About The Orchestra FAQ
Just like basketball players taking shots and practicing moves before the game, musicians need to warm up their muscles and focus their concentration. This is fun to listen to and to watch. Some of them are working on the passages they need to polish up before the performance, with no regard for what anyone else is practicing. Pick out the flute or the trumpet playing a solo line over and over, and listen to how it changes. Does it get smoother? If the player stops in the middle and starts over, can you hear the reason why? (It’s especially fun to recognize these solos later in the performance! Give a silent cheer for the player who nails the solo.)
Not all of the orchestra players practice onstage, of course. Just like the audience, everyone is doing his or her own thing. Some are talking; others are paging through their music. And some don’t come onstage at all until a minute or two before the performance. But at concert time, everyone is in place and ready to start.
This is a long tradition that started a few centuries ago. Sometimes, these days, musicians dress a little more casually. But they still try to look uniform, so that the audience can concentrate on the music. Soloists are the exception: they often dress differently, because they are the focus of attention.
A symphony orchestra is a collection of up to about 100 musicians who play instruments of four basic types:
1. Strings—violins (smallest, and highest in pitch), violas, cellos, and double basses (largest and lowest in pitch). These players sit in a semicircle directly in front of the conductor, and make up more than half the orchestra.
2. Woodwinds—flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and related instruments. These players sit a few rows back from the conductor, in the center of the orchestra.
3. Brass—trumpets, horns, trombones, tubas, and similar instruments. These instruments are the loudest, so you’ll see them at the back of the orchestra.
4. Percussion—the drums, bells, and other fascinating paraphernalia that are struck, plucked, rubbed, etc. This includes the timpani, the harp, and, on occasion, the piano. Some works use lots of different percussion; others may have a single musician playing the timpani, or no percussion at all. The percussion section is also found at the back of the orchestra.
The sound of each individual stringed instrument is softer than a brass or a woodwind instrument. But in large numbers, they make a magnificent, rich sonority.
The players of each individual section—first violins, second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses—play in unison most of the time. So all the cellos move together, for instance. As you listen, noticing the different bowings for each section gives you a visual clue to sort out the various melodies you’re hearing.
The concertmaster sits in the first chair of the first violins. S/he acts as leader of that section, but also plays a leadership role with orchestra as a whole. S/he is also the last orchestra musician to enter the stage before a concert, and cues the oboe to “tune” the orchestra.
The penetrating tone of the oboe is easy for all players to hear, and its ability to sustain pitch is very secure. The oboe plays the note “A,” and all the players make sure their “A” is exactly on the same pitch as the oboe’s. This ensures that they all are in agreement about the tuning before the concert starts.
Fewer stands mean that the musicians, who are moving around quite a bit, have more room to play freely. Also, because the strings play more continuously than the other parts, their page turns can fall in inconvenient places where there should be no break in the music. Look closely and you’ll see that the player on the outside keeps playing, while the player on the inside briefly stops playing to turn the page.
This provides the conductor a little breather—a chance to collect his/her thoughts before starting the next piece. If the applause is very enthusiastic, the conductor will come onstage again, bow, and perhaps recognize some musicians who played important solos in the piece. S/he may depart again once or twice before moving on to the next piece on the program.
Look closely and you’ll see that some of them do! But in general, they are concentrating deeply, just like outfielders waiting for the fly ball or pitchers winding up to a curve ball. They’re “in the Zone.” After the music is over, you may see them smiling broadly. If it was a concerto, and they liked the soloist’s playing, they won’t just smile—the string players will tap their stands with their bows as a sign of appreciation.
Your First Concert FAQ
Expect to enjoy yourself! This is the time to let go of any preconceptions you may have about classical music or the concert experience. If you feel a little nervous, that’s OK. Some things about the concert may seem strange because they’re new to you, but if you just focus on the music, you’ll have a great time.
Open yourself up to the music. Let it trigger your emotions—maybe even your memories. Feel the rhythms; follow the tunes. Watch the musicians and the conductor, and see how they interact with each other. Notice how the music ebbs and flows—surging and powerful at some times, delicate and ephemeral at others, and everything in between.
There’s no need to study. The music will speak for itself. Just come and enjoy! You also have an opportunity to attend our popular Pre-concert Conversations are held 45 minutes prior to all Classical performances at The Tobin Center. The Pre-concert Conversations are held in the right rotunda of The Tobin Center. The Conversations are hosted by the guest conductor or a symphony representative who will go over some of the program that will be performed that evening.
