“The scariest thing about classical music is knowing when to clap.” That was my friend’s view when we were teenagers going to the Free Trade Hall in Manchester to hear the Hallé Orchestra in the seventies. Symphonies that roused the emotions so much that we were bursting to clap at the end of the first movement were the most difficult. But I had been well brought up and knew how to reign in my emotions until the end of the three or four movements. A few people would shuffle a bit or cough between movements but I learnt the art of keeping still whilst my inner self was buzzing. If you didn’t know how many movements there were you could check in the programme (they were quite cheap in those days). Or a simpler way was to wait for everyone else to clap first. That’s quite hard to do when you are young and exuberant and there’s those few seconds as the last notes die away before you are ‘allowed’ to clap. This early training was ingrained into my being so that any extraneous clapping in concerts upset me for years until I started to understand the world outside of my Western art music bubble. I rarely frequented opera at that time, put off by the warbly singing my dad listened to on Sunday afternoons and after an embarrassing trip with him to La Belle Hélène, where the leading lady stripped down to some sort of corset thing, I decided I didn’t like it. But one time in my late teens, some free tickets led me to a performance of La Bohème which I had to admit had me captivated. But when people around were clapping during the performance after particular poignant arias, I sat with my hands in my lap, inwardly tut-tutting!
One of my childhood memories from long before those teenage years, is of hearing clapping on the radio. We had a large wooden cased wireless with glass valves, that my dad had built. It was often tuned to The Third Programme which relayed live concerts. At the end when the audience applauded, my brother and I would ask, “Are they cooking chips?” and fall about laughing. I don’t know if it was to do with the sound quality in those days but it did sound exactly like the chips landing in the hot chip pan.
Clapping as applause is one thing but something I was never a fan of is clapping along to music. Some people do it spontaneously and enjoy joining in. I want to hear the music rather than the sound of my own clapping: even when asked to join in. Perhaps it was my early training in concert-going, inhibiting a natural response to music. It probably is a good job I never went to see the Beatles perform: all that screaming so you couldn’t hear the music would have annoyed me!
I have long since had a different perspective on clapping. Having spent many years in instrumental music teaching, clapping along with the beat has become one of my most valuable ways of encouraging children to develop a sense of pulse. I welcome anything that demystifies the task of learning to play music. And in encouraging children to listen to music, when performing concerts in schools, I have found it heart-warming to hear spontaneous applause and feel the enthusiasm of a young audience whether they clap in the ‘right’ place or not.
As well as my experience of teaching, my interest in music of cultures other than my own has changed my view of clapping. I am fascinated, for example by the interactive response between audience and performers at Indian classical concerts. Expressions of appreciation are expressed vocally and hand gestures like a silent clap and clap with the back of the hand to indicate the ‘tal’ (Indian system of beats) are made by performers and audience alike. The most common tal is a cycle of 16 beats. As a learner, I am always pleased with myself on the rare occasions that I can follow the tal and indicate the return to beat 1 with a silent clap. I have often been mesmerised by the astonishing virtuoso playing or singing of some of the foremost Indian classical musicians. With their incredible dexterity, range and speed it is natural for audiences to clap in appreciation during the performance but it is, often more importantly, the range of emotional expression that is admired and respected and moves people to applaud. I used to think people were being disrespectful and should have waited till the end to clap! The reverse is true: the knowledgeable members of the audience show their respect by knowing exactly when to clap.
A similar experience of noticing different cultural conventions, happened to me at a performance of Beijing Opera during the Edinburgh Festival, several years back. The Chinese audience members clapped enthusiastically at certain points during the performance, especially at the spectacular acrobatic sections, whilst the largely Western audience waited till the end to clap. I had wanted to hear the singing and follow the story and it took me a while to realise that again, it was the people who were familiar with the art form who were clapping during the performance.
Clapping can of course be part of the performance: the incredible clapping of Flamenco musicians and dancers is an art in itself that takes years of practice. And in West African culture, clapping and dancing are an integral part of the music, alongside drumming and call and response singing. As a communal activity, in this and any culture, clapping can be a way of sharing the enjoyment of music and creating a feeling of togetherness.
In a follow-up to this article, I plan to make a podcast with some of my favourite music featuring clapping. It is a work in progress so in the meantime here’s a link to a piece of music that is made up of nothing but clapping. This piece changed my perspective on music forever. It is Steve Reich’s Clapping Music, which I first heard in a live performance in Huddersfield Town Hall when I was a young student. Steve Reich and his band gave a concert of his music, which was like nothing else I had ever heard. When Steve and one of his band members started to perform Clapping Music, I was fascinated by what appeared to be one rhythm pattern being clapped together repeatedly, quite simply and then, with one of the performers gradually getting more and more out of time with the other.
I later found out this is exactly what was happening.