What, exactly, are the new rules on silence in concerts?

What, exactly, are the new rules on silence in concerts?


norman lebrecht

July 21, 2016

The pianist Peter Donohoe has been disturbed, on more than one occasion, by people sitting in the front row. 

A few days ago he wondered: ‘Why are those who least want to go to a concert & least capable of decent behaviour so often in the front row nearest the soloist?’

Now he shares an even more perplexing incident that occurred late last year. It raises several issues, not least whether the guidance is clear enough as to what you can, and cannot do, in a serious concert.

Here’s Peter’s account of what happened:

peter donohoe



It was a concert devoted to the works of Sir Malcolm Arnold, to celebrate what would have been the composer’s 95th birthday, and took place in Northampton (the composer’s birthplace). I played his Fantasia on a Theme of John Field with the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Martin Yates. Arnold’s Philharmonic Concerto and Seventh Symphony were also in the program.

A family of four (parents and two children) were so noisy during both the Philharmonic Concerto which opened the concert and the Fantasy on a Theme of John Field (for piano and orchestra) that I insisted on a complete repeat of the performance of the latter after the concert had finished – for which a very large percentage of the audience very kindly stayed. I would have done everything in my power to prevent the Radio Three broadcast on [the following] Tuesday had we not done this repeat performance; the disruption was greater than any I have ever experienced, even though to all intents and purposes the actual playing went very well. The repeat will of course have run up a very large overtime bill for the orchestra – whose members could not have been more cooperative, and who played both performances brilliantly.

Whilst I was offstage in the interval negotiating the repeat performance, unbeknownst to me, but witnessed by my wife and several friends, a gentleman in the audience shouted very loudly to the family concerned – right across the hall – that he hoped they were going to show the rest of audience and performers a lot more courtesy and consideration during the second half than they had during the first (or words to that effect). This was greeted with an ovation of support from almost everyone in the hall.

The father of the family retorted that the BBC announcer had asked the audience to talk normally during the concert – this was a misunderstanding of the announcer’s rather strange and somewhat unnecessary mention that the audience should feel able to talk normally and not be inhibited by the BBC’s microphones, so that lonely listeners at home would know that there is a world ‘out there’. [I must say that I have never before experienced an audience being beseeched to make MORE noise; nevertheless, I can only assume and hope that he meant his request to apply only to the moments between pieces rather than during the performances; having said that, he was talking to the audience during all the intervals between pieces, so I am actually at a loss to explain it. I would also feel somewhat patronised if I were listening on the radio, but then that bit would probably have not been broadcast.

I gather that the resulting tension between the family concerned and the rest of the – extremely good and attentive – audience was verging on the violent. Some of those colleagues and friends who witnessed the atmosphere at the start of the interval were half-expecting a ‘Sacre du Printemps premier-style’ riot. Fortunately it did not get that far, but it was very serious.

Apart from the specific issues of the evening, it does raise the point that it is very difficult to know where to draw the line whilst onstage – to make a decision to stop the performance, and risk upsetting large numbers of the audience, or to carry on and regret not stopping as we did. It also begs the question – what were the hall staff doing whilst this was going on? As the two works in the first half of the program added up to around forty-seven minutes, surely someone in authority at the hall had enough time to deal with it. The BBC production team were presumably too busy with monitoring the recording – or perhaps did not hear how disruptive the noise was in the hall (as it was an OB, the team was in the BBC truck outside) – to do anything.

[It was suggested that one of the two children was autistic. I do not know whether this was true or not. If not, the family should simply not have been there in the first place because none of them knew how to behave in a concert, failed to take their cue from the rest of the audience, and should have been ejected from the hall at the first opportunity. If the child was indeed autistic, it opens up a very sensitive issue, to which I do not pretend to know the answer, except to say that, if that is ever the case, the performers need to know beforehand, so that they can continue to perform without anger.] However, it seems that it was the BBC announcement – that several hundred people understood was best ignored, but one family of four saw as a green light to behave as if they were at the Pantomime – that was partly responsible. And it was the father, not the child, who came back with a very aggressive defensive response that nearly caused a riot.

