Applause is weird. How and when did we decide that making noise by slapping our hands together is the best way to show our appreciation for something taking place before us – a performance, a speech, or an anticipated event like an unveiling or ribbon-cutting? And not just the event itself, but the introduction of a speaker or performer? The delivery of a great solo in the heat of a jazz set, or the articulation of a shared goal in the middle of a speech?
Some classical music fiends hate when audiences applaud after, say, the first movement of a multi-movement work, deriding that the applauders must not know the piece isn’t over yet or moaning that the continuity of the performance has been interrupted?
Other times, it feels like there isn’t enough applause. Watch the New York Philharmonic audience after a concert sometime. As soon as the last note sounds, the subscribers are up and out of their seats. Not for a standing ovation, but to grab their coats and stride up the aisle like they’re on a desperate mission.
However it’s come to be, applause is a sign of respect. (I’m going to explore the concertgoing experience more in a future post.) But sometimes applause feels wrong, especially in a sacred space (I use the word “sacred” reeeeally broadly) or at a solemn occasion. You want to show your appreciation, but it feels so brash and disruptive to applaud. Ever sit in the wake of a moving speech, itching to applaud to show how powerful it was, but holding back because applause would shatter the moment? A friend of mine once told me that at his summer camp, they would rub their hands together at moments like these. Out of the silence after a moving moment would come a gentle susurrus. Our hands might draw together almost automatically, but the sound doesn’t shatter the peace.
I’d like to make that more widespread. Anyone want to join me? Rub your hands together if you do.