Do a Musician’s Physical Movements and Gestures Affect How Musical We Think They Are?

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I can’t remember if I’ve told this story here before or not, but the first time I played for Dr. Suzuki, he remarked that when his eyes were closed, I sounded great. But that when he opened his eyes, I sounded…not so great.

Indeed, although I hear I was a pretty rambunctious and chatty little kid, apparently, that part of me disappeared and turned into that guy from Ferris Bueller when I had a violin in my hands. 

Of course, audition and screening tapes were audio-only back in those days, so it didn’t matter if I looked like Droopy Dog in those kinds of performances. But now that video is a thing, does that mean we have to worry about how we look in our screening videos, video performances, and livestreams too?

Like, how much do our facial expressions or body movements, and the visual aspect of our performance really matter? Does this have a measurable impact on the listener’s experience? Or are musicians’ ears finely-tuned enough to make accurate judgments about a performance without being overly influenced by the physical movements of the performer?

Three different recordings

A 2008 study (Juchniewicz) of 112 undergrad and grad music majors from six different universities takes a closer look at this question.

The researcher recruited a pianist with an active international performance and teaching career to create three recordings of the opening of Chopin’s Etude in E major, Opus 10 No. 3.

In one recording, the pianist performed with no body movement, where he was asked to limit his movement “to only those required to technically perform the piece.” Meaning, he could move his hands and arms, of course, but had to keep his head, the rest of his upper body, and even facial expression completely still.

In a second recording, he performed with head and facial movement, where he was allowed to now move his head and make facial expressions, in addition to whatever movements were “required to technically perform the piece.”

And in the third recording, he was allowed to use full body movement. That is to say, he was finally allowed to move freely and naturally, as he normally would in a performance of the piece.

But there’s a catch!

The catch, though, is that the pianist was actually filmed while playing along with a recording of Vladimir Ashkenazy performing the piece.

Why?

Well, to make sure that the quality or musicality of the performance remained consistent across videos, and the only difference was how the pianist looked, the researchers used Ashkenazy’s recording as the audio track for all three videos.

Four different ratings

The three clips were then presented to participants in random order, with the following prompt:

In the videotape you are about to see a pianist performing the Etude No. 3 in E major by Frederic Chopin. The pianist shown has entered a piano competition and is required to send in a videotape. He has asked for help in determining which of the three performances is the most musical. You will see and hear roughly 35 seconds of each take of the performance. Please fill out the questions asked for each performance while you watch the videotape.

After each video clip, the students were asked to rate four different aspects of the pianists’s performance, on a five-point scale (1=poor; 5=excellent).

Specifically, on the quality of the pianist’s 1) phrasing, 2) dynamics, 3) rubato, and 4) overall musicality of the performance.

So…technically, given that the audio was exactly the same in each video, the ratings of the three performances should have been exactly the same too. But would the pianist’s physical gestures and movements lead the listeners to experience the performance in different ways?

The impact of what we see on what we hear

Yep! The pianist’s body movements did indeed change the students’ perception of the performance.

The full body movement performance got the highest scores, and the highest overall musicality scores.

The head and facial movement performance got the next highest scores and second-highest overall musicality scores.

And the no movement video got the lowest scores.

In other words, the performance in which the pianist moved freely, with head movements, facial expressions, and physical gestures, came across as being a significantly higher-quality and more musical performance than identical performances, in which the pianist either moved less freely or not at all.

It’s not just about moving

On one hand, it seems kind of unfair to think that moving around more would create the impression of a better performance than one in which the performer sounds just as great when your eyes are closed, but seems a little lacking when your eyes are open. But on the other hand, it also makes total sense when you think about it.

I mean, intuitively, I think we know that we communicate quite a bit about our thoughts, our emotions, and our personality through our movements.

For instance, a conductor doesn’t just keep time by waving a stick in the air. They use the rest of their body, and facial expressions, to provide the orchestra with all sorts of other musical cues and directions, from mood and character and dynamics, to articulation, phrasing, and so on.

And it seems that the same is true of other musicians as well. For instance, studies of clarinetists and percussionists in an area of research known as “cross-modal sensory interactions”1) have found that physical movements communicate information about emotional tension and phrasing above and beyond what sound alone communicates. And that gestures can even affect things like listeners’ perceptions of how long a note is.

