Artistic Assessment and the Rise of the Standing Ovation

Posted by Michael R. Gagliardo, Jul 06, 2012 5 comments

Michael R. Gagliardo Michael R. Gagliardo

Every time the Etowah Youth Orchestra gives a performance, it seems, we get a standing ovation. I think that’s great—I mean, what better way to recognize the accomplishments of our young musicians, right? And it’s not that they don’t deserve the ovation—after all, they work their tails off at every rehearsal to prepare and present the best performances possible. And with young artists, we should always recognize and praise their efforts.

But on the professional level, I’ve been to a number of performances lately where the performance itself has been adequate, at best, and the audience has still recognized the performers by rising to its feet and loudly and enthusiastically heaping praise upon those on stage.

That’s fine, I guess—we’re recognizing the effort, perhaps; but, in terms of assessing the performance, is this really doing our art any favors? Don’t get me wrong—I want my young players to get standing ovations, to be recognized for their efforts, their achievements, and their accomplishments. But only when it is deserved.

I look at it this way—if I gave a performance that was just lukewarm, I wouldn’t want this type of accolade. It almost feels like pity, in a way—like the audience is saying, “Well, it wasn’t that good of a performance, but we should recognize the effort anyway—I’m sure he worked very hard to put that performance together.”

When we assess the arts, we have to be fair. I know, I know—we struggle every day, for funding, for acceptance, for a place in education, for a place in our communities. And it’s so easy to justify everything we do, to laud and praise every effort, in our desire to win the fight and solidify our place in society. But at what price?

It’s a hard question, but one we have to consider—is there any such thing as bad art? There’s so much grey area. We are not math, or science, or even the facts of history, where everything is black and white. But to be fair, to ourselves, and to our work—our mission—we have to be willing to FAIRLY assess our work. And that means not just accepting what we do based on effort only.

A standing ovation isn’t a bad thing. We just need to properly assess why the ovation, or the great review, or the heaping praise, comes from. And we need to hold our audiences accountable—making sure that their reaction is the right one, delivered for the correct reasons, based on the right assessment of the performance, or the exhibit, or any artistic output.

And so the next time a performance doesn’t meet our high artistic standards, I won’t ask the audience to sit back down. But I will challenge our audience, and the audience for any of the arts, to give a fair and accurate assessment of the performance. And I will make sure our students know what the expectations are for every concert. And that is a tremendous step toward accurately assessing the arts.

5 responses for Artistic Assessment and the Rise of the Standing Ovation


Mr. Gregory Fiedler says
July 06, 2012 at 11:41 am

I apologize Michael, but I am going to have to disagree on this one. I don't see any way to hold an audience accountable for their reaction to a performance nor would I consider intervening in their portion of the creative process.

There are many reasons an audience is moved to standing at the beginning, during and at the end of a performance. Quality is not the only thing that moves the human spirit. Some performers automatically get ovations just for showing up due to their lifetime achievements or fame, even though their talent may have faded years ago. Audiences are moved to standing after numbers that they have sentiment for. I have noticed lately that it doesn't matter how badly an artist massacres our national anthem, everyone cheers loudly.

I agree, students deserve special recognition for their efforts and many times they surprise and delight us with performances that are mature beyond their years. This happens frequently at the Interlochen Center for the Arts where I spend my summer breaks. Yes, I believe an audience can even be moved by pity. Their generous spirits can not be criticized for their need to encourage even the most pitiable of creative endeavors.

So there you have it. If you can produce mediocre art and still get a standing ovation, who knows?...We might induct you into the Andy Warhol Hall of Fame.

OOps! Did I say that? Sorry Warhol fans!

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Warren says
July 06, 2012 at 11:53 am

Your perspective may not be the correct one. The audience spent good money and time for the privilege of enjoying themselves at your performance. They are definitely not there as music critics or to judge your performance based on some historical standard or comparative scale. If the standing ovation is something they feel compelled to participate in in order to enjoy themselves in their role as "audience" that's perfectly valid regardless of whatever other motivation may or may not exist. If it is a sincere appreciation for what you've shared with them, this is valid regardless of how poorly your performance may compare to some other performances or some esoteric "standard". Just because they are enthusiastic about the moment does not necessarily mean they are undiscerning or oblivious to standards. It may simply reflect that for them the moment and its gift are something to be appreciated and honored in and of themselves, without poisoning it by extraneous considerations. In particular, this idea of yours: "And we need to hold our audiences accountable—making sure that their reaction is the right one, delivered for the correct reasons, based on the right assessment of the performance, or the exhibit, or any artistic output." is totally wrong and that is a very polite way to put it. The pursuit of high artistic (this is subjective, isn't it?) and technical (more objective, but not entirely) standards has an effect on the audience's experience, but they don't need to care about them exactly the way you do, nor can you demand they do.

In case you're interested, I have been playing in full-time professional symphony orchestras for over 30 years and have worked in orchestras on three different continents in widely varying cultures.

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Elizabeth says
July 07, 2012 at 10:15 am

The idea that audiences must respond in "right" ways "for the correct reasons" suggests, disturbingly, that there is a wrong way to experience art. It's a short step from there to the snobbery and condescension that left so many arts in hopeless straits at the end of the twentieth century. I suppose if you want to upbraid the rubes for liking something accessible, that's your prerogative; but with few exceptions, the greatest performances I've seen have been moved by generosity and fellow-feeling toward the audience, not contempt for their limited perception.

I'm also troubled by the implicit lesson that students should look to the audience as the ultimate arbiter of merit. That is a recipe for desperate unhappiness (something I learned the hard way in my first decade in professional theater). In the end one can work only to one's own standards.

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Joe Gleason says
July 07, 2012 at 11:11 am

If an audience member chooses to give an ovation for any performance that is their prerogative. It doesn't matter whether you perceive the performance as good or bad, it matters that the audience member choosing to give an ovation was moved to do so.

What bothers me about the prevalence of standing ovations today is many times they are half-hearted. A few truly enthusiastic people stand and applaud and slowly but surely others join in, not because they felt the performance deserved it but to be polite. If you want to measure yourself by audience reaction then analyze the audience response giving different weights to the type of standing ovation - the slow, obligatory half-hearted type to the spontaneous mass rising in true appreciation of the performance.

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July 08, 2012 at 2:43 pm

As Elizabeth states, judging success on the strength of other people’s applause can be a slippery slope for those with a drive to express their voice. The question of what we should assess in the arts is complicated by the fact that artists often consider more intangible results to be the most important – and this has put the arts community in a bind as our country has become increasingly outcomes and data driven.

We have tried, with woeful results, to reframe assessment models developed for traditional academics; not only are those models not working well for students in general, by solely measuring isolated information and skill acquisition they represent the opposite of what good art demands! Jason Yoon refers to this conundrum in his excellent May post: (

I think our assessment methods need to line up with our values. How do you quantify, for example, the personal growth a disconnected, failing youth has to achieve in order to transform into an accomplished musician? Well, here’s an out-of-the-box answer: we do it by looking at the specific stepping stones – improvements in the abilities and skills that are essential to learning - that had to be taken towards that transformation, such as improvements in motivation, ability to listen, or relationship to teacher and others in the group. By clearly delineating students’ direct paths of improvement, we quantify the unquantifiable.

In a post last December ( I referenced an assessment tool Merge Education has developed that measures student progress in this way. Developing those skills and abilities is, after all, inherent in good arts education. If we’re doing this as arts educators, then the performance is just one more step along the way.

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