Guide for Concert Virgins

Welcome to your first concert!

We’re so pleased to welcome you to our concert. As this is your first classical music concert we thought you might like some extra information about how everything works. You can also ask any of the players – we’ll happily say hello and answer your questions.

We know that classical music is sometimes seen as rather intimidating but as you can see we come in all shapes and sizes. And we are privileged to have you come along to support us, so thank you.

On this page you’ll find some information about the orchestra and the music we’re playing. You don’t have to read it, of course. You can just enjoy the music. We hope you enjoy the performance!

The orchestra

The word ‘orchestra’ originally comes from the ancient Greek meaning the space in front of the stage where a chorus sang and danced.

Orchestra began to be applied to a group of musicians during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Both the meaning of the word and the orchestra itself have evolved over time to be what we mean today – ‘…an organised body of bowed strings with more than one player to a part, to which may be added any number of wind and percussion instruments.’ (Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians)

Orchestral music

The core repertoire of the orchestra is based on symphonies, concertos, overtures, suites and choral works. Don’t worry about what any of these mean! The style of music written has changed considerably over time and that’s an interesting subject, but all you have to do is sit back and listen to whatever is being played!

It’s my first time!

Attending an orchestral concert for the first time need not be an intimidating experience. It may seem like there are certain conventions known only to the initiated, but these are mostly based on common sense – the sort of things you’d expect in a theatre or cinema.

Who’s playing what?

A full symphony orchestra can look bewilderingly large on the stage and it helps to understand what all those instruments are (to an extent – it doesn’t matter one jot if you can’t identify the instruments, but you may be interested, so read on).

The strings sit at the front, usually with the violins on your left, followed by left to right by the violas and cellos (with the instruments getting progressively larger and therefore lower sounding), with the double basses at the back on the right.

Behind the strings sit the woodwind, usually in two rows. In the first row you’ll find flutes and oboes, with the clarinets and bassoons behind. Depending on the piece, you might also see a piccolo, cor anglais, bass clarinet or contrabassoon.

Behind or slightly to the side of the woodwind are the brass. On the left as you look at the stage are the french horns; on the right, the trumpets, trombones and tuba.

Usually at the very back of the stage you’ll find the percussion instruments, dominated by the timpani (sometimes known as ‘kettle drums’). Other percussion instruments include cymbals, bass drum, triangle, snare drum, xylophone and tambourine – it just depends what the composer wanted or had available to them!).

When to clap and other ‘rules’

This is usually what worries people the most, but in reality the ‘rules’ are just common courtesy. You can clap* the players when they come onto the stage, if you like. Because there’s often a lot of us, this usually takes a while, so you may want to wait until the last player (the leader – the violinist who sits to the left of the conductor) and/or the conductor come on. The conductor usually takes a bow on behalf of the orchestra rather than just for themselves. Sometimes, we all bow!

Orchestral music can range from very, very quiet to very, very loud! Therefore, just like in the theatre or cinema, it’s best to try to keep quiet during the performance so that everyone can listen without being disturbed. When the music finishes, the conductor will drop their hands and you just react in an appropriate way. Sometimes the music is quiet and reflective or sad, so it feels right to stay silent for a few moments. Sometimes even after a loud ending you still just want to sit still and take in the enormity of it all. On the other hand, happy and celebratory music often ends with a bang and it’s entirely appropriate to shout and clap immediately!

If the music has more than one ‘movement’, very occasionally the conductor might ask the audience to hold applause until the end of piece. But if they don’t make this really clear, that’s their fault!

*Don’t feel you have to clap ‘politely’. If you’re pleased to see us or like what you’ve heard, whooping and cheering is encouraged. We’d prefer if you didn’t boo, of course! 😉

What if I don’t like the music?

Everyone is different. Sometimes, it takes a few listens for a piece to grow on us. Some people say, ‘Do you know what? This kind of music isn’t for me.’ That’s fine! Sometimes you’ll love one piece and hate the next, because there’s a lot of different styles in the wide category of ‘classical’ music. All reactions are valid – nobody is judging you.

We’re just pleased you’re giving it a try and hope that you feel really welcome. Enjoy!

Tell us what you think

We’d love to get your feedback on your concert experience. If you have time after the concert to fill in this survey, we’d be very grateful!