Over time, many frequent concert goers also find their enjoyment is deeper if they prepare for a concert. This can be simple, like reading the program notes beforehand; or it can be more involved, like listening to recordings of the music to be performed in the days before they attend a concert.
You might. Classical music is all around us: in commercials, movie soundtracks, television themes, cartoons, retail shops, and even some elevators! Popular music often quotes classical melodies, too. While you’re listening in the concert to a piece you think you’ve never heard before, a tune you’ve heard a hundred times may jump out at you.
There is no dress code! Anything that makes you feel comfortable is fine. Most people will be wearing business clothes or slightly dressy casual clothes, but you’ll see everything from khakis to cocktail dresses. Some people enjoy dressing up and making a special night of it, and you can, too. Still, evening gowns and tuxedos are pretty rare unless you’ve bought tickets for a fancy gala—and if you have, you’ll know!
Absolutely! Plan to arrive 20 minutes before concert time, so you can find your seat, turn off your cell phone, take a look at your surroundings, absorb the atmosphere, and have time to glance through the program book, too. Don’t forget to arrive in time to enjoy the Pre-concert Conversations available for all Classical concerts at The Tobin Center.
There’s another good reason to come early: Most concerts start on time. If you’re late, you may end up listening from the lobby! If that happens, the usher will allow you inside during a suitable pause in the program, so your arrival won’t disturb other concert goers.
It varies, but most orchestra concerts are about 90 minutes to two hours long, with an intermission at the halfway point. Very often there will be several pieces on the concert; but sometimes there is one single work played straight through. It’s a good idea to take a look at the program before the concert to get an idea of what to expect.
It’s a short rest period for the musicians and conductor—once you see how much activity goes into a performance, you’ll understand why they need a break!
Listening to music is also an intense activity (even if considerably less physical), and a break in the middle helps the audience concentrate better in the second half. Some concerts, though, have no intermission because it would interrupt the flow of a long work. Check the program before the concert so you know what’s coming.
Most intermissions are fifteen to twenty minutes long, which gives you time to socialize with your companions, get a drink or a snack in the lobby, visit the facilities, or simply sit in your seat and read the program notes. Do whatever puts you in a good frame of mind to hear the second half of the concert.
This is the number-one scary question! No one wants to clap in the “wrong” place. But it’s simpler than you may think, and quite logical on the whole. At the beginning of the concert, the concertmaster will come onstage. The audience claps as a welcome, and as a sign of appreciation to all the musicians. After the orchestra tunes, the conductor (and possibly a soloist) will come onstage. Everyone claps to welcome them, too. This is also a good moment to make sure your program is open, so you can see the names of the pieces that will be played and their order. Then everything settles down and the music begins. Just listen and enjoy! The audience doesn’t usually applaud again until the end of the piece.
In most classical concerts—unlike jazz or pop—the audience never applauds during the music. They wait until the end of each piece, then let loose with their applause. But this can be a little tricky, because many pieces seem to end several times—in other words, they have several parts, or “movements.” These are listed in your program.
In general, musicians and your fellow listeners prefer not to hear applause during the pauses between these movements, so they can concentrate on the progress from one movement to the next. Symphonies and concertos have a momentum that builds from the beginning to the end, through all their movements, and applause can “break the mood,” especially when a movement ends quietly. Sometimes, though, the audience just can’t restrain itself, and you’ll hear a smattering of applause—or a lot of it—during the pause before the next movement. It’s perfectly OK to join in if you enjoyed the music, too.
(By the way, disregard anyone who “shushes” you for applauding between movements. It’s only in the last 100 years or so that audiences stopped applauding between movements, so you have music history on your side!) Mozart would have been shocked and disappointed if there was no applause between movements of one of his symphonies.
One clue is to watch the conductor. Usually, s/he won’t relax between movements, but keep hands raised; the attention of the musicians will remain on the conductor. If in any doubt, it’s always safe to wait and follow what the rest of the audience does!
At the end of the piece, it’s time to let yourself go and let the musicians know how you felt about their playing. Many pieces end “big”—and you won’t have any doubt of what to do when! Some end very quietly, and then you’ll see the conductor keep hands raised for a few seconds at the end, to “hold the mood.” Then the hands will drop, someone will clap or yell “Bravo!”—and that’s your cue. There’s no need to restrain yourself. If you enjoyed what you heard, you can yell “Bravo!” too.
