Does How We Look On Stage Really Matter More Than How We Sound…?

I was five years old when I first played for Dr. Suzuki. I performed Corelli’s La Folia, and when I was done playing, he said something very astute (though half-jokingly), that always stuck with me.

I should note that he was always very kind to me, and unfailingly supportive and optimistic, but the gist of his comment, conveyed to me in the gentlest possible way, was “You sound better with my eyes closed.”

Indeed, I cringe to watch videos of myself performing back in the day. Knees locked, shoulders slumped, tummy jutting out, mouth half-open like a zombie… It’s not a pretty sight.

In subsequent years, other teachers would sometimes comment on how disengaged and bored I looked as well (or calm, if they were glass half-full types).

I figured, on principal, that how I looked on stage shouldn’t matter. That my performance should be judged on what people heard, not what they saw.

But what if that’s just not how we’re wired?

What are our eyes doing?

Chia-Jung Tsay is a Juilliard Pre-College alum (piano), with a seriously impressive portfolio of a half-dozen or so degrees from Peabody and Harvard.

Like most talented young musicians, she worked diligently to improve her musical and technical skills, but noticed that she seemed to do better in auditions which required video recordings as opposed to audio-only recordings.

As she pursued her PhD in organizational behavior and psychology, she wondered how large a role our eyes play in the evaluation of a performance, and conducted a series of studies to see what she could find.

Guess the winner!

In a series of experiments including both non-musicians and professional musicians, Tsay evaluated participants’ ability to correctly guess the winner of 10 international competitions by presenting them with 6-second clips of the top three finalists.

Some participants were presented with audio-only clips of the finalists.

Other participants were presented with video-only clips of the finalists where the audio was removed.

Yet others viewed regular video clips with the audio intact.

The novices

When presented with sound-only clips, non-musicians correctly identified the winner ~25.5%-28.8% of the time. In other words, they would have been better off guessing randomly (if participants had simply guessed, you would expect them to pick the winner correctly about 33% of the time).

When presented with video-only clips, non-musicians correctly identified the winner ~46.4%-52.5% of the time. Not a spectacular percentage, but a definite, and statistically significant edge above purely guessing.

Adding audio to the video seemed to confuse the participants, as this made them less likely to pick the winner (35.4%).

That’s a pretty interesting finding – that non-musicians are better able to guess the winner of a big competition merely by watching a silent 6-second video clip of their performance, than by actually hearing them play.

But this isn’t very likely to hold true when professional musicians are the ones guessing who the winners are, right?

The pros

Well, as it turns out, the professional musicians didn’t fare much better.

When presented with sound-only clips, the pros correctly identified the winner ~20.5%-25.7% of the time.

And when presented with video-only clips, the pros correctly identified the winners ~46.6%-47% of the time.

Here too, seeing video footage with audio only hindered their efforts (29.5%).


So even professional musicians are better able to guess the winner of a competition by seeing them in action for 6-seconds than by hearing or watching them play for 6-seconds?

This is some pretty astounding data. At first glance, concerning, perhaps. Even disappointing?

Style vs. substance

With titles like Musicians’ Moves Matter More Than Their Sound some media outlets have suggested that this shows we live in a day and age where style trumps substance. Where looks and showmanship matter more than true artistry and musicianship.

But I don’t think Tsay and her data are suggesting that how we look matters more than how we sound. (And it should be noted that follow-up experiments established that race, gender, and physical attractiveness did not significantly impact participants’ judgment.)

I think Tsay’s findings simply suggest that the visual element plays a larger role in our judgement of expertise and performance quality than we might think.

That all else being equal, what we communicate visually may be the extra edge that tips the jury (or the audience) one way or the other.

Recall that the clips were of the top three finalists at international-level competitions.

All the “lesser” performers had already been weeded out in previous rounds. The remaining three were the cream of the crop, and at the highest level of competition, the top musicians are all talented, technically capable, and well-prepared. The differences between competitors are more a matter of style, taste, and nuanced details that are difficult to glean from short snippets of their performance.

If all three competitors are relatively evenly matched, doesn’t it make sense that judges would tend to pick as the winner of a major competition the musician who not only plays great, but looks more passionate, involved, motivated, creative, and unique? Who represents the complete package?

We want more

After all, we live in a day and age where the technical quality of performances is arguably higher than ever. So naturally, we demand more than just a great auditory experience. We want to have an emotional experience, to be moved, not just by the technical and musical elements of a performance, but by the entirety of what we are presented with.

We demand this of our computers, where perfectly functional (but uninspired) beige boxes no longer cut it.

