There were potentially two ways to approach my first classical concert. Maniacally research the entire history of classical music and hope to find a peg on which to hang my first pick, or just take a leap of faith and hope for the best. In the end I went for something in between.
I’m quite open to trying new things, but didn’t want to limit my options for fear of disliking my first experience and subsequently not really giving it a chance. So I picked three concerts that gave a broad sweep of what Classical music has to offer. Firstly, a contemporary classical concert with new compositions. Secondly, a traditional concert in the Royal Festival Hall, and the third was another quite traditional concert in a smaller venue. I’m glad I took this approach, as each concert gave me a different experience, and a new perspective.
I’ll admit there was something quite nerve wracking about attending the first performance. I’ve happily attended gigs and the theatre on my own, but felt much more self conscious stepping in the Queen Elizabeth Hall auditorium for the first time. At my first concert I realised how aware I was of the other audience members around me. For the most part the audience was predominantly made up of white, middle-aged men, but there were also young people and people of colour, perhaps not in equal numbers, but certainly more than I expected.
Though the demographic of an audience has never been enough to put me off seeing something I’m interested in, in this case it was quite comforting to know there were other people who might have a similar background to me and were interested in crafting this space into somewhere they too belonged. The audience was also quite important in creating an atmosphere that on occasion elevated the entire experience.
The second concert I attended was my favourite; in part due to the excitement of the people around me. We may not have liked the same pieces – made apparent in those moments when their thunderous applause contrasted with my slightly impassive face – but it was exciting to see other people so engaged, and emotionally invested by the action on stage.
Etiquette & unspoken rules
Picking up on the unspoken rules was a primary anxiety around attending a concert. Would I clap in the right place? What if I had a coughing fit? Could I leave if I didn’t like it? So I was quite surprised that for the most part, the answer was ‘do what makes you comfortable’. Though I didn’t always grasp the ‘rules’ (how come we’re clapping at this point, but not at that one?), the etiquette was pretty easy to pick up.
There were still baffling moments though, such as the encore. Not because I didn’t recognise what it was, but in that I hadn’t expected it. It was in moments like this I further understood why classical music had seemed so impenetrable, even to me as a person open to trying new things.
If I wasn’t lucky enough to work with people knowledgeable about it, I wouldn’t have been sure where to find the answers to my questions. I wouldn’t want to out myself as an outsider by asking things everyone else seemed to know by instinct. So, I think the biggest barrier for me, when it had come to classical music, had been just getting in the room.
Once in there it was less of a question of whether I belonged and more simply whether I liked it or not. A much easier scenario. Oh and there was also the amusement of the mass coughing during the small breaks between pieces. Maybe you did have to hold in your cough.
The musical experience was my favourite part of the entire journey. I have to admit that I didn’t like everything I heard, and though I had initially been a little worried about this, I was quick to remind myself this was the most fun, and easiest, part.
As with engaging with any art form, it came down to refining my tastes and developing the means to define what I like, or didn’t, but also why. The first concert taught me I didn’t like pianos as much as I thought I did. But following the third concert, I realised I actually did like pianos, just not combined with a wider orchestra, as for me it didn’t blend well with the other instruments.
I really appreciated the pure act of listening to live music in a manner different to attending a gig. The act of sitting down, watching people play, occasionally led me to a meditative state where I moved in and out of my own thoughts – sometimes guided by the music, others completely unaware. It’s a comforting feeling that took me back to listening to film scores for creative inspiration. Some pieces made me reflect on past memories or think about new ideas. I always feel the best music makes you want to cry, move or do both. And whilst I never quite got to the point of tears, I did sometimes want to move to the music – though I have no idea how you rock out to classical music.
I recognise now that I did sometimes feel a disconnect in not quite knowing how to appreciate the music in a visible way. At a gig I sing along at the top of my lungs and in my prefered theatre I feel comfortable enough to snap my fingers at a line, or give off a little whoot in the right kind of atmosphere. As I attended these concerts with a friend, I could at least bridge this gap, by giving their hand a squeeze, or whispering a very quiet ‘I really like this’.
Will I return?
Is classical music for me? I’d hoped after three concerts I would be able to answer with an emphatic yes or no, but that isn’t the case. I don’t think it would be fair to offer such a definitive decision, because I’ve barely scratched the surface. I’m not sure I would return to classical music with as much vigour as I do theatre or film, but it’s definitely something I would like to continue to form a taste of. I can see myself attending a concert whenever I need to refill my creative well. And it has also inspired me to turn to other art forms I’ve not yet delved into, such as visual arts.
Ramatoulie attended concerts in our 2019/20 season by London Sinfonietta, London Philharmonic Orchestra and Chineke! Orchestra. We’re looking forward to hearing what she sees next.
There are 50,000 seats available for £15 or under to hear classical music at Southbank Centre this season, including many free events.
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