23 April 2018

Farewell Bows

Many words have been expended (in this blog, if not elsewhere) on applause, but none on how to respond to applause.  I generally refer to myself as a “professional listener”, which means I usually look at a performance from the audience’s perspective, but I also have a long and not-so-illustrious life away from Singapore as a performer, and have devoted a great deal of time to the study of how performers should most effectively respond to audience applause. 

Applause is, after all, the thing which most performers hope - if not strive - to extract from an audience, so it is disturbing how very few performers really know how to handle it.

(On a side issue, when I asked a group of composers during a question and answer session preceding a concert of their music what they hoped the audience would derive from their music, I was amazed to realise that one of them, at least, appeared never to have given the matter any thought at all.  After much defensive blustering, he did seem to say that he didn’t really care.  I thought the I-Hate-Bloody-Audiences mentality among composers had died out sometime in the 1970s.)

Over the past month I have been making a particular study of the way performers, specifically in Singapore, respond to applause and have noticed a few intriguing trends emerging. 

1.       Choirs.  I first noticed a couple of years ago that certain choirs in Singapore had started orchestrating their end-of-concert bows.  The choral director stands in front of the choir, raises his (or her) hand and then brings it forward in a dramatic sweeping gesture.  With that, the whole choir bows.   Sadly, few have worked out how to get them out of the bowing posture as, with heads lowered, they cannot see the director’s hand reverse the operation.  The result is a military precision forward bow followed by a kind of reverse Mexican wave, as heads slowly re-erect themselves like the heads of so many tortoises emerging from their shells.  This has now become standard procedure.  And I wish it had not.  For it is both silly and inappropriate.  The accepted practice among orchestras is that, if there is a conductor, ONLY the conductor bows.  If there is no conductor, then the players line up and the person in the middle of the line leads a communal, if not militarily precise, bow.  Choirs should follow that practice.  The drilled precision of the mass choral bow exudes insinceriety and looks so rehearsed as to make one wonder whether they would still do it if there were no applause.  The conductor is the representative of the performers on stage, so acknowledges the applause on behalf of them all.  Please, please, please, Singapore choirs – STOP the orchestrated bow and leave it to your conductor to acknowledge applause.  Stand up (if you are not already doing so) to acknowledge applause, but leave it to the conductor to bow.  And remember to smile: the audience likes to think you are grateful that they were there.

2.       Self-Applause.  By standing while the audience applauds, a performer is tacitly acknowledging and thanking them for that applause.  The golden rule is NEVER to applaud when you are on your feet.  The increasing habit of performers joining in the applause intended for them comes from those American TV game shows where contestants are so thick that achieving any coordinated act is a cause for major celebration.  Musicians have evolved higher levels of intellectual and physical coordination, so do not need to applaud themselves when they manage to say “Hi!” without too many slips.  The sight of performers on stage actually applauding themselves is nauseating.  Orchestras who wish to acknowledge a soloist or conductor do so while seated, once they stand they stop applauding.  Choirs need to think what message they are sending out when they appear to applaud themselves.  There are ways of showing that your applause is meant for the conductor/soloist – usually by holding the hands out at arms’ length towards the focus of the applause.

3.       Heart Attack or Wardrobe Malfunction? Many performers acknowledge the audience’s applause by placing their hand over their heart.  This is quite a nice gesture implying humility (is that a valid quality in a performer?), but one fraught with danger if not properly thought through.  I have seen young pianists suddenly clutching their heart at the end of a performance as if some kind of cardiac failure has struck, while the sight of female performers suddenly holding their forearm and hand over the top of their chest makes one wonder whether they have suddenly realised that their tops have been cut too low for a bow not to cause offence (or delight) to those in the front row.  How many performers who do this actually film themselves to see if their gesture is really sending out the message they want.

4.       Page-Turners. It is the responsibility of the performer whose pages are being turned to instruct the page-truer on how to appear on stage.  Is the page turner to stand up and bow, to remain seated and applaud, to come on stage and leave stage with the performers?  Every performer is responsible for their own show, and that includes telling the page-turner precisely what to do.  Too often, page turners are left in the dark as to how they should deal with applause.  For what it’s worth, I send my page-turner out with the music while the pre-concert announcement is being made (or the lights dimmed) so that it is obvious they are not the performer, and I ask them to remain seated while the applause is happening and to leave the stage, with the music, only after the applause has died away.  But this has to be adjusted to suit different venues and occasions.  But briefing the page-turner is vital.

5.       Encores.  Four genuine calls back on to stage is the minimum required to trigger an encore, or at least, some kind of verbal interaction with the audience; and that counts for second and third encores too.  An encore delivered without the requisite number of curtain calls is a sure sign of an ego which is larger than a talent. But my opinion is that any audience which goes away satisfied has been poorly treated; they should always go away wishing they could have heard some more.  That way, you can be assured of repeat bookings and large audiences at return visits.

As I look at the way performers react to applause, I wonder how much time teachers devote to training their students on stage etiquette.  There is no point in appearing on stage, well armed with a phenomenal programme and the technique to deliver it, if you have no idea how to respond to the audience.  Unless, that is, you are a composer where, it would seem, the audience is just a bloody nuisance!
I need at this stage, to take a bow of my own, provided, that is, there is any applause to acknowledge.  This is the last post for a while as I leave Singapore to resume my other life in another country doing other things.  Wheels are in motion for me to be back in a few months, but long and bitter experience of life has taught me never to assume anything will happen until it actually does.  But whether I am away for a few weeks or forever, I thank you for reading and exploring this blog, for responding so eagerly and enthusiastically to its content, and helping me achieve my goal of making us value music so much that we feel it is worth discussing and arguing over.  Thank you.  Dr Marc


  1. Good travels and good luck Dr Marc. Thank you for your strongly held views, and eloquently expressed and wonderfully self depreciating posts. I hope your plans work out.

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