32 New Things: Go To The Symphony

Every year on my birthday, I make a list of new things I want to try.  Some of these things are difficult, some are easy, some are shockingly mundane.  You can read about past adventures here.


I have never been particularly enamored with live performances.
  Rather, I want very much to be enamored with live performances, but about half an hour in I usually find myself fussing with the waistband of my pants, looking at the performers’ shoes, mentally creating a back story about the violist who appears to be 22 and is wearing an oddly sexy shear shirt.

As such, I’ve never (of my own volition) attended a symphony.  I imagined it would be two hours of shifting in my seat and becoming increasingly obsessed with the facial expressions of the conductor.  But!  How was I to know if I didn’t try?

Here are five things I learned while attending a performance of Haydn’s The Seasons

1. The symphony isn’t just for Richie Riches – at least not in St. Paul

For $10 each (!) my dude and I got Awkwardly Close to the stage.  Like, I’m-making-eye-contact-with-the-percussionist close.  Isn’t that nice?  I love it when traditionally ‘fancy’ things are reasonably priced.

2.  Not all conductors are painfully serious and tightly wound
In fact, some of them conduct in a black dress shirt with no tie, have a face like a friendly hedgehog, and are so clearly joyful that you want to hug them.  And they encourage you to applaud between movements – which isn’t normally done.

3.  A well-performed symphony sounds like a CD
At least to my totally untrained ear.  You know how when you see your favorite band live, there’s a 70% chance that you’ll think “Well, I guess they really cleaned up that song in post production”?  I was floored by how clean and crisp and amazing the orchestra sounded.  And the vocalists who performed?  Insane.  Amazing.  Inhuman, almost.  How is that sound coming out of your body?

4.  When you make those faces, Dear Tenor, I can’t stop looking at you
I realize that part of being a professional vocalist is being emotive.  But when you sing with one arched eyebrow or use Joey’s fart-smelling method for navigating long instrumental interludes, well, that face I’m making is stifled laughter.  Because I’m 13.

5.  Some of the musicians do nothing for 90% of the performance
Because really, there’s only so much tympani that’s called for.  Of course, I became of obsessed with this fact, and watched various performers stare into the middle distance or pick at their cuticles while they waited twenty minutes to play for 45 seconds.  Are they bored?  What are they thinking about?  Do they ever get so lost in thought they forget to come in when they should?  These are the things I was thinking about instead of paying attention to the music.

Have you ever been to a symphony?  Do you ever struggle to pay attention during long live performances?

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  1. Han

    I played Flute in the school orchestra – can't say we played anything particularly complicated but I remember there being some pieces that were strings only for most of the piece or brass only. On one occasion I got to play the piccolo. My flute teacher let me borrow her piccolo for the performance – so for the whole rehearsal time I'd be playing this part on flute and then for the dress and concert I rocked the piccolo.

    In the same concert I played the bass flute which is like an epic drainpipe lol.

    Now I play bass guitar – I wouldn't be in the orchestra any more.

  2. Shannon

    I've never been to a symphony but I have been to the opera…which was a million hours long and in another language and insanely intense. By the way, the phrase "face like a friendly hedgehog" made me laugh really hard!

  3. laanba

    As a musician I can answer part of it. You generally wouldn't miss your entrance even after sitting out so long because you know the music so well. I would guess by that point they don't even count measures anymore. They just feel when their entrance is getting close just like when you know when to start singing on your favorite song.

  4. Anonymous

    Or those commuters who can sleep on the train and never miss their stop.

    I am glad you enjoyed yourself your way at this live performance.

  5. Beth (i run like a girl)

    I have been a symphony-goer for years, and you're absolutely right. It's not only for the "richy-rich" or only for old stuffy people. Several years ago San Diego started a Thursday night performance for people who work downtown… slightly shorter, slightly more focus on cocktails beforehand, and the introduction to the music involved quite a bit of comedy. LOVED THAT. 🙂

  6. Alli

    AHHH! Yes! I actually really enjoy going to symphonies, orchestras, and musicals at a high professional level.

