Ovation Inflation: How Unique to Mormons?

Everyone is worried about the economy, including the inflation of the U.S. dollar.

But I wish to express my concerns about a different kind of inflation: ovation inflation.

Years ago I came to the term “ovation inflation” independently, but after I googled the term about a month ago, I realized, once again, that I am not as unique as I thought. “Ovation inflation” has been discussed in blogs, online magazines, and even the Wall Street Journal. In her WSJ article, Joanne Kaufman called ovation inflation “one more example of our society’s tendency to supersize every experience, emotion and commodity.”

I definitely agree. My wife and I are regular patrons of the arts, including performances here at BYU. We have seen many remarkable (and mediocre) performances, at BYU and elsewhere. But mediocre or not, you can almost bet that a standing ovation will occur at BYU.

It’s almost always the same story. The show ends, people begin clapping. After several seconds (sometimes longer), one or two or five enthusiastic souls rise to their feet. Within seconds, many, many more people stand up, no doubt spurred by the semi-conscious thoughts of “if a few people are standing up, well, I guess I should too,” or “yes! I have an excuse to stand up — when I stand up it makes me feel good,” or “well, my date/spouse/friend/etc. is standing up, it would be awkward if I didn’t too.” At this point, there are still several people sitting, but most of them eventually stand, some reluctantly because they don’t want to stand out, or simply because they’d like to see the stage. A few brave souls (usually my wife and I included) sweat it out on their seats the whole time.

Now, I could go on and on about how this cheapens what a standing ovation means. What would one do if they REALLY liked it? Jump up and down? Take off their shirt and wave it in the air? This problem should be fairly obvious, but perhaps not as appreciated by those who are not as initiated into the culture of the fine arts (as opposed to the culture of the rock concert). I regularly hear, though, from performers that standing ovations mean very little to them and they would prefer it if they were much more rare (I felt this way when I was on BYU’s Mens’ Chorus, where we would have a long standing ovation every time no matter what).

It is clear that ovation inflation is a problem all over the place. Popular Broadway performances apparently always receive them. But maybe you could expect that for Broadway and the Disney-loving crowds that they attract nowadays. But I wonder whether this problem might be more pronounced among Mormon crowds. I can certainly say, from my experience, that the exchange rate for a standing ovation is much cheaper at BYU than other venues I have attended. This is the case even for many other performing groups in Utah, such as the Utah Symphony or Hale Center Theatre. Standing ovations for these performances, from my experience, are fairly rare. Especially the Utah Symphony — I’ve been to dozens of their performances and only one — a Hillary Hahn concert last year — had a standing ovation. And it deserved it: right as the performance ended, a man shouted “Brava!” and the crowd rose to their feet — in unison. That is the way standing ovations ought to be.

I think that regular patrons of the arts are far less likely to stand. This is evident even at the BYU performances: the front 3-4 rows (saturated with season ticket holders) have a lot of sitters (though part of this may be because they don’t have to stand up to see).

But I still am suspicious that ovation inflation is more prominent among Mormons, at least the BYU or Utah area variety. One reason I think this is because standing ovations are very, very common at performances on Temple Square. And just a hunch I have. But what I really need is a comparison with performances from non-LDS universities , especially those outside of Utah or Idaho — can anyone help me out here?

My recommendations for the person who has a knee-jerk reaction for standing ovations:

  • As the concert is in its final moments, ask yourself if you would like to stand. Then — stick to your decision, no matter what. That means you will stand even if everyone else sits. And you will sit even if everyone else is standing, including your companion (first dates might be an exception — if you must, stand — but do so only if your date stands first).
  • In general, limit your standing ovations to once a year (maximum). If you attend less than 10 performances a year, then limit yourself to 1 in 10 performances (maximum). These of course are just general rules of thumb — it’s possible for you to have attended two phenomenal performances in a row. (So, coming back to the first point, you might think, am I willing to use this as my 1 in 10?)
  • If you want to ensure people that you really liked the performance (even though you’re not standing), clap loud and high. If they inquire later, you might even talk to them about the problem with ovation inflation :)
  • If you didn’t really like the performance that much, respectably clap quietly while sitting. Almost every performance deserves clapping, however reserved (simply for effort).

