Tips for Beginners

About Your First Concert

I’ve never been to an orchestra concert before. What should I expect?

Expect to enjoy yourself! This is the time to let go of any preconceptions you may have about classical music or the concert experience. 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. Feel the rhythms; follow the tunes. Watch the musicians and Maestro Bay; 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.

What if I don’t know anything about classical music? Do I need to study beforehand?

There’s no need to study. The music will speak for itself. Just come and enjoy! Over time, many frequent concertgoers do 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. We do have pre-concert talks before each Masterworks performance beginning at 7:10 PM. It last 20 minutes.

Will I recognize any of the music?

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, as well. You’ll notice that each classical piece uses its own group of several tunes over and over, in different ways. You’ll start to “recognize” these melodies as a work progresses. Listen for the ways a melody is repeated: Is it exactly the same as the first time, or with a different character? Does it start the same as before, but go off in a different direction?

What is the difference between your Masterworks Series and your Pops Series?

Our Masterworks Series is where you will hear pieces by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bernstein, Grieg, Mozart, Copland, etc. etc. etc. The Pops Series is where you’ll hear “popular” type music like The Beatles, Queen, movie music, Frank Sinatra, Broadway, etc. etc. etc.

What should I wear?

There is no dress code! The days of monocles and top hats are over (unless you want to wear that). 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. If you do decide to dress up, though, go easy on the cologne. It can distract others near you and even prompt them to sneeze (which may distract you).

Should I arrive early?

Plan to arrive at least 30 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. 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 concertgoers.

How long is the concert?

It varies, but most orchestra concerts are about 90 minutes to two hours long, with an intermission at the halfway point.

Can I take pictures?

Cameras, video recorders, and tape recorders are not permitted in concerts. If you have one with you, be sure to stop at the Director of Ushers’ table and check it in before entering the auditorium.

Why is there an intermission, and what should I do during it?

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 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 to expect. Most intermissions of the ASO are 20 minutes long.

Can I bring my kids?

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. The ASO does present concerts designed especially for children (Education Programs). These are a great way for families to enjoy classical music together. To further build your children’s interest in classical music, play classical radio or CDs around the house. When they are old enough to sit quietly for an extended period, you may wish to bring them to the first half of a standard concert. In all cases, it’s a good idea to check with the orchestra directly about the appropriateness of the concert you plan to attend with your kids. Ask about discounts for students and children.

About the Orchestra

What is a symphony orchestra, exactly?

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 in the rear of the orchestra.
  4. Percussion – drums, bells, and other fascinating paraphernalia that are struck, plucked, rubbed, etc. This includes the tympani, the harp, and, on occasion, the piano. Some works use lots of different percussion; others may have a single musician playing the tympani, or no percussion at all. The percussion section is also found at the rear of the orchestra.

Why are the musicians onstage playing before the concert begins?

Just like athletes warming up before a game, musicians need to warm up their muscles and focus their concentration. 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.

Why do the musicians wear formal black clothes?

This is a long tradition that started centuries ago. Sometimes 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.

How come there are more stringed instruments than anything else?

The sound of each individual stringed instrument is softer than a brass or woodwind instrument. But in large numbers, they make a magnificent, rich sonority.

Why do their bows move together?

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 are hearing.

What does the concertmaster do?

The concertmaster sits in the first chair of the first violins. He or she acts as leader of that section, but also plays a leadership role with the orchestra as a whole. He or she is also the last orchestra member to enter the stage before a concert, and cues the oboe to “tune” the orchestra.

Why do all the musicians tune to the oboe?

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 “A”. This ensures that they all are in agreement about the tuning before the concert begins.

Why do the string players share stands?

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.

Why does Maestro Bay leave after every piece of music?

This provides the conductor a little breather – a chance to collect his or 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.

Why don’t the musicians smile while they play?

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 performance, they won’t just smile – the string players will tap their stands with their bows as a sign of appreciation.

Before the Next Concert

How can I learn more about classical music?

There are several ways to learn more about the music you hear at the Austin Symphony. Program notes are provided online for each concert at least one month prior to the concert. These same program notes are provided in the concert program at the concert that evening. Bob Buckalew hosts “Concert Conversations” at 7:10 in the concert hall on classical concert nights. These can be entertaining and enlightening, offering information about the composers and works for the evening. He will often have guest soloists, conductors or composers of a featured work for that concert.

Check out our website for future concerts that are specifically designed to help you hear the many layers in the music.

Here are some links to websites where you can look up composers and their works, buy recordings, and learn more about classical music:

Classical Arts Showcase — This free cable television program is a “music video” channel, showing thousands of arts clips from the world of classical music, theater, opera, classic film and more. The presentation is leisurely and eclectic, and features rare film footage, lost television kinescopes, as well as contemporary performances, with no commercials. It is designed to bring the classical experience to the largest audience possible. Think of it as “Classical MTV.” Broadcast locally on Time Warner Cable’s AISD channel 22. Check their website for broadcast times.

Andante.com — offers classical music news, reviews, and commentary. For a monthly fee, subscribers can download performances and access reference sources.

ArkivMusic.com — This online store has a vast catalogue of classical recordings, as well as Amazon.com.

FindAConcert.com — This service of the American Symphony Orchestra League is great for finding performances of specific works, or finding orchestra concerts while traveling.

Naxos Records — The Learning Zone of the Nexus Records website 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, making this a great place to visit if you want to listen to a work a couple of times before you hear it in concert.

FromTheTop.com — For kids who are learning to play instruments, this site offers a great resource and access to Public Radio’s “From The Top” programs.

NewMusicBox — And if you like the very newest “classical” music, don’t miss this monthly web ‘zine about living composers and their works.