Please Stay Seated

(Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
Our participation award-obsessed culture doesn’t understand the true meaning of a standing ovation.

Every time I attend a performance — of any level, but mainly in the K–12 range — part of me cringes near the end. The usual sadness that comes with the ending of a good show is there, but the feeling is mostly an anticipation of what comes next. The performers take their place on stage for the curtain call, clasp hands, and bow while the audience members leap to their feet cheering and clapping.

Why do we feel it necessary to stand and clap at the end of every school play, middle-school band concert, and community-theater musical?

Please, parents, lower your pitchforks for a moment and hear me out. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being proud of our children and their accomplishments. It takes time and energy to hone a performance and then courage to stand and present it to an audience of peers and parents. But there needs to be a difference between recognizing that effort and recognizing true excellence.

We should be discerning in our applause and praise, giving it when we see a good job well done. Appropriately selected praise signals appreciation for the time and talent of the performers, but it also encourages them to strive for even better and higher goals. A college friend of mine performed with our school’s talented orchestra for four years, and she remembers one music-theory teacher who attended every orchestra concert. Nearly every show, the audience would leap to its feet at the end, applauding enthusiastically. All except this professor — a very kind and dedicated teacher — who stood to applaud for only one of the ensemble’s performances. That one performance, the professor’s ovation assured them, had been truly excellent.

These students were committed to their music, balancing it along with their classes, homework, and extracurriculars, and they deserved praise for each performance. However, a standing ovation is not meant to simply recognize the person giving the performance, but to honor the excellence of the music and of the musicians’ skill — playing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” perfectly does not count.

Excellence entails going above and beyond, taking your art form or words to the next level. Excellence takes practice, precision, and patience. It embodies both technical and emotional aspects. So why can we as audience members not wait for excellence? Do we not recognize it anymore?

A quote from The Incredibles is quite applicable here: “When everyone’s super, no one will be.” Today’s culture is so focused on everyone, particularly children, feeling good about themselves and their actions that we can’t bring ourselves to praise one performance more than another for fear of making a less talented child “feel bad.” This mentality does more harm than good for our children — cheering wildly every time they decide to get up off the couch means never encouraging them to reach their full potential. Our current climate is one of extremes: Mere clapping implies indifference or disapproval, while standing and cheering implies appreciation and approval. We lack a middle ground where we can heartily appreciate a performance without declaring it the absolutely best thing we’ve ever seen.

And this is not limited to K–12 performances. It goes for any performance you attend. What should make us stand? Something that moves us. So yes, there is emotion involved, but it is emotion provoked by the excellent combination of the performer and the performance.

Consider Vladimir Horowitz, one of the most talented pianists of the 20th century, who performed complex and gorgeous pieces with stunning clarity and style. In 1986, he returned to the Soviet Union — something he’d vowed never to do after leaving in 1925 — to perform two concerts. The film from his Moscow performance shows the audience on their feet and cheering madly at the end, refusing to stop until Horowitz returned to play once again for them. Return he did, but what did he play? A simple piece, Schumann’s “Traumerei.” The film shows an audience riveted, breathless, many with closed eyes, some weeping. Though some may think it easy, Horowitz’s encore shows us a rare depth of playing. It is this depth and feeling, this passion and dedication, this excellence of the piece and the performer that deserves our standing ovation.

So enjoy the talents of others and praise them for their hard work.

But for the love of excellence, please stay seated.

Sarah Schutte is the podcast manager for National Review and an associate editor for National Review magazine. Originally from Dayton, Ohio, she is a children's literature aficionado and Mendelssohn 4 enthusiast.

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