Well, my wife and I are going to the H.M.S. Pinafore at BYU tonight. We’ll see if it receives a standing ovation. And if it actually deserves one.

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18 Responses

  1. This is a problem even in some of the snootier artsy cities in the US (at least at very popular performances). My Dad went to a performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in Seattle a couple years ago by a famous young prodigy (who had grown up). The performance was quite mediocre, even wanting (according to my Dad and one of the symphony violinists), but the audience gave her a standing ovation after the first movement (thus breaking etiquette). I suspect this problem might be worse in BYU culture than most other Universities (that’s just my guess based on enthusiasm for the arts in Mormon culture), but it definitely is a more general problem in US culture. I think the Kaufman quote in your first paragraph sums it up.

    Based on my experience, ovations are often inspired by the emotional energy/character of the work more than the quality of the performance. The violin concerto movement I mentioned earlier, for example, is very rousing. In other words, people are measuring how much they like the work instead of how well it is executed. Perhaps one of the basic problems behind this is that live music is so rare in our experience (especially of older works) these days that we don’t know how to evaluate it.

    There is a humanities teacher at BYU who recommends giving a standing ovation if you are so inspired/impressed by the performer that you would like to go write music just for them to perform.

  2. From Ambrose Bierce’s “Devil’s Dictionary”:

    OVATION, n. n ancient Rome, a definite, formal pageant in honor of one who had been disserviceable to the enemies of the nation. A lesser “triumph.” In modern English the word is improperly used to signify any loose and spontaneous expression of popular homage to the hero of the hour and place.

    “I had an ovation!” the actor man said,
    But I thought it uncommonly queer,
    That people and critics by him had been led
    By the ear.

    The Latin lexicon makes his absurd
    Assertion as plain as a peg;
    In “ovum” we find the true root of the word.
    It means egg.

    Dudley Spink

    In that context, personally, I would much rather have innovation than an ovation, and if I must have an ovation, I suspect a squatting ovation would be more comfortable (not to mention efficient) than a standing one.


  3. I’ve never given so much thought to a standing ovation. Perhaps, that is your part of your point. Though I’m a huge fan of orchestral music from many periods, I’ve only seen a handful of performances of this type. I can’t remember if I actually stood at the end of each performance but I’m sure that my applause was always enthusiastic. Were I to see a show that I thought was not very good, I don’t think you’d see me on my feet.
    It sounds to me like there may be a few things in play in your post.
    1) It sounds like the shows that you do see are of above average quality.
    2) It sounds like you may be drawing a very fine line between types of applause given a high quality show. You need to remember that different people rate performances differently. A professor from Berklee is far more likely to find fault with even the most high quality performance than I am, for example. Thus, I’d be at least somewhat more likely to stand during the ovation than that professor.
    3) Lastly and closer to your original point, I think that there are times when an audience may get caught up in its own arrogance and applaud itself for knowing the proper etiquette as much as it is applauding the performer.

    Interestingly, I’ve been to far more rock concerts than I’ve been to performances of the arts. My experiences at these types of shows have ended either in strong applause or horrendous BOOOOs. I don’t recall much middle ground. I’ve never seen a classically trained instrumentalist of anu type get booed of the stage (as I have with some rock bands, even at large venues).

    Anyway, this post caught my attention and I figured I’d share my views.