Anyway, the second performance was listened to extremely attentively by a splendid and understanding audience, to whom I am very grateful. That was the one that was broadcast on BBC Radio Three.


  • Bennie says:

    Fire the ushers.

  • pooroperaman says:

    ‘The father of the family retorted that the BBC announcer had asked the audience to talk normally during the concert – this was a misunderstanding of the announcer’s rather strange and somewhat unnecessary mention that the audience should feel able to talk normally and not be inhibited by the BBC’s microphones, so that lonely listeners at home would know that there is a world ‘out there’.’

    Radio 3 presenters often speak to the audience before concerts and ask people to be talking to their neighbours when the broadcast begins, to give listeners at home a greater sense of atmosphere.

    Very obviously, they do not ask them to talk during the music, and this father was evidently half-witted to assume that the presenter of this concert had done so.

    It was noticeable, however, that Petroc Trelawney did not ask the audience at last Monday’s Proms Chamber Music concert to talk to each other. Perhaps, at last, Radio 3 have learned their lesson.

    • Michael says:

      I’m sorry you post such angry and negative comments Pooroperman, and feel you can call people “half-witted” without even knowing them.

      • Bruce says:

        I keep misreading his username as “pooperman.” I guess it’s just something about the way my mind works :-/

    • Bruce says:

      “Radio 3 presenters often speak to the audience before concerts and ask people to be talking to their neighbours when the broadcast begins, to give listeners at home a greater sense of atmosphere.

      Very obviously, they do not ask them to talk during the music, and this father was evidently half-witted to assume that the presenter of this concert had done so.”

      Is it possible that the father is fully witted but was not familiar with concert etiquette?

  • pooroperaman says:

    ‘If the child was indeed autistic, it opens up a very sensitive issue’

    Actually, no, it doesn’t. If you can’t behave, you shouldn’t be there, whatever your excuse/reason/handicap/condition.

    • Michael says:

      “if you can’t behave”?? Pooroperaman, are you the gatekeeper of classical concerts? The “behavior expert? Since when does Classical music require such reverent attention and silence? I, for one, believe that is exactly why the music is falling out of favour with audiences today. As a genre it needs to be more accessible to all audiences, and not so exclusive and haughty!
      Let people express their joy, displeasure, talk to eachother and share memorable moments as they experience them. The performers also need to be a bit more flexible and loosen up!

      • Ballymurphy says:

        Michael, you are a numbskull who should never be allowed anywhere near a concert hall. All classical music in live performance requires absolute attention and silence. This is because Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler and all permit us to glimpse a higher realm of thought and feeling than the quotidian world we inhabit down here on earth. If you are not prepared to make sacrifices to enter that higher world, then stay away. But I very much doubt that you have any idea of what I’m talking about.

        • Michael says:

          Wow, so angry Ballymurphy, and no need to be disrespectful. It is a matter of opinion, no right and wrong.
          And I happen to work full time at a Classical radio station, so yes I do understand the music and what it takes to perform the pieces.
          I will also add however, that it is not only Classical music that can help us reach to other realms beyond earth (a bit narrow-minded to believe this), and that each person experiences music in their own way. Whether it is rock, jazz, folk or any other genre, music is a completely subjective experience.
          Please understand that Classical music (or should I say Western Classical music) is not meant to sit up on a pedestal and be so lonely and distant from us average people.

          • MacroV says:

            I believe Ballymurphy’s comment is meant to be satire. But I could be wrong.

          • Paul Davis says:

            No, it’s not a matter of opinion, it’s fact. You seem most unsuitable to be working with classical music if you can’t understand it….or possibly employed as one of the “useful idiots” to sow disinformation.

      • Bruce says:

        Name-calling aside:

        Classical music is meant to be heard all the way through. Noise during a concert means that the audience misses part of the piece. You can’t vamp until the audience quiets down and then continue. Whatever happened is just gone, especially if you don’t know the piece.

