Is This the Key to Being Less “Robotic” on Stage?

You know those performances that can only be described as “robotic”? Where there is nothing wrong with it per se, but for whatever reason you are neither engaged nor inspired, and ultimately leave the concert feeling kind of blah and a little empty inside?

I have to admit that I have been accused of delivering such performances on more than a few occasions.

But I don’t think it’s just me. After all, we’re sort of stuck between a rock and hard place. On one hand, we are supposed to be musical, communicative, and fully engaged in the music-making process. But on the other hand, it has to be flawless.

Especially in auditions or competitions, where we learn pretty quickly that the slightest blemish can be grounds for a quick exit.

So how do we get out of this bind?

How are we to strive for ever higher levels of perfection, but also avoid becoming robots on stage?

Paradoxically, the field of robotics may offer some insights into how we can become more compelling human performers.

The rise of the robots

Robots and computers are helping fight cancer, scurrying around warehouses putting your Amazon order together , and driving folks to Taco Bell (check out the video…it’s pretty cool).

Robots aren’t going to be replacing human musicians in orchestras anytime soon, but roboticists are hard at work creating robots which possess more “human” characteristics – like the ability to improvise.

And in doing so, they are discovering a few interesting tidbits about what it means to be more human.

Robots with soul

Guy Hoffman is a roboticist who has a background in the arts, and a particular interest in creating robots with “soul.”

He conducted a study in which he paired participants with one of two different robot assistants, to complete a tedious 20-minute task, intended to simulate a job that one might encounter in a factory.

The two robot assistants had different “brains.” One was programed to be more calculating – to analyze the situation and plan everything before taking action.

The other robot was programmed to be more adventurous. To act without knowing everything it was supposed to know, to take some risks, and perhaps make mistakes occasionally, but to correct them.

Participants loved the adventurous robot. They thought it was more intelligent, more committed, a better teammate, and felt that it contributed more to the success of the team. Tellingly, they referred to it as a “he” or “she,” and said things like “By the end, we were good friends and high-rived mentally.”

Those matched up with the calculating robot on the other hand, referred to their partner as an “it” and said things like “It just felt like a lazy apprentice” and complained that it only did what it was supposed to do and nothing more.

The appeal of imperfection

Indeed, there seems to be something appealing and humanizing about imperfection.

Social psychologist Elliot Aronson conducted a classic study back in the 60’s investigating likability, where subjects listened to an audio-recorded session of a college quiz show.

One contestant answered 92% of the questions correctly and described himself as having had a successful high school career (honor roll, yearbook editor, etc.).

The other contestant got only 30% of the questions right, and admitted to a rather mediocre and unremarkable high school career.

Toward the end of the tape, subjects in the experimental groups heard one of the contestants accidentally spill coffee all over his suit. The coffee spill was omitted from the control group’s audio recordings.

Subjects were then asked to rate the contestants’ likability.

Interestingly, the researchers found that spilling coffee did not diminish the “smart” contestant’s likability. In fact, those that heard him spill coffee rated him as being more likable than those who didn’t hear the coffee spill.

However, the opposite was true for the “average” contestant, who was rated as being much less likable by those who heard him spill coffee.

They surmised that someone who seems too perfect is more difficult to relate to, and the tiny little gaffe served to humanize the contestant a bit.

Taking risks can be rewarding

The takeaway is not that you can make mistakes. You must be competent of course, and play at a high level, but competence alone is not enough to be memorable.

Researchers from Imperial College London and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama recently conducted a study (hat tip to G. McRae) on the impact of improvisation in terms of brain activation and engagement among both the performers and the listeners.

A flute/viola/harp trio played five different pieces two times each. One time, they were asked to play as if they were at an international competition – performing convincingly but without taking risks. And the other time, they were instructed to perform more spontaneously, flexibly, with more of an improvistatory spirit.