    Have a good one…

  4. “Ovation Inflation” is simply one example of a general trend toward excellence inflation. So many things today are referred to as: “great”, “truly great”, “excellent”, “the best ever”, “amazing”, “awesome”, etc. It has become difficult to come across things that aren’t spoken of in such superlatives. While I was at BYU I attended, participated in or worked for hundreds of productions. I was amazed at how frequently they received standing ovations. I can recall two that I feel clearly deserved standing ovations and one that probably did. The first would be the final performance that Mac Wilberg conducted at BYU. It was a wonderful performance but the ovation was more for the body of work Mac Wilberg had done while at BYU. It was the longest and most well deserved ovation I have ever seen. The second deserving ovation was for a classical guitar performance by Sergio and Odair Assad. They were guest artist and the performance was simply amazing, to use one of the now common superlatives. The probably deserving performance was the play “Joyful Noise.” The production quality was very high but it is hard to say if the ovation came from the high quality or the emotion. However, the emotion was aided by the high production quality.

    These experiences aside, I do not think that excellence inflation is a Mormon phenomenon. I now live and work outside of Utah. I supervise and evaluate over 30 employees. It is amazing how many of them feel they deserve the highest possible score in nearly every category. None of those that I supervise are LDS. They explain to me the tremendous things they feel they are doing. I agree that they are doing excellent work and that is the expectation. They are not exceeding basic expectations. In the case of ovations, was the work good? Yes. Did it dramatically exceed expectations? If yes, then and only then is an ovation deserved.

    It seems that people not only think that nearly everything others do is tremendous, they also categorize their work as some of the best ever. Students feel they deserve an “A” even if it wasn’t their best possible work. Employees want gushing evaluations for simply doing what is expected. Artists expect rave reviews for work that is simply good. When superlatives are doled out so freely they lose their meaning and achieving them is rather empty. The good grades I was most proud of, came from the professors that were the least likely to give them out.

  5. I first noticed this phenomenon in high school (in Washington state). When I did dance team we were encouraged to stand and cheer for each team that performed. I didn’t really mind it in this context because we were participants cheering each other on rather than a critical audience. But every other performance got standing O’s as well: choir/band concerts, musicals, etc.

    These days I still feel awkward when everyone around me starts to stand. I don’t feel obligated to stand, but I feel really snobby.

    On another note: what’s with clapping along to everything? I’m sure this is nothing new, but all it does is make the actual music being played sound worse.

  6. Dennis, I was just thinking your blog is better than Times and Seasons. I know I’m biased, but most of their stuff is boring or sloppily written (“bloggy”) in comparison.

    For everyone else’s information, HMS Pinafore didn’t come close to getting a standing ovation. Good for the audience! They are probably seasoned spring-opera attenders (for one thing, the show wasn’t well advertised). It’s a cute show, but feels like a watered-down version of the other Gilbert and Sullivan operas. (At this point, BYU has performed every last Gilbert and Sullivan operetta– HMS Pinafore was their last choice, and now I understand why. I wonder what they’ll do for the spring opera next year).

  7. My wife and I were at the June 12th performance of HMS pinafore and were also pleasantly surprised to see that all but three people resisted the standing ovation–a first in our experience of attending BYU performances. We’ve long assumed that any performance with a large Mormon crowd will end in a standing ovation.

    I’m a sitter. I can show my support and appreciation by my continued patronage and by my applause. I personally think that 1 ovation in 10 performances might even be a bit too liberal for my tastes. My wife’s uncle told us that tradition once held that a person gets to give only 3 standing ovations in a lifetime. I’m not so sure about the accuracy of this, but it makes for an interesting measuring stick.

    The last time I stood for a performance in Utah Valley was when we were given tickets to a performance of Hello Dolly at the Scera Shell in Orem. I stood to leave . . . early . . . as quickly as possible.

    Maybe we should start teaching about standing ovations in YM/YW the same way we do about chastity. “You want to save your standing ovations for when that special person comes along. If you just give them away you will be cheapening them. After all, why would you buy a cow if you get the milk for free.” :)

  8. Excellent comments, everyone.


    You need to remember that different people rate performances differently. A professor from Berklee is far more likely to find fault with even the most high quality performance than I am, for example. Thus, I’d be at least somewhat more likely to stand during the ovation than that professor.