We demand this of our phones, our cars, our book covers, our websites, and more. Heck, i have an $8 plunger for my toilet designed by famed Princeton architect and designer Michael Graves. Why? Because it makes me feel better to look at it, and wasn’t really all that different in price than the ugly plunger which makes me want to…umm, basically not own a plunger.

Take action

When you record yourself doing run-throughs and mock performances, set aside some time to look at yourself performing as well. Does what you see represent the commitment, level of engagement, and passion that you mean to communicate? Is the visual experience consistent with the auditory experience? Or is there a disconnect between the two?

Sometimes we can get so used to playing in practice mode, that we get on stage and look like we’re still in a tiny practice room, slouched in our practice chair in front of a stand.

I don’t think anybody is suggesting that we have to gyrate like a hula dancer, put on a show, and make a spectacle of ourselves. There are plenty of incredibly engaging artists who don’t move much at all, and aren’t flashy per se, but project an intensity and passion that is absolutely riveting to the observer.

It’s about looking engaged, present, free, and involved, rather than appearing disinterested, tentative, uncertain, or apologetic.

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, with time and performance experience, the nerves would just go away.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and start enjoying more satisfying practice days that also transfer to the stage.


24 Responses

  1. Hi Noa, great article! I’ve wondered about this question for my whole life, and have asked around for opinions many times. I’ve read how studies show that we tend to mimic other people’s facial expressions subconsciously when we see them, and instantly feel slightly more like what they’re feeling. I guess it’s an evolutionary mechanism designed to make us empathetic. Personally, I’ve noticed that when I see a person playing something fun or happy, but they look angry or sad, I start feeling really bad. For me, my whole life, I’ve been frequently told that I look either stiff or uninvolved. However, this past year was very interesting. Suddenly, people that I played for started recommending that I move less, including Andres Cardenes, but I guess he’s nicknamed the rock for a reason. That’s good for me and all because I’m good at remaining still, but still, it makes me wonder what kind of movements and postures audiences like to see…

    1. Hi Oliver,

      It’s a tough thing to know what looks best. Moving too much, such that it constantly changes the angles and such involved in playing your instrument, is not helpful of course. My guess is that the key is to find a way to allow yourself up to move organically and naturally and let your appearances be consistent with what you are playing, without adding anything on per se. I suspect that sometimes the looking stiff is more because we are tight and self-conscious, not because we are actually loose, free, and completely at ease.

  2. Great article Noa, I think the visual aspect of performance communication is often overlooked, and it plays a major part in the audiences perception of the overall performance. Performers forget (or don’t realize) that the audience is always looking for cues on how to feel about a performer based on what the performer is broadcasting. If the performer is broadcasting “this is great stuff” with their body language and engagement the audience will unconciously think “oh this must be great stuff”. Of course the same principle is true if the performer is bored and disengaged, the audience will think “oh it’s not really important enough to pay attention to and this person is wasting my time, and therefore have a very different experience, even if the performance itself is at a similar level. Thanks again for writing such a great article.

  3. Hi Dr. Noa, I really enjoyed this article as well. I do believe that it matters greatly to show the audience that you are enjoying what you are doing. Movement matters and is an important attention keeper. Music, I believe, was created for dance, not the other way around. If you cannot move, even a little , as you perform, you are showing your audience that you do not really understand, not only the piece, but music in general. I have been told that movement distracts from the performance. My question to that is, then how can you perform a Sicilianne or Rondo, or even a waltz without that concept of movement. As a jazz musician, it is impossible to play without accenting the music in movement. Without movement there is no style…it is just an exercise out of an etude book, especially when you have other musicians with whom to communicate. That movement, that dance is what keeps a group together.

  4. I’ve always been one of those people who shuts their eyes at classical concerts to hear better.

    I expect apologies from everyone who accuses people like me of “going to a concert to take a nap.” I’m not taking a nap; I’m smart enough to know that my eyes interfere with my ears, and I’m shutting the less important sense off.

    Why else do we think that, alone among all of our senses, the eyes are the ones that can be shut off at will? The damn things shout down every other sense we have.

    I know a woman who sings competitive barbershop, the Sweet-Adelines stuff. She’s in one of the top three choruses in the world. She talk about her rehearsals and competitions sometimes, and as much as I’m not much into barbershop, I enjoy listening to see how it compares and contrasts with the musical worlds I know better.

    She said that when they are judged, each judge has a specific role. One judges on movement, one judges on costumes and visual presentation, one judges purely on music, etc. And the last judge does not even watch the performers, doesn’t lift their eyes even once.

