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Clap Happy

James M. Rohner | July 2009

    Terry Teachout, the excellent theater critic of the Wall Street Journal, recently wrote a piece on the varying standards audience applause at performances. Teachout contends that audiences at symphony concerts are entirely too judgmental and snooty about clapping between movements of a symphony. He even quotes The New Yorker magazine, long the national authority on things judgmental and snooty, on how classical audiences prior to the 20th century frequently clapped during the music. I still disagree.
    I have been taught since my earliest concert-going days (when I invariably wore a blue blazer and plaid, clip-on tie) never to get caught clapping between movements. Terrified of clapping too soon, I will still wait until I am sure the piece is over before joining in the appreciation. Sometimes I wait so long that someone asks if I didn’t enjoy the performance. A couple of years ago I miscounted the movements during a performance by my old high school wind ensemble and started applauding prematurely. I slunk out of the auditorium in embarrassment and vowed never to make the mistake again.
    Teachout notes that different types of art deserve varying levels of solemnity. Whether in jazz or opera or drama, there is a time or place to show appreciation. Here is my take on some common situations.
    The after-the-jazz-solo-can’t-believe-everybody-came-back-in applause. You will hear this often after a particularly long and twisty drum solo in a jazz club. Maybe some people clap simply because they are glad the solo is over, but there is also a sense of relief that trained professional musicians actually came in at the same moment.
    The applause to show how cultured I am. People clap wildly at music they don’t understand, lest anybody else figure out that they don’t understand. The more tuneless the music, the louder some people clap.
    The over-applaud. This is a close cousin of the clap to show you understand the music. At any performance, no matter how middling or uninspiring, invariably evokes multiple curtain calls. Perhaps this is only the result of good manners, but it strikes me that some people want others to know that they not only understood the music but recognized that the performance was the greatest ever.
    The one-and-a-half hand clap. I have seen many parents try to clap while simultaneously working a camcorder. I can only imagine that the artistic quality suffers for these suburban Scorseses.
    The National Anthem clap. I remember clapping with my classmates after the National Anthem at a school assembly and my 8th grade teacher shouting, “Don’t clap now! This isn’t a baseball game.” He was right but clapping for the anthem doesn’t faze me if the singer hits at least 80% of the notes (lower the bar to 65% for little kids or former American Idol contestant).
    There is one time when full-throated shouting and applause is allowed – during the National Anthem before Chicago Blackhawks games. Known locally as “The Roar,” Chicago fans start hollering from the opening moments of the song and gradually crescendo. There are no judgments made about the skills of the singer. In a town where sports disappointment is a way of life, it makes sense to applaud vigorously at the beginning of a game. There may not be a chance later.