So what are we to take away from all of this?

A few clarifications

Well, first off, I think it’s important to clarify that this isn’t about moving for its own sake. Or a situation where more is better. Because I’m sure there’s a certain point at which movements no longer support the underlying musical message and are just distracting (case in point: the Elaine Benis dance).

And it’s not just yet another aspect of online performances that you now have to stress about, on top of making sure your internet connection is stable, your computer has enough free RAM available, you have the right camera and mic turned on, your levels are set, your lighting looks good, you’ve framed the shot, etc.

Your facial expressions and the way you move your body is just another tool you have at your disposal. A way to help you draw the listener in and communicate more fully what you want their experience to be. To emphasize what you want them to feel, in a way that audio can’t quite do by itself.

Takeaways

There are lots of reasons to do more recordings of yourself in the practice room, and today’s study suggests that it’s probably worth making sure at least some of these are video recordings too. And that when reviewing tape, it’s important to really use our eyes and not just our ears, to make sure the way we move actually supports what we are trying to say with the music.

Howard Nelson and Pamela Frank explain in their podcast episode that it’s important to watch a performance with the sound muted, when evaluating whether one is playing with excessive physical tension. This week’s study made me wonder if maybe that same strategy would work well for this too. Where you sing or audiate the piece in your head, while watching video of yourself playing, to see if your movements and gestures really do support – or detract from – your musical intentions.

Has motivation been a challenge for your students?

Speaking of videotaping and practicing, I’ve heard from many teachers (and have seen in my own kids’ experience) that it has been a real challenge to keep students motivated to practice, in the absence of the regular kinds of live performances or auditions they are accustomed to. And that many students have been experiencing even more nerves around taping, auditions, and performances, because there haven’t been as many opportunities to practice this skill and play in front of live audiences in the past year.

If that’s been your experience as well, and if adding a few new tools to your toolbox, and brainstorming ideas with a bunch of thoughtful, curious, supportive, like-minded educators sounds like it might be a fun way to start off the year, you may be interested in the upcoming series of live workshops I’m running in February. Specifically, February 11, 18, 25, and March 11 and 18.

I’ll show you how I present effective practice skills and strategies for managing nerves and getting into the zone to students in my classes. And there will be worksheets and activities you can “steal,” small and large-group mastermind sessions, Q&A’s, and perhaps a few random cat videos too. But all spread out in a manageable sort of way, so it doesn’t get too overwhelming.

Teachers who have participated in this workshop series have reported seeing some pretty cool changes in their students. Not just in terms of the level of their playing, but in their ability to experience a wee bit more joy and satisfaction in daily practice sessions as well.

If you’re a tiny bit intrigued, you can see what they’re saying, and get all the details here: Performance Psychology Essentials for Educators


References

Juchniewicz, J. (2008). The influence of physical movement on the perception of musical performance. Psychology of Music, 36(4), 417–427. https://doi.org/10.1177/0305735607086046

Footnotes

  1. Which I’m thinking might be interesting to explore in more depth in a future article…

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice,
Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.

Comments

14 Responses

  1. I assumed from the headline that this would be a lightweight piece, but it turns out there’s substance here, and suggestions of unexplored depths.

    The obvious hanging question is whether and how degrees of movement affected the pianist’s performance, as judged by audio-only listening. If smiling can make one feel better, then what about other expressions, or gestures and postures, or simply the act of performing with expression? Should musicians take acting classes?

    In terms of health, is it better for us to train for economy of movement or to actually cultivate larger body and head movements? Even if such movements didn’t affect the music we make, or how people perceive it, if our bodies are designed to move, isn’t it healthier for our bodies to be moving as we play, even in the practice room? Maybe we should be moving even more in the practice room than on stage?

    1. Hi Robert,

      Lot of really interesting questions here! I should clarify that the audio that participants heard was not of the pianist in the video, but of a different pianist, so the performance itself wouldn’t be affected by the degrees of freedom issue. But yes, the question of economy of movement vs. freedom of movement is a very fascinating one – and I think you’ll really like guitarist David Leisner’s podcast episode where he explores this quite a bit.