    I think that the classical world could stand to do this. It’s made allowances before — knowing that people are and always will be swayed by sexism and racism, they instituted blind auditions. And now, knowing that people’s eyes influence their ears overmuch, why not do what another worldwide musical competition culture does? Divide up the judges so as to acknowledge and compensate for the way eyes influence ears, instead of pretending it doesn’t happen or it’s okay?

    Personally, I think it’s also a matter of “experts” being better able to justify their prejudices and thus less well qualified to judge things — which has also been proven in the past and in very wide ranging topics form music to wine-tasting to politics. The more educated someone believes themselves to be about a certain subject, the easier they find it to bullsh*t themselves, or to be bullsh*tted.

    1. You’re absolutely right, Janis, except it’s THREE of the four judges who don’t “officially” watch. The judging categories are sound, music, expression, and showmanship. Only the showmanship judge is supposed to watch the performance (even then, part of the showmanship judge’s job is judging vocal production).

      I have learned from my Sweet Adelines experience (in addition to being a classical pianist, accompanist, singer, director, coach, arranger, etc.) that I really do HEAR better with my eyes closed. I often have to tell people I’m coaching that it’s NOT that I’m not interested, it’s that I’m listening. Listening hard.

      All said and done, it’s often the “look” of the performance (especially students) that needs the most help.

      Thanks for bringing in the barbershop reminder. Classical musicians could benefit (a lot) from singing barbershop. My opinion, it’s the best ear training there is.

  5. “Sometimes we can get so used to playing in practice mode, that we get on stage and look like we’re still in a tiny practice room, slouched in our practice chair in front of a stand.”

    Perhaps, we should not slouch when practicing. If we slouch when practicing it seems that we would be more likely to slouch when performing. I haven’t had a performance yet, but I think I should do less slouching when I practice.

    1. Hi Heidi,

      Indeed! The other problem with slouching in practice, is that our technique is based on slouching, so when we stand up straight it changes the angles/positions of our body, and hence the muscle movements required to get the results we want. I used to practice sitting on the edge of my bed. Not good…

  6. Loved your article. I’m a Middle School Band director and I’ve been teaching this to my students for years-how you look on stage is just as important as how you sound on stage. A couple of weeks before performances we will take the time to practice things like bowing, standing and sitting together and other things I feel give the performance a little something extra. It’s good to learn about the research that explains why what we see is just as important as what we hear.

  7. I heard this on NPR…last week? And thought of you. My first reaction was, “I KNEW it”! I’ve noticed that missed notes are noticed less from the more…dramatic performers. Just noticing this among my colleagues at work (not that appearance trumps good playing).

    Great article, great comments. (And, love the pic up top). Thanks!

  8. I really enjoyed this interesting article. Last weekend as I was playing in an orchestra on a television broadcast, there was a close up of me, in the back of the viola section. A friend saw it and said “I was thinking, you should smile.” While it is difficult to smile while playing the viola (in my opinion) and I actually think it ends up looking quite corny, I’m wondering if what she was really saying is, “You should look more engaged.” Now I’m trying to figure out how to look more engaged while playing.

  9. Thinking more about barbershop and the concept of looking engaged that Marie brought up … Check these two groups out, a men’s chorus and a women’s chorus:

    Look how into it they are. And it’s not easy to sing like this; it takes a lot of precision, especially since it’s basically free meter. The thing is, everyone has to be 150% engaged or else it won’t work. If everyone looks bored and one person is animated, that person looks like they’re doing it wrong. In a group, everyone has to do it. If someone sticks out and it’s not the soloist, the conclusion that the audience will reach is that that person is doing it wrong.

  10. Hi, Noa, very interesting article. I think it’s very important that the movement have actual purpose. I had a lesson with a Julliard grad the other day who stressed that it was very important that everything you do with a piece should have a purpose, and I imagine this would extend to body language. She asked me, “Why? Why anything at all?” For example, I think body language is most helpful in communicating musical direction, although I believe I should rely on the actual sound I’m producing for the effect rather than what people see. As to my sound, I ask myself, “Would I listen to this on the radio?” But thinking about the stage, I think, “If I were in the audience, what would I like to see myself doing?” I’ve seen masterclasses where the students play perfectly with all the technique, but it’s all truly vapid because they look like they’re in the practice room, like you said; facially expressionless and, worse, unimaginative.

  11. Ray Charles was one of the most engaging, enduring and lasting musicians and practically redefined what soul and music could symbolise. And Ray never moved aside to sway to the beat.

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