The researchers found that most listeners prefered the more improvisatory performance. As part of the study, all three musicians and two members of the audience were also connected to electroencephalogram sensors for the duration of the performance. The data from the EEG’s reflected the audience’s preference, and suggested that both performers and listeners were notably more engaged in the improvisatory condition.

The implication being – at least to me – that loosening up a tad, and a wee bit of imprecision in the course of taking meaningful risks can be humanizing and more appealing than a performance which prioritizes precision above all else.

Take action

Whether you are playing alone or with others, what happens if you do a run-through and make an attempt to be more spontaneous? To take more risks, micromanage less while performing, and be more playful?

How does it feel?

How do others react?

How does it sound to you when you listen back? (Hint: Randomize the order in which you listen back, otherwise you may be biased in what you hear.)

Additional reading

Brain study suggests classical musicians should improvise

Guy Hoffman on robots with ''soul'' (including his improvising jazz robot) @TED

photo credit: Remko Tanis via photopin cc

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10 Responses

  1. I think we can all relate to this. Applying this to competitions, I would still assume that a majority of judges would go for sterile, clean and technically outstanding precision…feeling they would be more likely to overlook musicality coming from feel, instinct, diversity and emotion.

    1. Hi Suey,

      One of the things I found interesting about the study was while most preferred the improvisatory version, some really did prefer the more straightforward no-risk version. Here’s one of the comments: “I loved the restrained feeling of this; holding back something always”

      Another comment suggested that even though the listener felt the musicians were more engaged in the improvisatory version, and even thought it more technically convincing, they still preferred the “competition” version.

  2. Performing for perfection is more about the ego. On the other hand, making great music is an act of self-acceptance; I am what I am. Like it or don’t.

    Even practicing should allow some room for the unexpected. Curiosity and experimentation are the bywords.

    Warning Sign: if your interpretation in any way resembles a cell phone ring tone, there might be a problem!

  3. It seems to depend on who you’re performing for. For an audition, I think robotic is best. I don’t think most orchestras or larger groups want people with too strong a personality, really. They want you to be able to take direction from the conductor or blend well with the group. It’s a shame to say it, but I think strong personalities and definite interpretive ideas are the arena of the soloist. Other than that, you’re basically a session player. Your job is to cotton on to what the person in the booth or on the podium wants quickly and give it to them even more quickly.

  4. Off-topic, but I thought you’d get a kick out of this:

    There are many ways to be “deliberate” in one’s practice. 🙂 And the fact that Nyman doesn’t see the wind tunnel training as a chore but instead enjoys it also speaks to “intrinsic motivation,” and the fact that no matter how hard you’re pushed to do something, you may never be able to compete with someone who truly loves it.

  5. Preparation alone will not lead to a great performance. Trust is essential! Trust in yourself, your fellow musicians, your instrument, the audience, the space. An artist must be willing to show their true self. They must be willing to show every crack and crevice, the good and the bad, vulnerability and confidence. Life is a struggle! It’s IMPERFECT! The great artists know this.
    Perfection isn’t about playing something “note perfect” or “correctly,” it’s about finding beauty and honesty in the MOMENT. That’s where perfection lies. The greatest feeling in the world (ok, maybe the second greatest) is to lose yourself in the moment of creation, to feel like your floating above the stage, to receive “the gift,” to achieve true transcendence. It’s addictive!

    Art is about self expression, it’s a mirror to ourselves, our world. Be honest, play from your heart, TRUST YOURSELF! (and for god’s sakes, HAVE FUN!).

  6. Glad I found this website! Very interesting post. I am the most shy musician ever. With my music I tend to be a perfectionist and want everything to be perfect all the time. I’m a production artist, so it’s different from performing on stage, but sometimes when I record something, I’ll record it it 10 times till I’m happy with it! I only recently started sharing my piano music with people on my own website, but it’s just audio, no videos yet. Maybe someday. Still too shy…

  7. Very interesting article, and I certainly agree that audiences seem to prefer engaging performances (even with errors) over sterile accurate performances.

    Beethoven probably said it best though: “To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable.”

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