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Concert Etiquette: For God Sakes, Shut Up!

Concert etiquette used to mean not setting your neighbor’s hair on fire with your lighter during the hair band’s power ballad.  Now, it’s all we can do to get concert goers to turn off cell phones.

It’s high time for a review of concert etiquette.  Music aficionados may think a musical event that actually requires etiquette must only apply to classical music, an experience where people still dress up on stage and off.  Not true.  All genres have their rules; many of which even overlap.  In a time where new, youthful music directors at both the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestra make national news, all music is striving to be more mainstream. Jazz, rock, or Broadway-inspired cabaret are not to be overlooked.

Idina Menzel’s Crazy Fans

Idina Menzel with the New York Pops April 2009/ Photo: Rob Rich/IdinaMenzel.com

Last week, the Mann Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia hosted the Philadelphia Orchestra featuring Idina Menzel.  The singer, best known for her Broadway roles in “Rent” and “Wicked,” is experiencing a career resurgence on the hit TV show, “Glee.”  Based on the performance of some audience members, you might have thought it was a Phillies‘ game, where fans are known to storm the field and vomit on other fans.  This despite an interesting audience makeup featuring several definite trends: teen and tween girls and their moms (who love Wicked and Glee), gay men (who love Rent and Glee), and senior citizens (who love the Philadelphia Orchestra and cheaper outdoor seats).  In full disclosure, my husband and I fit the first trend, albeit a bit older than the girls and many of their moms.

Performers appreciate the sense of acceptance by their audience, but most don’t need help in programming the evening (that’s for you, song request screamers).  And performers who thrive on audience love, hearing “I LOVE YOU” yelled at every pause and song break just disrupts the flow.  Of course, Menzel closed the program with her “Wicked” hit, “Defying Gravity,” but not before a screamer goaded her into telling the story of how she broke her ribs during a performance of the show.  Menzel, patience wearing thin, offered “here’s my thank you,” before a powerful, inspiring explosion of the song.  The breaking point after a show full of mostly uninvited participation was during Menzel’s encore when she tried to gracefully mount a teetering stool wearing a flowing gown on a very hot, humid summer night.  She laughed off the attempt, inviting the audience to share and access the moment.  But when an audience member near me bellowed, “Don’t hurt yourself,”  the moment leading into a soulful rendition of “Tomorrow” from Annie, was ruined.

Menzel is not a diva.  With a few errant fans out of thousands present, she handled them like a pro: grin and bear it.  She spoke of lactating and the questionable lyrics in a Lady Gaga song (and proceeded to sing it).  She made fun of her mom in a Joan Rivers kind of way.  She’s a Long Island girl who worked her butt off, but saw enough time not working to graciously appreciate her fan base. Menzel profusely thanked the audience for paying good money to see her.  (Of course, an audience member loudly “reminded” her to thank the orchestra for backing her up.  Duh.  With a flourish, she re-thanked the orchestra, the conductor, her pianist, and a musician in the back playing the summer concert while seven months pregnant.)

Rudeness Doesn’t Discriminate

Jackson Browne in Concert, Reading, PA 2008/Carol Berman

I’ve seen similar behavior at smaller venues featuring singer-songwriter Jackson Browne.  We’re not talking snooty orchestra goers here.  Audience members are mostly baby boomers no longer influenced by the drugs and alcohol that fueled their concert experiences 30 years prior.

My point:  all these music lovers should know better.  And dropping $30 or $50 or $100 or $200 for tickets is not a license to be rude.  It’s not a personal concert in your living room.  If you want that, call Elton John.  He’ll do it for a $1 million donation to his AIDS charity.

I’m not saying to sit and do the “polite half-handed clap” after each song. I have enjoyed music experiences ranging from Bruce Springsteen to Depeche Mode to the late Ray Charles–where audience participation truly varies.  But it all got me thinking about the acceptable behavior at all types of concerts.  Just like performers work diligently to know and play to their audiences, concert goers need to know and understand their chosen experiences.  Bruce Springsteen expects song requests for his “stump the band” segment.  He expects homemade signs too, which might inspire the performance and cement an attendee’s memory as “the best ever. ”   Hall and Oates take requests too.  And frankly, when these artists have repertoires that span 30 years, it’s impressive to see a dusty B-side make an appearance after an audience inquiry.

The Rules

As I looked around and online, what’s striking is that the etiquette expected at concerts across genres is basically the same:

  • Don’t talk to your neighbor.  You’ll have to scream, and she won’t hear you anyway.  You’ll relive the concert on the way home anyway.
  • Don’t take more than one bathroom break if you’ve got to step over people.  A concert is likely two hours.  You can’t make it?  Then get an aisle seat.
  • If you’re going to sneak a photo, turn off the flash.
  • Arrive on time.  If there’s an opening act, they deserve the same respect as the headliner.  Remember, the headliner was once an opener, and you can say, “I saw them when…”
  • Related to time, if there’s intermission, don’t wait until the lights go back down to find your seat again.
  • Respect your neighbors.  Clap, sing along, and bop in your seat. But if you’re occluding someone’s view because you’re the only one standing, sit down.  Remember everyone around you paid to see the act perform, not you.  At the Fraze Pavilion in Dayton, OH, if an usher gets 5 complaints about you standing up, you’ll be asked to sit–and that’s embarrassing.  This happened at a recent Allman Brothers show.  If everyone’s up and dancing, go for it!
  • If you’re at a venue where eating and drinking is allowed, keep your garbage under your seat until you can toss it.  Otherwise, you’ll get annoyed when a person taking their bathroom break kicks over your beer or steps in your melted ice cream and makes a mess.
  • If you’re trying to expose your kids to music–great.  But if they’re restless, take them into the hall.
  • Don’t whistle.  It’s really annoying.
  • Many etiquette “experts” say you shouldn’t wear t-shirts of the concert or band you’re watching.  I agree it’s a bit nerdy, but definitely the lowest on the offense list.  Your clothes likely won’t bug me.  Your cat-call type whistle will.

There are a few specific actions related to genre:

Rock/Metal Concerts

  • If there’s a mosh pit and you don’t want to be jostled by fellow sweaty fans, drop $10 more and get yourself a seat 10 feet back.  You’ll still have a great view.

Jazz

  • If a musician has played a solo, which is often improvised on the spot, applause at the end of the solo (while the music is still playing) is perfectly acceptable.

Classical/pops/anything with a full orchestra

  • If the conductor hasn’t put his arms down, the music isn’t over.  Some classical pieces go on for 30 minutes or more.  Don’t applaud until his or her arms are down.

It’s a bit ironic that Idina Menzel’s signature song, “Defying Gravity” is all about breaking rules:

I’m through accepting limits
”cause someone says they’re so
Some things I cannot change
But till I try, I’ll never know!

But please, for the sake of thousands of music lovers everywhere, accept these rules of concert etiquette!  We’ll all have a better, more memorable time!

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1 comment

1 MJ { 06.28.10 at 6:48 pm }

This is a known issue at Idina Menzel’s concerts [sadly]. Many of her fans seem to think this is acceptable behavior. However, a larger portion of her fans despise the behavior of the first group and TRY to stop it, but..people are just idiots. There’s an 11-page thread on her message board comprised of 1 page of rules and 10 pages of people complaining about the actions of those who don’t comply. It’s very, very frustrating.

But Idina is still amazing. 🙂