Know Before You Go

A Field Guide to Concert Halls

Everything you need to know before you go to an arts event in a concert hall

Before the Show

Before any music fills your ears...

  • Dress up. No need for a tuxedo, but do try to look nice.

  • Bring warmth. Even if it’s toasty outside, bring a sweater or jacket. Concert halls are usually cold. It’ll be hard to concentrate on the performance if you’re shivering.

  • Bring your tickets. For obvious reasons.

  • Bring money. If you want to buy a souvenir.

  • Go. To see the lobby. To use the bathroom. To see the view from another part of the concert hall. Do it now, before the show starts.

  • Turn off your cell phone. And anything else electronic that could cause a ruckus.

  • Find the “EXIT” signs. Look for the illuminated signs over the doors. You always want to know where the nearest emergency exit is in a concert hall in case of a natural disaster, a medical situation, or a fire.

  • Read your program.  This tells you what music you’re about to hear, who composed it, and who’s playing and conducting it. You can also find out whether the concert’s music will have multiple movements, or part. (Concertos usually have three, and sonatas have three or four.)

  • Don’t munch.  At most concert halls, no food, gum, or beverages are allowed inside the hall itself. If you think you might need a breath mint or cough drop during the show, unwrap it quietly or, better yet, before the performance.

  • Thank ushers.  These are the people who give you programs, show you to your seat, and answer your questions. Sometimes they use flashlights to shine the way if you arrive late or need to leave to use the bathroom. Let them help you back to your seat so that you don’t trip.

During the Show

Let the music fill your head, but keep these other things in the back of your mind during the concert...

  • No pictures, please. Don’t take photos unless you have been told that it’s okay to do so.

  • Rest in peace. Shhhh. Save any chit-chat for later. The musicians need silence so that they can focus on their performance, and the rest of the audience needs silence to concentrate, too.

  • Respect the chairs.  Don’t put your feet on them, kick them, or make them feel bad about themselves.

  • Intermission: There’s a break about halfway through most concert hall performances. Some shows have two intermissions. This is a great time to use the bathroom (though the women’s room often has a long line), get a drink of water, blow your nose, stretch your legs, or eavesdrop as people sitting nearby make clever comments about the music.

  • Power outage? If it’s before the show or the end of intermission, you might see the lights go on and off several times or hear the sound of chimes. These signals mean audience members should sit down—it’s almost time for the show to start (or restart).

  • Place settings. Most orchestras arrange the performers’ seats in the shape of a fan, with the conductor at its narrowest point. The strings sit nearby, in the front rows, with first and second violins on the audience’s left and the violas, cellos, with double basses (usually) on the right. Farther back are the woodwinds (flutes, clarinets, oboes, English horns, bassoons, and contra-bassoons) and the brasses (French horns, trumpets, trombones, and tuba). From the balcony, you would have a good view of the percussion instruments (timpani, side and bass drums, and cymbals), which end up in the rear.

  • Tune up. After an orchestra is seated, the first violinist, or “concertmaster,” bows to the audience and takes his or her seat. This person then asks the principal oboist to sound an “A,” to which the entire orchestra tunes. Once tuned, the conductor and/or soloist walks onstage, and the audience applauds.

  • Think before you clap. In orchestra performances, you should clap when the first violinist appears onstage, when the conductor appears onstage, and at the end of each musical number—and not after each movement. Be careful. Sometimes it sounds like a piece is over, but it’s really just the silence between movements. Hint: Check your program. Or look at the conductor, who will only lower his or her hands fully at the end of a piece. When in doubt, wait and follow the crowd for when to clap.

    Let’s practice. Say you’re listening to a piano soloist performing Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Number 14, the “Moonlight Sonata.” 

     What you'll hear: What you should do: 
     The slow first movement  Don’t clap.
     The faster second movement Don’t clap.
     The incredibly fast third movement Clap here!

    Another clapping clue: When it’s time to applaud, the conductor might step down from the podium and bow. He or she may direct soloists to the front of the stage so that they can receive special recognition and applause as well. 

    Orchestra members might tap their stands instead of clapping.

  • Stand in support. If you love a performance, you can rise when you clap, and give the orchestra a standing ovation. Don’t be surprised if the audience yells out “Bravo!” or “Brava!” for a job well done.

  • There’s more? Sometimes, if the audience shows enough enthusiasm at the end of the concert, the orchestra will perform an encore. This means they will perform a musical number that’s not on the program—but it has to be one that they’ve rehearsed, so don’t yell out any requests!



Marina Ruben
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Lisa Resnick
Content Editor

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