        Silence from beginning to end (within reasonable parameters, e.g. you are allowed to cough/sneeze, but try not to do the kind that sounds like a person shouting… unwrap your lozenges or candies ahead of time… that kind of thing) is just good manners.

        People’s hearing is set on “high” during a concert, if they’re paying attention. Distracting noises become even more distracting for the same reason that a scary moment in a scary movie is scary: you’re paying extra-close attention, and something that would not have startled you in a crowded football stadium is very startling. (Come to think of it, if you talk at normal volume through a suspenseful movie, you’re likely to earn the ire of that audience too.)

      • Jon says:

        That’s all very well Michael, but spare a thought for the people who have gone to the concert to listen to the music rather than chat to each other, play with their phones or any other types of behaviour. When I go to a concert I generally listen in silence not because I want to feel ‘exclusive and haughty’, but because I want to listen to and experience the music, and also because I am considerate and don’t want to spoil anyone else’s enjoyment of the concert.

        In your brave new world, concerts may well be more accessible to noisy and selfish people who couldn’t give a fig about disturbing other audience members, but I suspect they would be much less accessible to people who want to listen to the music. I for one would probably cease going to concerts if I knew that the music would be constantly interrupted by noise from inconsiderate audience members.

  • Frederick West says:

    Having previously made some comments regarding Keith Jarrett’s recent prima donna episode I have to say that Mr Donohoe’s ordeal is something else.
    This idea that lowering expectations of audience etiquette in a rather vain attempt at securing a wider audience and gaining greater engagement is a dead end. Serious music making requires stamina and effort, it’s not the circus maximus and artists should expect an audience to show some respect and a similar degree of concentration.
    The audience for Opera North’s Ring Cycle showed how it could be done properly and that certainly required some stamina!

  • Schiehallion says:

    As an orchestra exec, I sure would never ever hire such a sissy soloist. Cost of overtime for a typical fussy soloist!! Hey, just accept this is live!

    • Bruce says:

      Not sure how things work in the UK, but in the US this would never happen* if it involved paying overtime.


    • Peter Phillips says:

      Peter Donohoe is a friendly, sociable person who exhibits considerable stamina and resilience both personally and professionally. I’ve been to his concerts, I’ve met him and in the past I’ve socialised with him. He is an artist of great integrity as Schiehallion would know if the orchestra of which he is an “exec” were sufficiently wise and discerning to engage him.

    • Arthur Parker says:

      What a ridiculous and arrogant reply. How fortunate that Rachmaninov, Richter, Gilels [and many any others who would have simply walked out at a lot less than the situation Donahoe describes] are not around anymore for you to self-importantly dis. In fact, it is my impression that the same applies to most present-day serious artists. How do you think Sir Andras Schiff, Murray Perhaia or Ivo Pogorelich would respond? Or would you sit on high and describe them as sissies as well?

    • Jaybuyer says:

      But aren’t all concerts ‘live’ (unless an orchestra is playing in a studio without any audience)?
      It’s hardly worth arguing with Michael, as I feel he has expressed his ‘bring popcorn, the kids and have a great time chatting’ opinions about classical concerts on SD before. I admire Peter Donohoe as a pianist and as a person. Bruce says that “people’s hearing is set on high” during a concert. Well, is that not particularly true of a soloist sitting feet away from a noisy family seemingly uninterested in what he is doing?

      • Bruce says:

        People seem to think that if a musician is really & truly concentrating, a bomb could go off next to him/her and s/he wouldn’t notice. If noises distract him or her, then s/he is no artist.

        At least, that’s what a lot of people said about the Kyung-Wha Chung debacle awhile back. (coughing child – she suggested the parents take the child out – people got mad at her – remember?)

  • RW2013 says:

    It wasn’t this annoying little family by any chance?

