By Ali Mignone
Stage Manager for Strings Music Festival. When she’s not telling roadies and musicians what to do, you can find her hiking, biking or skiing around the Yampa Valley.
Strings’ recording engineer, Jamey Lamar, mentioned an interesting bit of trivia to me the other day.
When Vivaldi was alive, his compositions were often performed in cathedrals or other sacred spaces. His music was very popular, and people flocked to hear his work. But it wasn’t considered proper to clap inside a church. What was an appreciative audience to do at the end of something spectacular?
They coughed. The germaphobe in me is glad that one didn’t catch on.
But the conversation got me thinking about what other methods of performance appreciation might be out there. With many thanks to the Inventors of the Internet, which allowed me to do this research while the chamber orchestra musicians were rehearsing last week, I found some fun ones.
String players applaud their conductor or a fellow musician by waving their bows in the air or tapping them lightly on their instrument’s strings. Orchestras as a whole tend to applaud their conductor or a fellow musician by stomping their feet. (Hands are full.)
In deaf culture, it’s customary to show appreciation with a non-sound-generating applause. Deaf audience members will often raise their hands and spread out their fingers, then twist their wrists. It’s applause for your eyes.
Many African and Middle Eastern cultures lift up their voices and ululate to signal approval, as audience participation and as a general sign of joy and celebration.
Ancient Roman audiences used a sliding scale of approval. It started with snapping fingers for something pretty good, moved up to clapping, and then finally, for something really awesome, they would flap their togas. In an age not known for its undergarments, this might have been an alarming sight for performers. Perhaps this is why Emperor Aurelian changed this custom to waving handkerchiefs instead.
At Parliament in the UK, clapping is discouraged. So after a particularly rousing speech, white-wigged parliamentarians will yell out “Hear, hear!” or slap their desks. I have no idea why yelling and desk slapping are considered more decorous than clapping.
And remember the old days, when you lit up your Zippo and waved it slowly through the air when the music moved you? Now, you can do that with your cell phone, which has the added benefit of hiding that you’re actually recording the concert…
Regardless of the method you choose, when we are moved by something—whether it’s a stirring composition, a virtuosic performance, an inspiring oration, or honest joy in receiving good news—it’s human nature to want to share that excitement with each other. We use social shorthand by picking the method most appropriate to our culture and the situation, but I think it would be fun to branch out a little. I don’t know how to ululate, but I can wave a handkerchief to signal my approval when Exile and Juice Newton take the stage on Sunday. I’ll send them this column so they won’t be alarmed.