      Noa

      1. I remember getting a lot out of the David Leisner episode (and so many others!), and his website as well. Thanks!

        Yes, I understood that the piano was dubbed for the study, but I’m curious what happened with the pianist’s actual performance? It would be interesting to reverse the study–make it audio-only, but using the real performances.

        1. Ah, yes, that’d be interesting. I imagine the pianist must have felt more comfortable moving as he normally might, instead of having to restrict his motion…would be curious to hear how that came out in the audio…

  2. I once had a piano student coached in a master class by Ruth Laredo told to loosen up and make big gestures at phrase endings. He was a somewhat shy student and had difficulty giving her as much movement as she wanted. But, eventually did get to the point she was pushing for. He also later developed a somewhat strange gesture for phrase endings on long notes with his hand turning over! I do think that facial expression is something that musicians must be aware of. Some musicians appear in pain when they play, maybe too much facial expression? It is very warming when facial expressions are pleasant.

    1. Hi Cassandra,

      Interesting – my understanding is that follow-through in many sport skills like hitting a tennis ball are actually quite important, in that our attention to the follow-through also affects the stroke itself. Like, a full follow-through through the ball in the desired direction would lead to more accurate placement of the ball and a ball with more depth and pace than a glancing, abbreviated follow-through. I wonder if this is along the lines of what Laredo was getting at with this student?

      Noa

      1. I’m not sure this is applicable to musicians, but another reason to focus on the follow-through in tennis is that in tense moments, tennis players can focus so much on the point of contact and the desired result that we abbreviate the stroke, which has all kinds of bad effects (loss of pace, spin, rhythm, which leads to less control and more random errors…).

        Well, maybe this does apply pretty directly, like playing fast passages with multi-note gestures rather than one note at a time.

  3. Noah, Thanks for your insight about follow-through in sport skills. Usually, the lift from a phrase will guide you into the drop to start the next phrase when playing piano. I think Ms. Laredo was more guiding this student into showmanship for concert artistry. Which is an interesting concept in itself!

  4. I grew up marching in drum and bugle corps and high school marching band, in which I was taught not to move except for what was necessary to march and play my brass instrument. That military-type training has carried through during my college and professional careers. I hardly move, if at all, when I play my (French) horn. Do you have some suggestions for me as to how to learn to move more when I play? Also, I’m concerned about accuracy with movement – the horn is notorious for fracking notes. Adding movement could make things worse. Is it worth it?

    1. Hi Julia,

      I think it’s important to make sure that any physical movement is actually functional, and not extraneous, counterproductive, or excessive. Where the movement facilitates more effective, effortless, and accurate playing, and also visually reinforces the musical intention. It doesn’t seem like this should come at the expense of what the listener hears (i.e. effective playing). The visual aspect of communication may also be more important for some instruments than others – like with piano, string instruments, marimba, or if in a solo context vs. an orchestral context, etc. I don’t know very much about the horn, but I imagine there’s less movement necessary to play the instrument compared to some other instruments, so maybe the research on movement is somewhat less relevant?

      Noa

  5. Now this can get tricky. The audience likes to see a musician’s physicality. But in this master class, Earl Wild tells of a piano competition where the best pianist, judged musically, was rejected for his gestures by jurors who had some kind of Freudian hangup against bodily expression. Hopefully it’s something a teacher who knows the political ropes of piano juries could help a student navigate. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3utXAWf5ZoI

    1. Thanks for the link, Canaan. Yeah, I think it’s a fine line – I remember seeing cellist Frans Helmerson say to a student in a master class that he could tell what they were trying to say based on their physical movements, but it wasn’t actually coming across in the sound.

  6. Very interesting and accords with my own experience of competitions as a child. Depending on the adjudicator, participants who gave the most ‘physical’ performances often got higher marks, with which the teacher of those same performers invariably, privately disagreed!

  7. It’s nice to have something visual to look at that complements the music or makes it more immediate and understandable. It helps in focusing and concentrating on the musical intentions. So the 3 different results for the same audio may be reflecting a better listening experience due to the visual help, rather than the listener being fooled in some way.

    Side note – Performers in classical flute and in Irish flute move (or move hardly at all, in the latter case) very differently from each other. It may be due to the different technical and musical demands they have, and it may also be a cultural difference between playing in a concert hall versus in a dance hall or pub.

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