Sunday, November 4, 2012

Knowing when to clap

This past weekend, I went to a jazz concert featuring a large ensemble playing the music of John Coltrane, and a chamber music concert of works by 19th and 20th century composers. A couple of months ago, I went to see a ukulele trio at a folk club and with some luck I might soon be able to see The Who during its 54th farewell tour. I like having “big ears” and enjoy the fact that many different kinds of music move me. Like many people, I believe seeing music performed live is the ultimate experience – if only ticket prices were lower or my salary higher, I would see live music every week.

Seeing jazz and classical music in the same weekend was aurally very exciting but I had to remain mindful of a key distinction between the two genres: when to clap. At jazz concerts, every soloist gets applause at the conclusion of their solo and a single tune could have five or more solos. In classical music, even when a piece has three or four parts or movements, applause must be held until the very end. I find that frustrating, since within a given movement, there are many times when a musician will play some very difficult and thrilling passages and I feel compelled to show my respect and appreciation. But out of decorum, I remain silent.

The hardest thing is at the end of a movement. The silence is more deafening, it’s downright uncomfortable. The only sounds one hears are the musicians adjusting their music or doing minor maintenance to their instruments (in the case of a French horn player I saw today, that included turning it over so his spit could drain out). It’s critically important to keep track of the movements so you know which is the final one. Of the three pieces I heard today, the first and third had three movements and the second had four. I have to admit I got confused and almost clapped at the of the second piece’s third movement.

The other important thing to remember about clapping at a classical concert is that at the conclusion of a piece, and at the end of the concert proper, the players will bow once or twice, then leave the stage. You must, however, keep clapping because they will return to acknowledge all the applause the audience has been struggling to contain throughout the performance. Then they go off stage again. If the performance was particularly bravura-riffic, like at the end of an opera, they may do this several times. Regardless of how many times they are brought back, however, they will not do an encore. They just want the applause.

It can be challenging at a jazz concert, too, because the culture of clapping at every solo can sometimes be a little much. After all, not every solo is stellar and deserving of special applause. Also, sometimes one player’s solo leads directly to another player’s solo and applause for the first player will make it difficult to hear the start of the second player’s solo. Do you disrespect the first player in order to show respect to the second player, or respect the first player at the expense of the second player’s chance to shine?

In between numbers, there isn’t much noise. The musicians don’t talk much and the audience quietly awaits the next tune. This is very different from a rock concert, where the artists are yelling at the audience, egging them on, and the audience responds with constant shouts and screams, and hoots and hollers. Particularly well-lubricated yahoos yell during quiet moments, and steadfastly clap in 4/4 even when the band is playing in 6/8. At the end of a rock performance, the audience, hungry for an encore – often simply to delay the inevitable crush trying to get out of the venue – may be left clapping for as much as 10 minutes until the band, redrugged and refreshed, comes out for a hit song or two that they deliberately omitted from the set list to ensure they would get an encore. Then they leave the stage again and the audience will hope that their clapping inspires the houselights to remain off. If so, the band has earned a legitimate encore.

Folk audiences are probably the most patient of all, because every folk song has some kind of story behind it that the folk singer feels compelled to explain. So they listen quietly and attentively to the story of the song, then to the song itself. Then they clap and wait for the next story, and the next song. Folk audiences are small so they tend to clap all the more loudly to make up for their paltry numbers.

Sometimes, an appreciative artist will applaud the audience. I’ve always wondered why. I suppose it’s because we clapped at the right times. Still, I’ve never earned an encore so I guess there’s room for improvement.

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