Why Being a Great Ensemble Player May Require More than Just Our Ears

It was Week 1 of the first major music festival I’d ever attended. I was barely out of middle school, but found myself sitting in the second violin section, surrounded by college students and seasoned professionals who seemed totally in their element. And who sounded like they’d been playing this repertoire for years.

I, on the other hand, was such a newb, that I didn’t even know it was my job as the inside player to turn pages until my stand partner’s gentle reminders finally sunk in. It was all pretty overwhelming, so I buried my nose in the score, and simply did my best to avoid getting lost, playing in any rests, or embarrassing myself in some spectacular way.

And then, of course, it happened anyway. Unexpectedly, in front of the entire orchestra, the conductor suddenly stopped and gave me some pointed feedback. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but the gist was that I needed to spend less time staring at the music on the stand, and more time looking up at the podium. It’s been nearly 3 decades, but I still remember how badly I wished I could turn invisible and disappear.

In hindsight, it’s a pretty obvious lesson perhaps, but one that was reiterated to me in chamber music coachings that summer too.

So how important is eye contact really? I mean, isn’t good ensemble playing mostly about using our ears? Learning how to listen attentively and developing a keen sense of anticipation?

Look and listen

A recent study asked nineteen volunteers to complete a simple listening task, which involved pressing a button as soon as they heard a specific sound.

The challenge, of course, was that there wasn’t just one, but three speakers – one placed 30 degrees to the participant’s left, another placed directly in front, and a third placed 30 degrees to their right. So they were to respond only if they heard the target sound coming out of the designated speaker for each trial.

To complicate things further, they were also given instructions on which speaker to look at during each round – which didn’t always correspond with the source of the sounds they were asked to respond to.

Meaning that in one round of tests, they might be asked to stare at the left speaker, but only respond to the sounds coming out of the right speaker (incoherent condition). While in another round, they may be asked to look at the center speaker, and responding only to those sounds coming out of that same speaker (coherent condition).

A difference in reaction time

As predicted, there were some differences in auditory processing between the incoherent and coherent conditions. When participants were facing the speaker that they were also supposed to listen to, they responded more quickly. By about 17 milliseconds, on average. The implication being, we’re able to react more quickly when we’re actually looking in the direction of the sound we’re attending to.

Of course, 17ms is a pretty miniscule amount of time, so from this study alone, it’s difficult to know if the findings would translate into practically significant and noticeable differences in ensemble playing.

But lucky for us, there are a few studies that have looked at this specific phenomenon in ensemble contexts.

Follow the leader?

A few studies have already found a connection between the body movements of musicians and more precisely coordinated ensemble playing, but it hasn’t been clear if musicians’ body movements actually facilitate better ensemble playing, or if body movements are just a byproduct of good ensemble playing.

So a team of Canadian researchers recruited two professional quartets (the Afiara and Cecilia quartets), and asked them to perform a series of 2-5 minute quartet excerpts, ranging from Bach chorales to movements from the Haydn and Mozart quartets.

Before each run-through, everyone in the quartet was given a secret assignment – either leader or follower (regardless of who was first violin or had the melody). The idea being, if the leader’s body movements preceded or even predicted the followers’ movements, this would provide evidence that body movements are not incidental, but a form of communication that musicians use to coordinate tempo fluctuations.

Body sway as a form of communication

Each musician’s movements were monitored with a motion capture system, and then they performed a run-through of the excerpt either facing each other as a quartet normally would (seeing condition), or facing 180° away from each other (nonseeing condition) like…um…no quartet ever.

When the researchers analyzed the motion capture data, they found that followers influenced each others’ movements to some degree, and followers’ movements sometimes influenced the leader’s movements as well. But it was clear that the leader’s movements had the strongest influence on the rest of the group. Particularly in the seeing condition where ensemble members were facing each other.

All of the musicians were also asked to rate the quality of each run-through, and as it turns out, the more in-sync the musicians’ body movements were, the more positively they tended to rate the performance. Which isn’t quite the same as having the quartet’s performance rated by other musicians or an audience, but it does suggest that being physically in-sync with one another is an aspect of ensemble communication that helps ensembles play at a higher level. Which is where it may be useful to not just listen, but look at our colleagues as well.


Auditory cues do matter, of course. Listening attentively to each other, and being able to anticipate small spontaneous changes with an awareness of the full score (not just your part!) are key skills for effective ensemble playing.

However, as I learned in that singularly mortifying moment all those years ago, it can also help to get our noses out of the score, and use our eyes as well as our ears.

Which of course might mean taking the music home, so that you can learn the part before rehearsal, not during the rehearsal!


The Afiara provide a brief glimpse of their time at the lab here:

Musical brainwaves: The Afiara Neuroscience Project

And if you found that interesting, you may also enjoy this behind-the-scenes look at their musical collaboration with DJ Skratch Bastid:

The Making of Spin Cycle

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.


3 Responses

  1. Again: the Mirror Neuron System! See: Rizollatti,G & Craighero, L (2004). The Mirror Neuron System.Annual Review of Neuroscience, 27, pp 169-92. Or the excellent book written by Keyser´s, C (2011) The Emphatic MindNetherlands: Social Brain Press. Or why not my own paper “Mirror mirror in the wall:please tell me, Do I feel at all? Int. Journ of Psychotherapy 2017, vol 21, No 1

    The MNS is obviously designed to help us get in sync with others, to possibly share sentiments/moods/experiences; hearing is intimately coupled with pre motor brain activity.

    This is absolutely not to devalue your posts – I follow them on a regular basis, now and then adding them to the required reeading of my brass band! This latest article is, ahum, very very suited for the same band – our poor conductor tries, sometimes desperatedly , to have us look at him!
    Also – the body language per se is vital as you write – once our beloved conductgor made an unusual movement with his hips and as we in the front-row at least at that time stared at him, we immediately got perplexed and out of sync!
    The movements””gotta” be “harmonic”!

  2. All excellent. Please keep us updated on 1. music/neuroscience research and 2. DJ/Quartet cross pollination projects. What do the audiences want from this? Do audience brain waves synchronize with performers’? Hmmmm….

    1. Experiments have demonstrated that listening to say a piano concerto, the Mirror Neuron Systems of those in the audience who are familiar to piano-playing, reacts more than those who are not. So brainwave-syncronization between performer and audience thus might be plausible. On the other hand, if say an orchestra really gets in sync, everyone in the band is deeple immersed in the making of that particular chart, the audience gets affected to by this overwhelming output.
      Once our band succeeded in performing almost perfectly – when the music was all over we sat stunned – dead quite in the concert hall for say some seconds, then the entire audience rose and the applauses never seemed to end. A truly magic moment. One just knows that something rare has happened, but in that moment not really what! But the experience was shared. That´s the secret!

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