The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Listening etiquette should be the same outdoors as in concert halls | July 12, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

This posting is a favor to a loyal friend of The Ear.

And just maybe to many others too.

This friend, who sponsors local classical music and attends many indoor concerts, likes to go to the FREE Concerts on the Square (below) given by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

The third one of this summer is tonight at 7 p.m. on the King Street corner of the Capitol Square.

The guest artist is classically trained Robert Bonfiglio (below), the “Paganini of the harmonica,” who will perform several serious works including two by George Gershwin and one by Russian composer Alexander Tcherepnin. (You can hear Bonfiglio perform the second movement of Tcherepnin’s Concerto for Harmonica and Orchestra in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For more information about the concert and what happens at it, including food and other activities as well as a biography of the soloist, go to:

However, what disturbs The Ear’s friend, who will be there tonight, is the rudeness or thoughtlessness that often interferes with appreciating the music.

“Maybe,” the Friend said, “you can post something about it and that might help.”

True, the summer event is designed for socializing and eating and drinking and having fun. And there is plenty of time for all those things.

But when the music starts, it is only fair to pay respect to the musicians who work so hard to perform it and to other listeners who want to hear it.

That means silence.

People should stop chatting, talking or laughing during the music.

They should avoid making unnecessary noise and movements and help allow other audience members to concentrate and focus on the music.

In short, the rules or etiquette for listening to music should be the same outdoors as they are indoors in the concert hall.

And that goes not only for Concerts on the Square, but also for the Concert on the Green by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the upcoming Opera in the Park (below) by the Madison Opera on July 22 and the outdoor Concert in the Park performance on Aug. 9 by the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras.

Anyway that is what The Ear and his Friend think.

What do you think?

And how do you generally find listening to music at Concerts on the Square and other outdoor performances?

The Ear wants to hear.


  1. The thing is – I don’t think it’s rude or disrespectful to talk and drink and laugh. That’s the sort of venue it is. It’s a place to have a picnic, meet up with friends, and also hear some music. As a performing classical musician, this kind of behavior does not bother me at all.

    And children? They should be free to play and laugh and have fun. I’m always uncomfortable with telling children to be quiet. If their parents are always telling them to sit down and stop talking, they will associate these events with boredom and discomfort, and they sure won’t be likely to seek them out fifteen years down the road.

    I agree that it can be annoying to have to strain to hear music fully. I feel that way at rock concerts sometimes, too, when I’m sitting next to someone particularly drunk and enthusiastic.

    But there are so many venues at which the audience remains immobile and silent throughout the performance (which, of course, is a relatively recent phenomenon, one that I admit I do not always understand). This just isn’t one of them.

    Comment by ivy — July 13, 2017 @ 8:44 pm

  2. I also appreciate Ronnie Hess’s fair and thoughtful questions.

    I have a drastic suggestion for all of the open air concerts. The producers of these events can develop contracts with all vendors requiring them to stop selling food, drink and souvenirs during the live music. People arrive so early to secure their desired locations, and there’s plenty of time before and after the live music for buying and selling. Signage can encourage people to buy early. The vendors need to simply stop selling. If all vendors agree to do this in order to be assigned a space, it’ll become a standard practice anticipated in advance. I wonder if this happens anywhere during open-air concerts in N. America or Europe.

    Comment by Ginny Moore Kruse — July 13, 2017 @ 10:45 am

  3. Some random thoughts: Being loud is frustrating behaviour when you want to listen. It might spread the love of classical music. People don’t care for their children as they once did. It makes sense that people get upset. But here’s another perspective…

    It disheartens me when our kids (at WYSO) work so hard (as do the professionals) and people are rude. But to shut out all of the negatives, I focus on listening. If I can’t hear them, I move closer (I know – not always an option but when it is, I do). For those who are loud, perhaps just one small measure gets through (while they yell “pass the beer”) and the next time they hear classical music, they might stop and pay attention, or perhaps they will use their manners on the way home. Perhaps they had a hard day and it is their only release. I can’t wait to go to Concert on the Square and Concert in the Park. Live music is a gift I love to open and I will go whenever I can. Life is rarely quiet. Thank you, Ear, for all you do to spread the word.

