It’s just not helpful. When behavior really is disruptive, see an usher or the house manager. They are trained to handle such situations.

Over the next few months, my focus is to be the best husband and caregiver I can. I do expect to have some further time to reflect on 30 years as an orchestra executive director before beginning my next chapter, whatever that turns out to be, and so I do plan to keep writing.

Look for future columns to appear on my personal LinkedIn page. Till then, please support your local orchestra, go to concerts, give what you can, and most of all be kind and tolerant to your fellow audience members. Frankly, be kind and tolerant to everyone – there’s far too little grace and patience in the world. We could all do more.

With my thanks and hearty greetings,

Paul Helfrich