A Beginner's Guide to... Going to the Symphony

Photo by  Manuel Nägeli  on  Unsplash

So you've never been to the symphony before. Or maybe you went when you were like, 9, and your grandma bought tickets to Peter and the Wolf (was that even what it was called?). Or maybe you went a couple years ago because you were trying to impress a hot date but then you fell asleep (TBF, you had no idea what was going on and hit that red wine pretty hard at dinner beforehand... but still). Or maybe you're not even sure if you know what "going to the symphony" means, but you're really into bettering yourself and being classy and learning stuff.

Well amigo, you came to the right place.

And BTW — way to go! Way to put yourself out there and try something new. Hundreds and hundreds of years of humans have delighted in what you're about to learn how to do. Way to join in!

So, let's talk symphony. Here's my 10-step, pretty-much-fail-proof plan for a positively delightful evening. Take a cute date. Go by your bad self and get yo' independence on. Bring your girlfriends and gram the hell outta yourselves in your cute symphony-going outfits. Surprise your mom. Whatever. As Nike, Goddess of Footwear would say: just do it.

1. Step numero uno: figure out who your orchestra even is. The professional one for your city. (No shade to the semi-pro and amateur orchestras out there... but if you've never been to the symphony before, let's go all in, shall we?). How do you know if it's the professional orchestra for your city? Literally google "professional orchestra (your city)". The website should be good. They should have lots of concerts on their calendar. You should be able to piece it together.

2.  Pick your concert. IMO, this step is super fun, but I'm a musician... so you might feel daunted by this part. DON'T. YOU CAN DO IT! You should already be on the website for your orchestra. Go to the Concerts or Calendar page or whatever... somewhere you can poke around at what's coming up. Now, because you don't really know what you're doing yet, you can go almost on sheer instinct here. Do you like the look of something and it lines up with a day that works for you? Book that shit. Still not sure? Here are two fail-proof strategies:

Pick a Pops concert. (This is the easy road, and noooo judgment if you pick it). Most orchestras have a group (or "series") of concerts called Pops (they'll be labelled that way on the website). There are a couple of different types of Pops. First, there's themed Pops — like, "A Night at the Oscars", or "The Wild, Wild West". Usually in these concerts the orchestra will play short, familiar pieces (read: songs/ditties/tunes) you'll recognize, and the conductor will tell jokes and stories in between. It's nice, it's light, it's fun. Then there's guest artist Pops, where a soloist or band will play and be accompanied by the orchestra. Sometimes these concerts are called by the name of the artist (duh), or (pro tip) sometimes they're called something like "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road", or "Magical Mystery Tour", and you're like... uhhh, that sounds like an Elton John tribute or a Beatles-themed show. Click through to the concert description — there's probably a soloist or band. These concerts have a little less orchestra-time, but are still super fun. Finally, there's the hybrid: a themed show with a soloist for a few numbers. You see these a lot on holidays (helloooo, Christmas music!), and they are also a frickin' delight.

Pick a Masterworks concert. (Well, they're usually called Masterworks... you can figure it out from which concerts 1. are classical music, 2. have what looks like a fancy soloist, and 3. usually have more than one performance on the calendar). If you look at the individual concert and there's something on the program called "Symphony number (whatever)" and there's also something called "Concerto for (yadda yadda yadda)", you're in the right place! This is the classic symphony-going experience, and (somewhat controversially) this is where I recommend you start. Some people will tell you to start with Pops because they're more "approachable," and if that's what you're feelin' – you do you (seriously – I love Pops, I go to a ton of them). But if your goal is to figure out "how to go to the symphony," may as well really go for it. 

3. Buy yo tix. Savvy symphony-goers aim to sit at the front of the first balcony (usually called Lower Balcony, or, if you're right at the front, "Loge"). But these seats can be really expensive. If you're up for it, splash out and sit here — it's worth it. Next best option: Upper balcony immediately behind those seats (aka, the first cheaper row you can find), or the main floor (but NOT at the back... you do NOT want to sit under the overhang of the balcony). And I would strongly caution you not to buy anything marked "partial view", and I think you can figure out why. Try to sit as close to the centre as possible, just like at a movie theatre.

4. Get hyped. 

(Sidebar: if you picked a Pops concert, you can skip some of the rest of this... but you can totally also still do it. Use your judgment, mmkay?)