    • Jaybuyer says:

      Wonderful! Where did you find that? It could have been a sketch in a satirical TV show. I love the way she keeps admonishing her daughter to be quiet while she herself behaves in the most outlandish way. Things are definitely getting worse. It almost came to blows at ENO’s Jenufa recently, when one customer started texting during the music even though we had been asked to switch mobiles off before the opera started. And we can’t always rely on ushers to intervene. At our concert hall they are mainly ladies well over 60 years old, although one marched fearlessly up and down the aisle at a recent piano recital, glared and pointed at anyone in a row of Chinese students who dared switch on their mobile phone. Not conducive to audience concentration.

    • Holly Golightly says:

      I think you’ll find there’s one word for it:


  • Greg Hlatky says:

    If you can’t behave, you shouldn’t be there, whatever your excuse/reason/handicap/condition.

    Maybe not, but how do you stop misbehaving people from buying a ticket? Once they’ve shown up, how do you bar them from admittance? If concerts can use those criteria, who else can?

  • mbhaz says:

    Frankly, it’s this kind of audience behavior that has driven a lot of would-be ticket buyers from attending. For me, classic music is meant to be listened to. If I’m going to spend a lot of money on a ticket I don’t want to hear parents doting on their little cherubs explaining what’s going on. I don’t want to hear two people chatting about some drivel, I don’t want to hear candy wrappers. No cell phones making stupid noises. And those phlegmatic people who are too sick to be there, but too selfish and rude to stay home. So, instead I stay home. There’s a huge legacy of fantastic recordings, subscription services like the Berlin Philharmonic and Vienna Opera offer. The only distraction is the wife occasionally asking if I want my Harvey’s refilled.
    There are a few places where audience behavior has been exemplary: London Proms, Detroit, Cleveland, and Seattle Opera.

  • MacroV says:

    First, having a child with an autism-related condition, autistic or not, I’m not planning to take him to a live concert until I’m confident he can sit still. I’ll certainly try to instill in him a love for music but it’s one of the concessions I will make as a courtesy to other listeners.

    And if we’re going to recycle the old “making people be quiet is going to kill interest in classical music” canard, I’ll recycle my usual response: Being quiet isn’t a matter of being reverent to Bach, Beethoven, Mahler, etc.. It’s a matter of being respectful to other audience members who paid to listen to the performers, not to the loudmouthed audience member, the cough-drop wrapper, or a cell phone. And it’s not restricted to classical music: You’re not supposed to talk at movies, at live theatre, or watching golf and tennis, either. Also if you’re listening to unamplified music in a live venue, if people are making noise, you’ll miss something. Really simple as that.

    • Holly Golightly says:

      Bravo. I don’t go to the cinema anymore these days for the same reason – constant talking, phones ringing, sms-sending and all round boorish behaviour. I say again:


    • bratschegirl says:

      One orchestra in which I’m a regular member has had the wonderful pianist Stephen Prutsman as soloist several times. He has a son with autism, and is an active advocate for this community. When he is performing with us, the dress rehearsal is open to families that include children with autism. The parents and siblings get a rare night out without worrying that behavior that’s otherwise out of place in a concert hall will disturb anyone who hasn’t agreed to those conditions in advance. He wants them, and their families, to be able to experience the music, and he wants the concert experience to be as it should for everyone else.

  • Ting Wong says:

    Every time this ugly topic pops up, everybody gets upset and hot under the collar (and rightly so too). I am flabbergasted and frankly disgusted by the lack of action taken by management in our concert houses up and down the land to resolve this recurring issue. We, the paying customers, deserve better!

  • bratschegirl says:

    My dad taught me the old saw that the right to swing one’s fist stops short of the other fellow’s nose; when applied to classical concerts, I’d translate that to say that you have the right to do anything you want as long as it doesn’t interfere with anyone else’s ability to hear and focus on every bit of the music, including the silences. No noise, no excessive movement, no bright lights from phone screens. This has been concert-hall etiquette for my entire lifetime, and I’m past the half-century mark. There are behavior norms that apply to popular music concerts too, of course, they’re just different ones. If I went to see Madonna or the Stones or Kanye West, and tried to impose the norms I’m used to on my fellow attendees, like sitting quietly in one’s seat for the duration, I’d be laughed out of the building. Why don’t we have the equal right to resist those who try to impose their norms on us?