    I think you are right — it’s pretty unreasonable to think that people can or should have the same ratio of standing ovations. However, I think that the larger matter here is not simply how likely one is to judge critically, but the degree to which one is willing to not follow the crowd.


    Thanks for your input. I like how you brought up grade inflation — this is certainly a parallel problem, I think. It’s particularly difficult to be a university instructor and to have to “compete” with other instructors who give A’s very easily.

    In the spirit of your comment, I will mention the one BYU performance that I have attended that I feel deserved a standing ovation: the Utah Symphony’s January 8, 2004 performance of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto with guest cellist Shauna Rolston. This was a phenomenal performance. I had discount tickets to the performance, through the Honors program, that cost $2 each. My piano teacher, who had also attended, said that this concert was within the top five of all musical performances he has attended — which has been many, including foreign and Broadway productions. “And to think you saw it for $2!” he exclaimed!


    Maybe we should start teaching about standing ovations in YM/YW the same way we do about chastity. “You want to save your standing ovations for when that special person comes along. If you just give them away you will be cheapening them.

    You know, this might not be a bad idea. Not limiting the discourse to standing ovations, of course, but discussing how there really are some things in life that are better than others. If every day is “fantastic!” then how can days with our weddings, births of children, special experiences in prayer, etc., be all that meaningful?

    Also, I agree that the 1 in 10 is probably too liberal. It certainly is much higher than what I would do. But, as far as persuading others — line upon line.

  9. Maybe I’m just too much of a feel-good-softy (check that, it’s not probable, it’s certain), but I don’t really see this as a problem.

    Going over the top on superlatives and congratulations is foolish, but is it harmful? I’m just having a hard time convincing myself it’s all that big of a deal.

    Somewhat off topic, but has anyone else ever felt the desire to slow clap after a particularly poignant moment 80s teen angst movie style?

    Last comment – if Mormons are guilty of ovation inflation it may be due to the held back response to emotion we practice in our sacrament meetings after “special” musical numbers.

  10. Rutkowski:

    Well, I definitely agree that this issue is not all that important in the grand scheme of things.

    Is ovation inflation harmful? Probably not. I guess what I’m slightly worried about are not so much the effects of ovation inflation, but rather what it might be saying about our society. In its own right, yes, it is not that consequential, especially outside of the theater. However, it might be saying that we do not have an great ability to discriminate in terms of what is, for you, an excellent work of art. And this may be a problem in more ways than one — it *might* even be a spiritual problem. Alternatively, it could suggest that we go along with the crowd too much. Which again *might* be an important problem that has more serious consequences in other areas of life. On the other hand, maybe it means that we just like to have fun and that we don’t see a real value with catering to what are seen as elitist theater manners.

    You’re going to have to tell me more about this 80s teen angst you’re talking about … :)

  11. Dennis,

    About 80s teen angst and the slow clap, from http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-a-slow-clap.htm

    In the world of pop movie culture, the dramatic device known as the “slow clap” is in a category unto itself. Mostly seen at the end of a dramatic or inspirational movie intended for general audiences, the slow clap usually follows a climactic speech delivered by the hero or heroine. The initial effect of that speech may be stunned silence from the audience, but then one character will begin a rhythmic slow clap. As others begin to realize the true significance of the hero’s speech, they also join in the slow clap. Eventually the entire audience bursts out with exuberant, and seemingly unending, applause. There may be several meaningful close-ups of characters who have been most affected by the hero’s actions.

    In many critics’ opinions, the “slow clap” device has been used so often in teen-oriented movies that it has become a cliche, along with the “ugly duckling/beautiful swan” subplot and the “freeze frame” ending. In fact, the slow clap has been parodied in films such as Not Another Teen Movie. It is not unusual to see certain movies such as Lucas and Revenge of the Nerds referred to as classic “slow clap movies” by amateur film critics and fans.

