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22/07/2012 17:05 BST | Updated 21/09/2012 06:12 BST

Classical Music for Beginners: C is for Concerts

The crumbling venues, the crumbling audiences, the tickets priced higher than a black market kidney, the weird way it's okay to scream certain Italian words from the audience but not to clap unless in special rarefied kinds of pause...

The crumbling venues, the crumbling audiences, the tickets priced higher than a black market kidney, the weird way it's okay to scream certain Italian words from the audience but not to clap unless in special rarefied kinds of pause...

It can all leave you a little overwhelmed, even a bit intimidated. But there's something about seeing a fleet of instruments moving together in a sea of sound that you can never quite capture on a CD. And there's a particular reason that beginners should take the plunge right now.

So that's enough tuning up, I think. Let's bring the curtains up on this 'Idiot's Guide to Concert Going' (the idiot here being me, not you).

1) How to pick gigs

This is one of the toughest decisions for the classical music beginner: weighing the thrill of taking a chance and opening your ears to new sounds against the extortionate price of tickets.

A tough decision, that is, all 365 days of the year except for the 56 day period that we happen to be right slap in the middle of at this very moment. Hooray for the Proms!

Every year, for eight weeks in the summer, London hosts what's been called "the world's largest and most democratic musical festival".

Why? Because there are 1,400 standing tickets available every night to a classical concert of some sort or another. And they cost £5 if you queue on the night. Five pounds. You can listen to some of the world's greatest musicians playing for FIVE POUNDS. So put a blindfold on, stick a pin in the programme and turn up to whatever concert you land on. You can't lose and you might make a discovery that sets you on a whole new musical exploration.

Actually, if you buy a season ticket and really go at it, it can apparently work out at £2.25 a ticket. Did you boil a kettle for tea before you sat down at the computer? Is your computer plugged in? I bet the lights are on too. Jesus, you're probably spending more than £2.25 on energy bills as you read. Can you afford not to go out the Proms?

2) Do not be intimidated. No one is judging you. And if they are, stuff them.

I quote: "Classical music visits have declined after reaching a peak in 2006, reflecting the sector's relative failure to reach out to younger audiences and reliance on less socially-active older age groups as well as a decline in the frequency of visiting on the part of those who do go. The average visitor to a classical concert now goes 2.39 times a year, compared to 2.48 times in 2005.'

In other words - its audience is too narrow and too old at a time when finances, too, are at critical levels. You, the uninitiated, are its hope. They should be laying out the red carpet for your scruffy trainers and your renegade view of clapping as an expression of real and occasionally spontaneous enthusiasm.

The Proms gets this - there's no dress code here - and some orchestras are even acting on it all year round (see Aurora Orchestra's inspired programmes and ticket prices, designed to excite new audiences).

Go. Dress how you will. Express your enthusiasm however you chose (though do be polite). You will learn that there aren't really that many rules (don't clap till everyone else does) and may even learn to love the kitschier eccentricities (it's "bravo" for good performances for men, "brava" for the lady singers).

Imagine yourself as a super hero come to save the classical world. You can even get away with wearing a cape at many of the smarter venues.

3) Programmes.

To buy a programme or not? They're indefensibly, satanically expensive. But, for a beginner, it really does help to have some sense of the structure and story of the music you're about to sit through (did I mention that money's tight? Lots of the seats are really not cinema quality. And they squeak if you shuffle).

If you can, do a little research before. I'm not talking homework. Radio 3 has some great podcasts that bring pieces of classical music alive but its website can sometimes be a little tricky to navigate.

Otherwise, find a James Rhodes concert near you. I've raved about this pianist before but he will give you a warts and all tale of the composer's life as an introduction to each piece (literally - who knew STDs featured so prominently in the history of our most formal music?)

4) Still nervous?

Here's perhaps the best bit of advice I've been given about concert going. Take a notepad (the plainer the better, we're aiming for Moleskin here, not Hello Kitty). Scribble at regular intervals through the performance. Do NOT clap at any point.

This formula has two advantages. First: not clapping at any stage efficiently sidesteps the whole Clapping Conundrum. Second: people will assume you are a critic, frightfully important and can do/dress/act however the bloody hell they want.

Just don't get into a conversation in the interval.