    Comment by Andrea Gibbs — July 13, 2017 @ 8:55 am

  4. Worst offenders (aside from Nigel Kennedy): couples with children. Invariably, the couples allow their offspring to wander around, play games, yell and scream. I don’t blame the children, but the parents are really something else these days.

    But hey, this is what our society has become. And as my story above indicates, the boorish behavior sometimes occurs IN the concert hall. Wasn’t it last year that a fight broke out in Chicago’s Symphony Hall during a concert?

    Comment by FFlambeau — July 13, 2017 @ 8:12 am

  5. It’s a social, public event.

    The purist concert-going experience has only been around for a few generations, and to me signifies the top-down structures that always seemed to be perpetuated by white, upper-middle class, Western, males. Typical, conservative performance practice is (luckily) dying out along with that perspective of “dominance”.

    Comment by aneciabennett — July 12, 2017 @ 3:40 pm

    • Excellent questions by Ronnie Hess.

      My own suspicion is that such concerts do next to nothing to bring in new listeners/performers to classical music. The attitude is: it’s free, we can drink and have fun outside. Music? Where’s the Star Wars theme and it’s mostly a party anyway!

      And I suspect that the musical organizations which see this as “outreach” are sadly mistaken. But it looks good on the websites, in their stats, and when conductors are looking for new jobs. “Look what I did to bring in the public!”

      Maybe these organizations need to sit down and rethink all of this and ask the same questions you put so well.

      In addition to the museums you have noted, and I agree with you on that, what about libraries? Many of them are like zoos today.

      Comment by FFlambeau — July 13, 2017 @ 8:30 am

  6. If only the mosquitoes could read.

    Comment by Augustine — July 12, 2017 @ 8:30 am

  7. Dear Ear,
    This is the wrong forum for this discussion, perhaps. As in preaching to the choir. You are not reaching the people who need the lesson in etiquette; they probably are not participants in your blog. But is there really an etiquette here? Isn’t there an acceptance of the talk by the sponsoring organizations? Just as, forgive me, museums now allow cell phone conversation in exhibit rooms.
    I, too, gave up on outdoor concerts long ago.
    But here’s what I’d really like to know….how many new patrons or subscribers do these concerts generate? Do ticket sales for the regular season increase? Are there statistics the WCO or opera would share? Do people feel that classical music is more approachable as a result? Because if that IS the case, we shouldn’t be complaining.

    Comment by Ronnie Hess — July 12, 2017 @ 8:23 am

  8. This is why I do not go. When the Chamber concerts first started there was no attempt to ask people to be silent during the music and the game was lost. Opera in Park is a bit better but as the evening goes on and more drinking it does decline.

    Comment by Lynn Gilchrist — July 12, 2017 @ 8:11 am

  9. We took out-of-town guests to Concerts on the Square, and although they are not at all stuffy, they were very disappointed that other audience members kept them from enjoying the music. I agree with Drew Fondrk’s comment.

    Comment by Margaret Irwin — July 12, 2017 @ 8:06 am

  10. I gave up on going to Concerts on the Square years ago because I couldn’t hear the music for the talking. There are signs posted but people do not heed them. I doubt if even wandering “concert police” would have any effect.

    Comment by Gingerama — July 12, 2017 @ 8:02 am

  11. I don’t attend outdoor concerts because it is so obnoxious and it is hopeless to think it will ever be otherwise.

    Comment by Drew Fondrk — July 12, 2017 @ 7:24 am

  12. Agree but I have a strange but true story for you. This took place INSIDE a concert hall in a high-priced ticket area. The first part of the concert featured violinist Nigel Kennedy.

    I had good seats. During the second half of the program, two people behind me were so loud that I finally turned around and asked them to stop talking out loud. The offender: Nigel Kennedy.

    Comment by FFlambeau — July 12, 2017 @ 4:11 am

  13. Ear, you’re dead right about indoor/outdoor concert etiquette, especially those including symphony orchestras, means that despite being outside,listeners should NOT be walking around, talking, etc. For the convenience of those who want to HEAR the music, everyone should refrain from anything OTHER than listening.

    Comment by buppanasu — July 12, 2017 @ 12:09 am

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