    The slow clap device does serve a number of purposes for the dramatic arc of the story and the director’s need for a strong, inspirational ending. Many “slow clap movies” feature leading characters who are underdogs or unpopular at the beginning of the movie, but they often possess a level of integrity or hidden talent unnoticed by others. There is usually a strong antagonist in “slow clap movies” who does any number of things to keep the hero from discovering his or her true potential. The final speech is designed to put the hero in the best light possible, while pointing up the antagonist’s fatal error in judgment. It is not unusual to see the hero’s former enemy take part in the climactic slow clap.

    There is another form of slow clap often found in action/adventure and crime movies. The lead character, often a detective or secret agent, will reveal all of the intricate details of a criminal’s plan, only to discover the criminal has been listening all along. The villain often reveals himself by starting a slow clap, usually heavy with sarcasm. The villain might congratulate the hapless hero for his or her brilliant conclusions, but at that point in the story the villain still has the upper hand. A sarcastic slow clap will most likely be followed by the villain’s henchmen apprehending the hero for future interrogations.

  12. Rutkowski:

    Ah, yes. I see now.

    I wonder if we can see the end of the movie Rudy as a creative adaptation of the slow clap. “Rooooo-deeeeeee, Roooo-deeeee….” :)

    One thing that’s so funny about the slow-clap is that this kind of thing NEVER happens in real life. In real life, someone begins clapping softly and then some sort of applause breaks out in an awkward fashion. I’d really like to see someone start slow-clapping (in a public meeting or something) with the confidence of an 80s slow clapper.

  13. Dennis,

    Maybe we can plant some slow clappers at our APA symposium in August.

  14. I’m sorry, this comment must be limited. I only have 1,242 words left this month. See, I must carefully monitor my word usage lest I waste words on insipid posts lest the internet be full of “comment inflation.”

    Naw, I’m just playing devil’s advocate.

    I really do agree that “ovation inflation” degrades the expression of appreciation. Offhand, I can only recall one instance in my (albeit limited) performing arts attendance to which I provided a heart-felt, standing, ovation. That applause was for Elizabeth Franz for her performance in pre-opening matinée of “Death of a Salesman.” (She was truly fantastic and memorable. I will note that that level of performance that year earned her a Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Play.)

    Now, should only Tony-winners receive a standing ovation? Well, there probably are many other deserving individuals.

    Several months ago I attended the BYU Modern Dance Senior Recitals. Among the student-choreographed pieces was a thought-provoking piece about domestic violence.

    Did that piece receive a standing ovation? Honestly, I can’t recall. I recall I didn’t stand, but most of the other pieces were only so-so. If the show did receive an ovation it was certainly unremarkable because, it’s true, at BYU _everything_ receives the same attention.

  15. I’m still alive!

    I’ve been to my fair share of music and theater performances at BYU-Idaho and I would guess that better than 60% ended with a standing ovation.

    It has always been my position that that audience typically lacks the sophistication to even differentiate a good performance from a lousy one, but we can cut them a break since most of them are younger than 20.

    On a positive note, there was no standing ovation at the last BYU event I went to.

    Maybe we could call for a regional applause fast in order that we all might appreciate it more.

  16. Dan,

    And we could give “applause offerings” to those who are hungry for applause. It is suggested, of course, that you are generous with your offerings.

  17. Brandon,

    That’s why I subscribe to the “yea, yea, nay, nay” philosophy. We have nothing left with which to describe true greatness. We put the ‘super’ in superlative.

    Also, most of the performances I’ve gone to have been because someone I know or am related to was involved. I also notice a lot of family members and friends of other performers/participants in the audience. That may have a lot to do with it. I’m not close enough to BYU to attend anything there regularly, but I’ve taken part in community theatre performances and other such things where if a standing ovation was not given, the performers think they did a really lousy job.

    On the other hand, those same performers can brush off a bad newspaper review like dandruff.

  18. Also, I’ve been to some events where an MC or someone has actually asked the audience for a standing ovation – though this usually is not related to the arts as much as to community service or planning a great convention or something like that.

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