Everyone gets the urge to cough now and then. Worrying about disturbing your fellow listeners is a laudable impulse, but don’t let it ruin your enjoyment of the concert. There’s a funny thing about coughing—the less worried you are about it, the less likely you are to feel the urge! So chances are you’ll feel less need to cough if you’re prepared. At all Symphony performances, in the Rotunda area of the theater, we offer complimentary Halls cough drops.You’ll find them at the merchandise table.
Cameras, video recorders, and tape recorders are not permitted in concerts. If you happen to have one with you, be sure to stop at the check it area as you enter the theater. If you have a camera and want a souvenir of a special evening at the symphony, it can be fun to ask someone to take your picture outside the concert hall before you go in.
Turn it off! The same goes for pagers and alarm watches. It’s a good idea to double-check in the few minutes before the concert begins, and again as intermission draws to a close. Better still, leave them in your car or at home if you can. Doctors and emergency workers who are “on call” can give their pagers to an usher, who will summon them quietly if they are paged.
It depends on the concert and on the age of your kids. Many standard-length classical concerts are inappropriate for small children because they require an attention span that is difficult for youngsters to maintain. Most concerts also are held at night, and stretch beyond “bedtime.”
The Tobin Center for the Performing Arts
The Tobin Center is a versatile, world-class performing arts facility for the nation’s seventh-largest city. Located on the River Walk leading up to the new Museum Reach, The Tobin Center is a much-needed home where our resident performing arts groups can grow and thrive.
In May, 2008 Bexar County voters agreed overwhelmingly about the importance of the arts in San Antonio’s future, approving $100 million in construction bonds toward the construction of a new performing arts center. The City of San Antonio followed by contributing the Municipal Auditorium and adjacent Fire Department Headquarters building – valued altogether at $41 million.
Situated along the banks of the River in the city’s heart, the historic Municipal Auditorium, with its original facade preserved, has been transformed into a world-class venue – The Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. This theatrical icon has become the pride of the River and a shining beacon of creativity, fine art and downtown development. There is no better place — anywhere — to see and hear a live performance.
The Tobin Center features a state-of-the-art, multi-purpose 1,759-seat (2,100-seat with flat-floor configuration) performance hall, a 250-seat studio theater, and an outdoor performance plaza connected to the River Walk with a permanent 30-foot video wall and water taxi portal. The acoustics in the Hall can be “tuned” to fit the performance and the physical set-up of the hall, and the sound insulation throughout The Tobin Center enables simultaneous use of the Performance Hall, the 250-seat Studio Theater and the 600-seat River Walk Plaza.
For more information regarding The Tobin Center for the Performing Arts and upcoming events; visit them online
Your Next Concert
Most orchestras give you several ways to learn more. You can read program notes online in advance of a concert, or in your seat before the concert begins. Many concerts are preceded by free lectures or discussions, and these can be entertaining and enlightening. Sometimes the conductor or soloist even talks about the music during the concert.
But you might not need to “know” more to have a great time at your next concert. Most people who attend concerts frequently find that it’s like any other passionate pursuit: The more you do it, the more you enjoy it. Most of the classical works you hear repay frequent listening: The more often you hear a piece, the more wonderful layers you hear in it. If you enjoyed your first concert, plan to come again!
Check the orchestra’s web site for future concerts that are specifically designed to help you hear the many layers in the music. And if your concert hall has a gift shop, pay a visit during intermission; you may find books and recordings that will help you enjoy your next concert even more.
Here are some links to web sites where you can look up composers and their works, buy recordings, and learn more About classical music:
For a wonderful introduction to American music, visit the web site for the American Mavericks public radio series, which features the San Francisco Symphony. The site includes biographies of composers, music downloads, and interviews and features on contemporary music.
For kids who are learning to play instruments, FromTheTop.com offers a great resource, and access to public radio’s From The Top programs.
The Learning Zone of the Naxos Records web site has an introduction to classical music, biographies of composers, a glossary of musical terms, and an excellent guide to live-concert listening. You can also stream loads of classical pieces, so this is a great place to visit if you want to listen to a work a couple of times before you hear it in concert.
And if you like the very newest “classical” music, don’t miss NewMusicBox, a monthly web ‘zine about living composers and their works.