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Thank you, you've been a terrible audience! 

Whatever happened to concert manners?

If you were wondering who the miscreants were who decided to ruin the Dec. 1 Cal Poly Choirs’ “A Christmas Celebration” by clapping longer than mob psychology deemed necessary, then wonder no longer—my four friends and I were those miscreants. I realize now that we didn’t take your patience into account when we decided to show our appreciation and support for the arts and the students, and for that reason you probably feel you are owed an apology.

Well, you aren’t getting one. That you felt the need to catcall your disapproval to wherever you thought we were sitting reminded my four friends and me that we belong to an ever-diminishing group of people who keep in our hearts a long-standing and important San Luis Obispo Performing Arts Center tradition, and careful study of the rest of the night revealed your utter ineptitude when it came to anything resembling performance attendance etiquette.

Let’s start with the tradition. Some years back, at one of a plethora of the PAC’s school choral festivals, one group was so beloved by the audience that, despite the choir’s large size, the majority of the clapping didn’t stop until the entire mass of singers had made its way off both the risers and the stage. Since then, hosts have attempted to encourage the audience to do so for every group, both as they file on the stage and off, in order to keep the spirit alive.

But what spirit is that, exactly? Well, it’s the spirit of support. Though I imagine that more than one audience member may have been there just to hear the music; the majority, if not entirety, of school concert-goers attend to support the students. It’s about them, you know. And despite your insistence that we stop, clapping for the entire time serves students in a couple of different ways.

One is purely practical; no one wants to just sit there and watch 100 students file on and off of a stage. While, as the saying goes, “Silence is the frame around music,” awkward silence has nothing to do with that. And, unless there’s a transitional piece being played on the organ or piano or whatever, then awkward is honestly how you’re making some of the students feel when you decide to remain basically silent for a noticeable chunk of gear-shifting. No one wants to be the one baritone who, having followed his section as it began moving in to thunderous applause, is greeted with silence as soon as he appears. You may not be trying to hurt his feelings, but the doubt is still there. Which brings us to the other, perhaps more obvious way clapping the entire time is supportive.

Let’s face it: Many, if not most, of the attendees to “A Christmas Celebration” were friends or relatives who had come to see their loved ones perform. There was a reason the balcony was nearly full, prompting anxious exchanges between ushers as to whether the gallery could finally be opened or not. This is to say nothing of the skill and quality of the combined masses of Cal Poly Choirs, which are certainly talented—I simply know from experience that it can be very hard to get a space that large that full. But! There’s a difference between cheerfully attending a relative’s performance and reluctantly attending due to some sense of contractual obligation. There were many moments at “A Christmas Celebration” where it seemed almost painfully obvious how many people fell into the latter category. This is something that comes across rather plainly to the students as they take in the unenthused applause, and could very well hurt their feelings more than help them. In other words, as much as a student appreciates your support by attendance, they’d appreciate just as much, if not more, your seeming to enjoy yourself. (Which I thought a hard thing not to do given the well-chosen pieces and clever staging of the “Choir Cameos” section.)

While we’re on the subject, do you know of a few other things that might be making a student’s experience worse? Here’s one: not knowing when to start clapping. There’s a simple rule to this one that your student is probably going to point out to you afterward: You don’t start clapping until the conductor lowers his or her hands. There is such a thing as a pause between segments of a melody, or simply a pause for effect. Oftentimes, these concerts are recorded onto a CD for each student to take home and cherish for the rest of their lives. If a well-timed rest to increase the power of the subsequent dynamic markings is ruined by some audience member who shouldn’t even exist within the space of the song, how do you think that will make the student who loved the piece so much feel?

For that matter, turn off your cell phone. Please. Even assuming you’ve never gone to a choir concert, this should be common sense, as well as common courtesy. You don’t enjoy it when you’re watching a movie and the Nokia tone shakes you out of the drama for a moment, do you? And Murphy’s Law dictates that if your phone has the opportunity to disrupt things at the worst possible moment, then it will do so. I will never forget when, during beloved choral director Gary Lamprecht’s final concert with San Luis Obispo High School Choir before retiring from his position there, a phone pierced the air partway through the final bars of “Sleep” by Eric Whitacre, during which the choir grows softer and softer until it is almost, but not quite, inaudible. With the disruption of beautiful chords and dynamics came the additional sound of collective heartbreak.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh, though. At 19 years old, I am nonetheless a curmudgeon of concert attendance, harkening back to the glory days in which concert attendance etiquette was mandatory learning. Perhaps my old age is already setting in, though, as in reality such etiquette has never been mandatory learning.

I’ll make you a deal. I’ll stop clapping longer than what you find necessary if you understand the fact that I’m probably taking the concert more seriously than you are.


Contributor Chris White-Sanborn is musically and writingly inclined. Send comments to the executive editor at [email protected].

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