A performer's perspective: Skip the standing o, send me an e-mail

by Gwendolyn Hoberg, Special to MPR
April 23, 2014

Standing ovations are a popular topic to gripe about in the classical music world. How do performers themselves feel about this issue?

I may not be able to speak for musicians as a whole, but I can share a conversation I recently had with my friend and fellow horn player Kayla Nelson, horn professor at the University of North Dakota and member of the Dakota Brass trio.

Thanks for doing this, Kayla. I'll start by asking a pretty broad question: As a performer, how do you feel about standing ovations?

Well, I have some conflicting feelings about them. On one hand, they can be very gratifying and can make the high of an excellent performance feel even better. However, especially in certain places and with certain audiences, I don't think they mean much of anything anymore. Ideally I think they should be reserved for only a truly spectacular performance. But we've all played less than stellar concerts that get them.

With certain music, clapping at all — much less a standing ovation — can ruin the moment. A lot of great orchestral music ends triumphantly and applause works there, but the magic of the moment after music that ends more delicately or has a particular emotional meaning in general (or to me in particular) is almost destroyed by applause, especially a long standing ovation.

That's an interesting point. I haven't played much chamber music in recent years, and I think that may tend to happen more often in chamber performances — ending on a less triumphant note, that is. Though it can certainly happen at orchestral concerts.

Right. I think music that doesn't end triumphantly can sometimes have the most meaningful impact to an audience, and I appreciate the desire to express appreciation. I don't think there is really another option of response, so applause and the standing O are it.

Part of the problem, I suppose, is that other options of showing your appreciation for the experience take more initiative and aren't as practical. Like approaching a musician after a concert to talk to her for a bit, or sending an e-mail or handwritten note in the days after the performance.

Right. As a musician, though, those options would mean a whole lot more. Do you agree?

YES. I realize that I have made this issue into a larger one than it needs to be, in my own life, but I find myself getting annoyed more and more frequently at standing ovations that just seem so perfunctory. In one of the orchestras I play in, they happen at least once per concert, sometimes twice. It's not special at all.

Absolutely! They have lost the value and meaning they once had.

Whereas if someone took the time to track down my contact information and send me a note, that would be amazing! Or not even me — the orchestra as a whole.

I want to bring up another point, though. I've heard and read a few people discussing that one of the problems with classical music is that it has all these rules for how the audience is allowed to behave. As musicians we sometimes get annoyed when people clap between movements, for example. I at least in part agree very much with the premise that we should let them respond as they want to respond to any part of a performance. I can't know how the experience was for audience member A or B. I may have thought it was a crappy performance, but audience member A may have never heard live orchestral or chamber or whatever music before, and to them it was an incredible auditory experience very much worthy of a standing ovation; while audience member B may be going through some tough life situation and the music was a balm for their spirit. So I don't want to be too judgmental. However, I think for most of the audience, the standing ovation is perfunctory and not at all about how the experience impacted them. Member C stands because A and B did, and D-Z follow suit.

Valid point. There's no way for anyone else to tell when someone is just following the crowd, feeling obligated, or when they are genuinely moved or inspired.

I also think there are sometimes valid reasons beyond the quality of the performance for a standing ovation. Sometimes there is some meaning beyond the music. Take some of the concerts the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra put on during the lockout. Even if the music wasn't incredible — though by all accounts it was — the crowd giving a standing ovation had a bigger meaning. Same thing with college homecoming concerts, for example. I think in that context, the standing ovation is more about celebrating the shared community of the ensemble and its history than it is just about the performance.

I think something concertgoers might like to know, if they don't already, is that often the performers onstage cannot see who is standing and who isn't. So if you want to clap heartily without standing, don't worry that someone onstage is singling you out. This all depends on the venue, of course.

Good point. I think in general that judgmental attitudes are the big problem here. I have often stood myself at a performance I didn't really consider standing ovation-worthy because I didn't want to feel judged by fellow audience members and any performers who could see me.

And I, conversely, have been too self-righteous about not standing even when everyone around me is.

Haha, yes. And I admittedly have been a bit annoyed with you for it!

Well, I really am not sure how I feel about the idea that by standing up at the end of a homecoming concert, to use that example again, I am showing how I feel about the ensemble's community and history. Again, it's the "every time" aspect that gets to me. I do imagine we agree that distinguishing between the truly spectacular and the "merely" good or great concert is important in some way. The how and why — those are trickier questions.

Indeed. If you could quantify it, what percentage of performances you yourself have played over your life thus far truly deserved a standing ovation?

Ten percent is what first comes to mind. But that is probably too high. Five percent? How about you?

Hmm. I was thinking something more like 15-20. Do you think your 5-10 percent could be extrapolated somewhat universally? Like is say 5 percent the ideal amount of standing ovations, period? Is being in the 95 percentile the degree of special-ness necessary?

I suppose that's how I arrived at my number, yes. Something like the 95th percentile is ovation-worthy.

What percent would you say you stand for as an audience member?

Well, I stand very rarely, but then I attend fewer performances than I believe I should. I think I am close to that 5 percent figure. You?

I think I am probably around 80 percent as an audience member, because of the aforementioned fear-of-judgment, but also because I think there are a few more valid reasons for standing than you do.

And I will keep that in mind the next time I'm judging the people around me! Thanks for the chat, friend.

Likewise! I will be mulling this subject for a while, as this has made me think about it a little differently.


Gwendolyn Hoberg is a classical musician and the owner of the editing and writing business Content & Contour. She lives in Moorhead, plays with the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra, and writes the Little Mouse fitness blog. She is also a co-author of The Walk Across North Dakota.

Interested in writing about classical music for Classical MPR? Have a story about classical music to share? We want to hear from you!

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