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Places for Music

Concert Halls and Acoustics

Photo of Symphony HallThe Boston Pops Orchestra and the Boston Symphony both perform in Symphony Hall, considered by many to be one of the great concert halls of the world. But what makes an auditorium a concert hall anyway? And why are some considered to be better than others?

A concert hall is a building designed specifically for listening to orchestral music. Just as movie theaters are designed and equipped to show off movies, concert halls are built to showcase the sound of the orchestra. Built in 1900, Symphony Hall in Boston is a big rectangle (think of a giant shoe box), with the stage at one end and 2,625 seats for listeners on the floor and in two balconies. Its architects designed the hall for acoustic music so that everyone in the audience could hear the music clearly without amplification (which didn't really exist in 1900 anyway). Most symphony orchestras perform without microphones or speakers even today, so the music goes directly from the instruments to the listeners' ears.

Photo of audience with a concert hallConcert halls are judged on their acoustics, or how the music sounds to the listeners and to performers. A key acoustic characteristic is called reverberation, the time it takes for a sound to fade away. Another factor is whether listeners can hear equally well from all seats. Ideally, a listener in the farthest seat from the stage should still hear the music clearly. Both the overall shape of the hall and small details like the wall and seat surfaces effect the acoustics. Despite advances of modern science and engineering that have helped us to better understand acoustics, there is no formula for the perfect concert hall. In fact, many of the greatest halls -- Symphony Hall in Boston (1900), the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam (1888), or the Great Music Hall in Vienna (1870) -- were built more than 100 years ago.

Concert-Going for Kids: A First-Timer's Guide
Have you ever thought about going to a live orchestra concert? Getting the chance to see a group like the Pops or the Boston Symphony in person? If you've wondered just what goes on at a live concert, here's a quick guide to the ins and outs of a symphony concert.

Selecting a concert and getting tickets is the first task. If you are going with a school group, your teacher will probably take care of things. Otherwise look to a parent to check the local newspaper or the World Wide Web for music listings in your area.

In larger cities, you'll have lots of choice about which concert to go to, particularly during the performing arts season, which usually runs from fall to spring (just like the school year). In smaller spots you may have to dig a little to find the nearest symphony concert, but there are more than 2,000 orchestras in the United States, including professional, community, amateur, and student groups, and one is bound to be performing somewhere nearby during the course of the year.

After you've selected your concert, it's time to get the tickets. Easy as pie: Your parents can buy symphony tickets by phone, in person at the box office, or even on the Web. Tickets range from inexpensive to very expensive depending on lots of factors, including where in the concert hall you wish to sit, the night of the week you are going (Fridays and Saturdays are usually more costly), and the popularity of the performers. Don't forget to ask about student or family discounts which are often available.

But I don't even know how to tie a bow-tie!
Although it is true that live symphony concerts are likely to be more formal than most everyday activities, people wear anything they like to concerts. No dress code is enforced. Ordinary office attire is always fine for adults, but a suit and tie are not required. Clothes for kids can range from jeans and t-shirts to Sunday best. Wear clean clothes that you are comfortable in, and you won't be out of place.

Knowing the score: What's going on? Is it okay to clap?
All symphony concerts unfold in similar ways. There are some changes here and there, but over the years that symphony concerts have been given, a few traditions have become set. Relax. There's nothing tough about understanding these traditions, and they aren't intended to make concert-going uncomfortable. But, just as when you are going to a baseball game for the first time, it's nice to know what to watch for.

So let's set the stage: It's a half hour before the concert, and you and your family have arrived at the concert hall. You've got your tickets in hand, and the concert hall doors open. Hand your tickets to the person at the door, and make your way inside to find your assigned seat. The section, row, and seat number will be printed on your ticket.

You're in the lobby now, usually a crowded spot. Remember: A couple of thousand other people may be attending your concert. There will be many doors with numbers on them, one of which will be the exact one you want -- doors to the inside of concert hall, the auditorium itself. Follow the signs or ask someone for help, and soon you'll find the section you are seeking.

