Performance Practice and Concert Etiquette Check
by Robert Fisher, Catoctin School of Music
As more concert venues and performance opportunities emerge, some musicians may find themselves somewhat “out of practice” when it comes to performing live, on stage, in front of others. Here are a few common yet important tips and reminders for performers and audience members alike in preparation for the next performance you attend! This by no means is a comprehensive list of all procedures or requirements as every performance has its own unique requirements you should be aware of prior to arriving in person. Consider the following as a performer and as audience members attending your next performance!
1) Plan and be Prepared = PRACTICE! As obvious as this may seem, often a lack of time management or planning is the root cause of a nerve-wracking or poor performance. When possible, know when you will perform and save the date! Take note of the lead time to a performance and map out some basic practice sessions. Most musicians, especially seasoned ones, know that prepared practice always trumps panic practice. Know your ability (or ask an instructor to gauge your skill) and set realistic goals and expectations. For example, most non-virtuosic beginnings pianists know that it is completely unrealistic and unwise to plan on performing a Beethoven piano sonata for a first performance, let alone with a one-week lead time. Select level-appropriate music (again, a music instructor/professional should help guide you with this at first) for your ability and make sure you have adequate time to break down, practice and learn a piece for performance with the time given. Audiences expect to hear something prepared and ready. A simpler piece, well-executed and played with great musicianship always trumps a botched attempt at performing an extremely difficult piece wildly beyond the ability of the musician. Be realistic with your ability, difficulty of piece, and time allotted. If you are unsure, ask! Respect your audience and the performance by setting realistic, attainable goals. Be prepared and never neglect practice. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice!
2) Know Your Venue, Polices and Performance Procedures! Depending on the style and performance format, there may or may not be a specific dress code and performance requirements. As the performer, it is ultimately your responsibility in the end to be prepared for your performance. Ask your instructor, teacher, or venue what requirements, if any, there are for performing. Some music programs and performance venues list requirements for performers on a website or send informational packets to performers prior to the performances. Are there specific clothing/dress requirements for the venue? Most classical venues/performances require formal wear, however, specific venues may have unique requirements. Always consider the venue or if unknown after investigating, be prepared for the unexpected! Have backup options and equipment available. Some venues have stages that sit at eye level to the audience (keep performance wear in mind!). Other venues may take place outdoors where weather may potentially impact a performance (think about that gust of wind that may blow sheet music away or soaring/frigid temperatures that may influence what kind of clothing is needed). Consider: are you performing with a pit orchestra in the dark? Do you need to bring your own lighting? Do you need a music stand? Does your instrument require amplification? Do you require an backing track accompaniment played? Does the venue have the correct file or format needed? Once again, if you are unsure, ask and ask early! Performing includes more than just the notes on the page. Be prepared and know the environment you will perform in. Worst case scenario, be prepared to adjust to a variety of performance scenarios by preparing yourself practically and mentally for the unexpected!
3) In order to best prepare, practice performing! This is beyond your primary focus of practicing your music. Practice how you will enter the stage. Always take a moment to pause before launching into your first piece (taking a deep breath in and out helps slow the heart rate down). If using music, scan the beginning and end of the piece. Know where to place your hands, fingers and/or feet. Consider your posture. Remember that nerves tend to speed things up, so consider starting your piece a few BPMs slower intentionally. At the end of your piece, consider how you will bow for the audience. Practice this ahead of time! An easy way to bow is to simply practice walking a few steps towards the front of the stage, square your posture, keep your hands to your side, bow from your hips for 3 full seconds, and rise tall. A smile always helps relieve any tension or awkwardness of the moment. Remember to leave any sheet music behind for the bow: this is your moment to thank acknowledge and thank the audience for their time and attention. Practice exiting the stage as gracefully as you entered. Go through the motions, as funny as it may feel. If given an opportunity, practice these procedures in front of friends or family as a mock “audience”. Allow yourself enough time to learn and practice everything beyond performing your piece.
Knowing your venue, performance procedures/policies, and dress code will go a long way in helping you arrive and perform to the best of your ability with little distraction or worry. Practicing your entrance, performance, bow and exit ahead of time helps to ensure these simple yet important elements of your performance are ingrained in muscle memory. For many, nerves lead them to fall back on muscle memory and what is practiced ahead of time. Practice all that is involved with performing beyond the music.
For Audience Members – Concert Etiquette:
1) Arrive Early: most venues and performances announce performance start times. Plan on arriving early enough to find your seat (if assigned) and to get settled before the performance begins. This includes enough time to use the restroom if needed, stash a puffy jacket, grab a program if available and prepare anything else that may be distract if done during the performance. No one appreciates a crowd of latecomers standing in front of the audience and shuffling between rows. Anticipate travel time, traffic, and parking if necessary. If the venue is unfamiliar, plan enough time to arrive and “scope out” the facility before a performance. Depending on the venue, some larger facilities may have ticket and security check-in points which further adds to the time needed to get to your actual seat. Plan ahead. Show up early!