    I grew up as a band geek, met my fiance in HS marching band, and he is now going on to be a music/band teacher this fall. I guess it comes with the territory.

    I am shocked you had a conductor who encouraged clapping between movements! Often there are audience members who do (lets face it, there is no clear signal not to clap!) but it's not common.

    It is really fun to have a conductor who isn't rigid! I keep trying to tell my fiance that. When they're classically trained I think they're taught "business" but you're also performing for people. I always tell him to pick one fun/funny song to play with the kids and have a ball with it because, at least to me, that's more impressive. Hah!

  7. Mad

    I'm in a flute orchestra, and when there are long periods where I don't play, I mostly keep counting while being annoyed that I don't have a more interesting part and trying not to fidget. Sometimes I drift off and only realise I'm supposed to be playing when everyone else does.

  8. Abbey

    I'm so with you on the wanting to enjoy live performances bit. I love theater, and I go to my fair share of concerts but I'm usually like, eh. They are make or break for me based on who I'm with, not really the performance.

  9. Amanda Cobb

    I'm actually going to a symphony *tonight*. How's that for relevance? Haha. I haven't been to see a professional one ever, so it'll be interesting. Also, it's music based on the Zelda video games, so there's a definite geek factor.

  10. Anonymous

    My husband and I are season ticket holders to the symphony here in San Diego and I have to say that it's a really nice way to spend an evening… BUT I used to feel really bad about the fact that I get sleepy right around the 45-minute mark (usually at least one movement away from intermission), until I spoke to friends who have been symphony-goers since childhood, and THEY do the same.

  11. Anonymous

    Sorry but it would be the seasons of Haydn, not hadyn.
    Love your posts and specially your 32 before 32 challenges and your "how to" posts

  12. Shivani

    As someone whose favorite thing in the world is playing in and listening to orchestras, I had to stop my long-time lurking and leave a comment.

    Sarah, I'm so, SO glad that you went to see a concert! The constant buzz in the classical music world is that orchestras are dying out, that no one is interested in hearing live performances anymore, and it absolutely breaks my heart. To me, there is nothing more thrilling than the drama of a symphonic climax, where the tension just builds and builds until you can feel it between your ribs, and then all of a sudden it bursts into a glowing cascade of sound, and it's so beautiful you can't quite breathe properly.

    Some suggestions for future symphony-going escapades:

    1. Think about it like a movie. Movies always have a story that goes along with the music, right? So if this music were a movie, what would it look like? What would the story be? Who are the characters and what are they like?

    2. Similarly, imagine what the composer would be thinking as (s)he wrote this. Gustav Mahler, for example, had fourteen siblings of which only six made it to adulthood, and of his thirteen children, only a few survived childhood (I believe those numbers are correct – I don't quite remember!). His symphonies are among the most heart-wrenching art forms I have ever experienced. Joseph Haydn, whose Seasons you heard, lived a long and prosperous life as a court composer, and his pieces tend towards the sweet and lighthearted.

    3. For me, it helps to research the pieces a little before going. When were they written? What was the political climate at the time? In Soviet Russia, for example, the arts were strictly regulated, and all art produced had to represent the ideals of the communist party. Some composers, such as Shostakovich, struggled greatly with these restrictions, and his work is angrier, more violent, than that of some of his contemporaries. Prokofiev, on the other hand, had an easier time portraying the greatness of his homeland, and in his Violin Concerto, you can "see" the sweeping landscapes and proud military of his country.

    I also like reading the program notes (or finding some online if they're not provided) to get a sense for what the piece will sound like before I go – an auditory road map, if you will. I get lost listening too!

    4. Sometimes, it's just fun to look at the other audience members and imagine why they came here to listen, or to look at the orchestra members and wonder what the tenor's wife thinks of his faces, or whether or not the conductor's kids play soccer with him – and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that!