As you make your way to your seat, pick up a program from an usher. This booklet lists the music the orchestra will play, the names of the musicians, and provides some background on the music. On stage, you'll see the orchestra getting ready. Some musicians will be taking their seats; others will already be in place. Many will be practicing, warming up, or organizing the music on their stands before the concert begins. This is a good time to look for the different instrumental sections and see how they are placed on the stage. See if you can pick out the percussion or the strings.

As the starting time for the concert nears, more and more of the musicians will take the stage. Just before the concert is scheduled to begin, only two spots will still be empty. One is the chair for the first violinist, called the concertmaster. The other is the conductor's podium. In a few moments, the concertmaster comes on stage. Then she asks the oboist to play the tuning A, and everybody on stage, from the piccolo to the tympani, will tune up. Think of this as the orchestra clearing its throat and getting ready to sing. First the winds and brass will tune their instruments, then the strings. If you're really sharp-eyed you can even see the kettledrum player softly tuning the tympani in the back.

The concertmaster sits down, and quiet falls over the room. The audience is full of expectation as the stage door opens and out walks the conductor, along with any soloists for the evening's concert. It's customary to clap for the conductor on this first appearance. The conductor turns to the orchestra, gives the first beat, and the music begins.

When the music starts, listen up! And watch. The joy of a live concert is that it's occurring right at that moment, and will never happen quite the same way again. Unlike music you might use for background -- to help you study, to make a bus ride less tedious, or to help you get motivated to clean your room -- this is music to give your full attention to. This can be tricky at first, but once you get the hang of it, it's rewarding and fun.

Photo of orchestra within a concert hallOne important thing to remember (and this will help you concentrate as well): While the orchestra is playing, there is no talking. This includes even quiet whispering to your neighbor. Distractions make paying attention to the music difficult or impossible. While it may be hard to resist pointing something out to a friend or whispering a comment, think of the musicians on the stage and, out of respect for them and your fellow listeners, don't disturb the flow of music.

The Sound of My Hands Clapping
Lots of kids (and adults, too) worry about clapping in the wrong place at a symphony concert. They fear that they'll clap incorrectly, before a piece is finished, and everybody in the whole hall, including the conductor, will turn and stare. Have no fear. Although it can be tricky to know when a classical piece ends, it's easy to become an expert clapper.

First, wait for the end to clap. Unlike some pop or jazz concerts, audiences don't interrupt symphonic works with applause after a performer has finished a big solo.

The next tip you need to know is that single symphonic works often are divided into sections called movements that are played together as a unit. The program you picked up as you entered the concert hall will list the movements for each piece, and is a good guide to when a piece is really finished.

Finally, you may always take your cue from the conductor, who will turn around to face the audience and bow when applause is appropriate.

Why all this fuss about clapping? What if the music I just heard was really cool and I feel like making some noise?
Here's the reason for not clapping. Think of a symphonic work as a watercolor painting that's coming to life before you in the concert hall. The composer wants you to see the entire painting as it develops, and the musicians' job is to make that possible. If you clap in the middle of some works or between movements of a symphony, this watercolor may be washed away by the applause, a sound which can erase everything that went before it.

That said, musicians love applause, and some are happy to hear it almost any time at all. After you have attended a few concerts, you'll refine your sense of when to clap.

After the music is over, applaud and yell "Bravo!" You may even give a standing ovation to the musicians if you feel the performance was worthy of it. Occasionally, after all the works on the printed program have been performed, the orchestra plays an encore as a bonus. The conductor usually announces the encore from the stage.

Finally everything wraps up, and everybody bows (and bows and bows...). The conductor will leave the stage, and the lights in the auditorium will go up so that you can see to find your way out. As you go, think about the skill of the musicians who performed for you and the beauty of the music you heard, and get ready for next time -- and for a lifetime of wonderful concerts.

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Photos courtesy of Stu Rosner and Costa Manos.

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