  • Dave T says:

    Why doesn’t Radio 3 just dub in some crowd rhubarb-rhubarb-rhubarbs in post instead of making such confusing and curious requests of the audience? No one is really looking for forensic-worthy authenticity in these broadcasts. If timpani rolls can be attenuated and cleaned-up clarinet passages can be spliced in for recordings, surely some background ‘atmosphere’ can be slipped in.

  • JackyT says:

    Perhaps it’s the father who was autistic!
    I also wonder why the ushers didn’t intervene. Isn’t that why they’re there?


    Not just concert halls. I made a point of sitting in a train’s Quiet Zone the other night to try and be away from mobile phone addicts (many British trains have these zones, about 25 seats intended for peace and quiet). This section of the carriage was plastered with blue stickers clearly banning mobiles or other devices. Stickers on every window and wall were supported by a rolling message on LED displays, visible not just in the zone but in every carriage.

    Four grown-ups took seats opposite me. Three got out mobiles, the fourth a tablet. As they busied themselves they talked to each other over an announcement relayed on ceiling speakers throughout the train reminding passengers about the Quiet Zone rules.

    After the announcement I said: “You were so busy on your phones, you didn’t hear that did you?” General giggles. One of them said: “I’ll check with the rule book when we get off.” I said: “You don’t need a rule book. I can see about 10 stickers from where I’m sitting. Two of them are inches away from you. They’re on the window and on the wall facing you.” General giggles, another half-hour of frantic finger-texting and chatting about messages on their screens. They were still clutching their switched-on phones when they left the train.

    It’s exactly what Holly Golightly calls it: ENTITLEMENT.

  • Peter Owen says:

    Good grief, surely a whole evening of Malcolm Arnold would be more than enough to explain such ‘antisocial’ behaviour.

    • Peter Donohoe says:

      Ho Ho Ho Ho. It was a concert to celebrate what would have been Arnold’s 95th birthday in his home town of Northampton. The audience enjoyed the music very much, and it meant a huge amount to his family and friends. Thank you for your contribution.

      • Peter Owen says:

        OK, fair enough. I am a music lover and consumer: I pay to go to concerts, I pay for CDs and downloads and I also assume my taxes make a contribution to the Arts Council as does my licence fee to the BBC. Which, in its day, generously subsidised all those 50s Cheltenham composers whose music nobody performs today (unless it’s an anniversary) and which also kept England free from nasty foreign things such as serialism but also, it would seem, anything remotely memorable. And, as a consumer, I retain the right to offer my humble and far from unique opinion. But I’m delighted Peterborough had a great if interrupted night out.

        • Peter Donohoe says:

          There is no point in this exchange as the original post was not about the content of the program. The concert was paid for by the Arnold Trust, not from tax-payers’ money. However, if you don’t think Malcolm Arnold’s music worthy of your time, fair enough. I certainly enjoyed contributing to the concert, and I do not believe his music, or that of similar composers, represents a negation of the validity of serialism or any other contemporary styles. By the way, it did not take place in Peterborough.

  • Una says:

    How many of you on this site are professional.performers? You sound like a bunch of experts, particularly Michael! Well written by Peter Donohoe.

  • Scott says:

    I’ve experienced many facets of this issue: usher, professional musican, concertgoer, and as music educator trying to instill music appreciation in students and audiences. Mr. Donohoe offers what is to me the most trenchant observation when he writes that the family “failed to take their cue from the rest of the audience.” If you are in a new experience, observe how others are acting and take your clues from them! This is what I teach my students. It’s really not difficult to wait and see what others do.

    Please don’t be too hard on the ushers. Most of them are minimum-wage earners and part-time workers. In my student days as an usher I had occasion to politely hush patrons, and usually later was thanked by other audience members. On occasion, though, I was later verbally accosted by the patron, which was very unpleasant. I was blessed to be backed up by supportive supervisor and management, but you can see how such an experience could lead an usher to be reluctant to intervene with a noisemaker.