2) Enter/Exit/Applaud Where Appropriate: Depending on the format and style of the performance, different venues have different requirements and norms surrounding audience movement and noise during performances. Classical performances and venues generally have a strict expectation and set of etiquette rules regarding when to enter/exit the performance hall including staying silent and seated during a performance and not entering/exiting until intermissions or only during applause. Jazz venues can range from formal, semi-formal and informal, all with different levels of acceptable movement, noise, and activity during performances. Mid-performance applause and cheers are often more common and acceptable after jazz solos, for example. Rock, Pop, and Dance venues generally have the least formal venue etiquette requirements regarding movement and noise levels, depending on the level of the music and piece being performed. Generally, these types of performances have a combination of individualized seating sections and standing-only general admission sections. Movement and “crowd” noise is generally more acceptable with this format of performance. As a rule of thumb, know thy venue before arriving!
3) Silence is Golden (in general, for the audience!): Unless you are attending an outdoor or standing-format performance (rock/pop/dance concerts), it is generally expected the audience maintains silence during the performance. Applause is reserved for appropriate moments (End of a piece for Classical, after solo/end of piece for Jazz, etc.). Talking is generally frowned upon and highly discouraged. Avoid rustling a bag/program or making noise from your seat mid-performance. Most sit-down format performances require audience members to respect the performer and atmosphere by emphasizing the only sound to be heard during a performance should come from the musicians on stage! Consider the many hours, days, weeks (and years!) of preparation often required to prepare for a performance. Honor the time, efforts, and preparation of a performer by giving them to have your undivided attention and silence during their performance. *
* Cell phones and noise-making devices: turn them off! Triple-check your phone is off or in airplane mode. Nothing can ruin a beautiful musical moment on stage than the whine of a ringing or buzzing of phone rattling away against keys in a purse. Take a break from your device, transfer your attention to the performance. The rest of the audience and performers on stage will greatly appreciate it!
4) Screens OFF! Go Dark – Subtle is Golden! Just like noisy ringtone, a bright, glaring screen can also distract the audience or worse, performers on stage! The safest and best insurance of a distraction-free performance is to turn off any bright or noisy devices you bring. If you absolutely must always keep a device with a screen on, turn your screen brightness to its lowest setting before the program begins. In an emergency, it is far better to hold a dim-screen device low and below the eye level of others as to not distract or detract from a performance. Keep in mind that a darkened venue (as most are during performances) only serves to highlight any light-creating devices. What may seem dim to you may radiate far and wide to others around you in a pitch-black or nearly dark venue. Remember: you can almost always save a text or email for later, but the music created on stage is there and gone in that moment. Don’t cause others or yourself to miss these moments for when they’re gone, they’re gone! Respect and value music by keeping those devices off!
5) NO FLASH Photography! If you’re taking a picture (if allowed), remember to be quick, turn off flash (double-check please) and respect the line-of-view and space of others around you! It’s often best to save pictures for the end, during applause as to create the least amount of distraction. For those videographers, ensure that you have permission to video (some venues may have rules or copyright restrictions regarding the recording of audio!), and do not block the view of anyone else! If necessary, you may need to relocate to the sides or back of the venue before the performance begins to avoid blocking the sight of the audience. You may be trying to capture that special memory of the performance for yourself, however, everyone else in attendance is also focused on witnessing and experiencing the performance first-hand with minimal distraction. Don’t ruin everyone else’s experience by blocking the view or distracting the audience with your device. Remember: go dark with your device, avoid flash photography, and keep it subtle!
6) NO Snacking mid-performance! Unless you are attending a specific dinner-theatre, it is not appropriate to snack or eat during a performance. Not only is the sound of a crackling candy wrapper or crunch of someone snacking enough to take away from the aural experience of the audience and focus of the performer, eating mid-performance shows a complete disregard and lack of respect to the performer on stage. Performers have spent much time practicing and preparing to share music with an audience of more than just one and the audience has equally earned the right and devoted their own time to attend, support and experience a performance without distraction. Musical performances are for hearing a performance, not dining and the expense of distracting noises and food odors from a buffet in the front row!
7) Respect the Performer and their Equipment! Finally, don’t forget to applaud for performers where appropriate and if given an opportunity to meet with a performer at then end of a performance, remember to respect their space, time, and property. The Golden Rule for Musicians and their equipment: NEVER touch or hold a musician’s instrument or charge a stage/performance space without permission! For many performers, their equipment, and instruments they use are vital to their livelihoods and craft. Remember to always ask permission before attempting to handle an instrument and you will often gain their favor and respect in return!