    I hope you had fun, Sarah, and I really hope that you will go back sometime! I truly believe that the sound of an incredible orchestra is the most beautiful thing in the world, and while I know that others may disagree, I am just glad to share that beauty with as many people as are willing to listen.

  13. Karen

    I've been going to classical concerts for school a lot (being a music teacher and all) and for me it depends on the programme entirely. There have been concerts where I haven't even looked at my friends once where I was so in the performance. And then there have been performances where I was so utterly bored.
    As for myself: I've never been to the ballet. So as a new thing I'm going to Moscow City Ballet's Swan Lake next weekend. I'm so excited!

  14. Mandy

    I'm with you. I really LIKE the idea of going to the symphony, and I have…but I usually end up getting kind of bored part of the way through. I love Shivani's tips! I'm going to have to use those the next time I go. Thanks, Shivani!

  15. Freya

    I played in youth orchestra, so I've been attending free or student priced symphony tickets for a while, but I hadn't for a few years and just took my husband to his first symphony in January. He's not crazy about live performances either, so I wasn't sure how it would go down, but he loved it! We try and go whenever there are buy one/get one deals to have a nice night out together.

  16. Sarah Evans

    Having played trombone in an orchestra I can say with some authority that you do space out sometimes.

    And get lost.

    Then get in trouble.

    If you do it during a gig you get fired.


    In rehearsals we also read newspapers on our music stands to take the edge off.


  17. Kate

    I must comment! I must!! I used to be in band!!

    I am THRILLED about #3. Thrilled. How lovely for you to experience that. Truly, I smiled from ear to ear.

    As for #5 – What are they thinking about? haha, well, as some one who's rested for measures and measures and measures before, when you have a lot of time to kill, you think about whatever comes to mind, much the same way your mind wanders before a friend comes and sits down with you at dinner at a restaurant. You know she'll be there at 7:05 (because she's always 5 minutes late) and in the interim you may think about how you're going touch on a conversation, or dear god, my cuticles are TERRIBLE!

    aka, they are normal people too 🙂

  18. Tami (Teacher Goes Back to School)

    your use of the word 'fancy' made me giggle. i, too, love when fancy things are accessible.

    i haven't been to the symphony, however i've been to the opera with pretty much the same results. hell, i was at a rock show watching an opener (the wallflowers) and pretty much spent the entire set analyzing jakob dylan's face to see if i found him attractive (yes, in a reptilian sort of way). also, i moved closer to the keyboard player becuase his face was so animated, it demanded my attention.

    love these new things posts!

  19. Katie

    I'm a professional violist and we regularly envy/disparage the percussion section for getting to take long breaks, although I'd rather have to play constantly than have to stand around for so long! Concerts are fun but our minds wander just as much as yours does…believe me. 😉 And about that sheer shirt — there are strict, strict guidelines for clothing and if your outfit is inappropriate you will be fined (some orchestras are more lenient than others)! A friend of mine was written up for having a strip of skin showing between her pant legs and shoes! The conductor can get away without wearing a tux given their more "artistic" role (whatever!!). It's a crazy world that still seems foreign to me at times, even though I've been doing this for some time!

  20. The Sequin Cat

    Hi Sarah! Tympani player here in multiple ensembles.

    Sometimes it is really hard to stay focussed, particularly during slower movements. It is good mental discipline though, counting bars! Forcing yourself to concentrate and getting into the flow of it.

    Agree with many of the comments above – you generally don't miss entries as you know the music well and get into the feel of the piece… unless it's a wacky contemporary score!

  21. Anonymous

    "You know how when you see your favorite band live, there's a 70% chance that you'll think "Well, I guess they really cleaned up that song in post production"?"

    If you're really thinking this about your favorite band's performances, perhaps you're not listening to good musicians.

    Great musicians sound superb both live and on record. Please check out Steven Wilson's projects.


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