5. Start googling that shit. When people used to go to the symphony, back in yesteryear or olden times or whatever, they would read a book about the concert they were going to. I'm not joking. Or they already had a ton of knowledge about classical music from school and private music lessons and days spent musing about Schubert while at the country home playing badminton on the lawn. Then, slightly more recently, people would listen to a record of the piece they were going to hear and read the liner notes. It took a while for people to learn about what they were going to see, but they often had a better base of knowledge than what most of us have today. While arts education and our parents' record collections have largely failed us in terms of classical music appreciation/knowledge/skills (just another thing to be resentful about, amirite?), we are BLESSED with the fastest, easiest way to learn about classical music EVER. It's called The Internet, and I thiiiiink you're going to like it. Here's how we do:

Listen up. Start by YouTubing what looks to be the main piece on the program (you can tell from the writeup on the website from when you bought your tickets — it's usually the name of the concert). Just listen to it in the background while you're at work or playing video games or cooking dinner or whatever. You don't even have to pay attention, just have it on. Do this for each piece on the program. Do it a couple of times, and pick different orchestras (pro tip: pick orchestras from big cities, like the Berlin Philharmonic or the Chicago Symphony). Remember — you aren't actively listening (unless all of a sudden you want to); the goal is just to get familiar with the music, and you can do that in the background.

Study up. Ok, that's an overstatement. Google the name of each piece on the program. You'll probably end up at Wikipedia, and that's totally fine. Have a gander — you'll probably read some interesting shit, like how the composer was dying when he wrote it, or how the middle part is supposed to sound like a war, or how there's a famous tune at the end, or how it has the hardest, raddest bassoon solo of all time. You're mining for gems, but you don't have to become any sort of expert. Now do the same thing for the composer of each piece. Same deal — you're looking for interesting tidbits. Is that composer famous for something in particular? "Sweeping melodies" or "intricate rhythms" or something? What about their life? Most composers had shitty lives and then they died and THEN they became famous, just like painters. Who was the person who made this? Why did they do it? What were they trying to say? Finally, google the people you're going to see — especially any soloist(s) and the conductor. Who dis? Why you famous?

6. Figure out if there's a pre-concert talk. You can phone the box office to ask, or it might be on the orchestra's website. That will tell you what time you need to be at the theatre (and if you picked a Masterworks concert, you want to go to the talk, trust me). Somebody smart will give a little half-hour talk about the concert, and you can have a glass of wine or a coffee while you listen. Again – get the most out of the experience, y'all. 

7. Get fancy(ish). Fanciness varies a lot from city to city, and even concert to concert. But, here's how to guarantee success: pick an outfit you would wear out to dinner at a fancy restaurant in your city. That's probably the exact right level of snazziness for the symphony.

8. Go early. Go for dinner beforehand, but leave yourself LOTS of time in between dinner and the concert. You don't want to be rushed, and you definitely don't want to be late. If you show up late, they'll let you in, but not until the first piece is over... so you basically paid full price for 2/3 of the concert. Head over to the theatre and pick up your tickets at the front door if you don't already have them. Then — surprise! — there's a bar inside! Have a drinky-poo and catch that pre-concert talk I told you about (if there is one). If there isn't, now's a good time to wander around the lobby and take some really good selfies. Or talk to your date. Whatever.

8. Order your intermission drink now. Most theatres with a bar in the lobby allow you to order your drink for intermission before the concert. Do this. Then you just waltz up to the end of the bar like picking up a mobile order at Starbucks and grab your cocktail at the beginning of intermission while everyone else is standing in line like a sucker. Intermissions aren't that long, so it's totally worth it. (Total sidebar – as soon as intermission starts... Hit. Dat. Washroom. Especially for the ladies. The lines are notoriously long, and the second half is usually around 45 minutes to an hour long).

9. Read your program... or don't. Once you've found your seat, take the few minutes before the concert starts to read your program. This will refresh what you learned in all your awesome studying that you 100% did (right? RIGHT?!). OR: you can do what I do, and save reading your program for during the pieces (if you're sitting somewhere with enough light). Whenever I'm starting to lose a bit of interest (yes, it happens to the best of us), I read the program notes for that piece. It's a great perk up for the mind and the ears – it helps you find new things to listen to, and will enhance the listening experience. 

10. Listen actively and enjoy. You know how there's a difference between hearing and listening? Like, you hear everyone talking at work, but if someone a few cubicles away whispers something about that biznatch in accounting, suddenly you're not hearing – you're listening (extremely attentively). That active, "turn your ears on", feeling is what we're going for at the symphony. Watching a symphony performance should feel like going to the movies, especially if you've already done the passive listening plus the learning about the piece. Now you get to put all the pieces together and really listen to everything going on. Let your ears and eyes hop around the orchestra. And then, don't be afraid to let your mind wander. Symphonic music can be unbelievably transportative – you have no idea what might come up from your subconscious if you're really tapping into the music. Just let it all happen, baby. 

And that's it! You did it! Congratulations, you classy devil you... now you know how to go to the symphony.