The Most Important Part of a Performance (Which We Usually Forget to Practice)

For family movie night a couple weeks ago, I picked out a movie called Rookie of the Year about a kid, who in a freak accident, develops a rocket arm and gets signed by the Chicago Cubs as a 12-year old.

If you don’t remember this movie, it’s because it was released back in 1993. Which of course, means that as far as my kids are concerned, the movie is “old.” It’s got those black bars on the sides, it’s not in HD, and the fonts in the opening credits look totally dated (as in, this ).

So there was much moaning and groaning and refrains of “Daaaady, this is an OLD movie!” as we settled in.

But about 10 minutes into the film, they were having a good time, and afterwards told me how thankful they were for my spectacularly good taste in movies kept giggling about the funny parts.

Credibility indicators

For better or worse, we do tend to judge books by their cover.

Sushi place totally empty on a Saturday night? Hmm…

Cardiologist using Comic Sans on their new patient forms? Desk a disorganized mess? Making poor eye contact? Dead fish in the fishtank? Hmm…

In situations like these and many others, there are certain indicators of credibility and trustworthiness that influence how open we are to enjoying or fully experiencing the main event – even before it begins.

Maybe the food is great at the sushi place, but we may not stick around long enough to find out. The doctor’s recommendations could be spot on, but we might not trust them enough to take their advice.

We know that first impressions matter; there’s nothing surprising about that.

Indeed, many musicians spend lots of time working on the opening few lines, to make sure that the first 15-20 seconds set the tone for the rest of the performance.

But what if first impressions are formed even before the music begins? Like movies, restaurants, and doctors, what if audiences make snap decisions about whether they are going to give their full attention to our performance (vs. going through the program book a second time to read through the ads and list of benefactor names) before they hear us play a single note?

Two questions

Researchers at the Hannover University of Music, Drama, and Media in Germany conducted a series of studies to answer two questions:

  1. What are the key factors that audiences use in forming their first impression of a performer?
  2. Is there any connection between this first impression and how motivated they are to listen to the performance? Or in other words, how much of an impact does this first impression have on how attentive or engaged the audience member is?

To do this, they used video clips of the 27 musicians competing in the 2009 Joseph Joachim International Violin Competition (aka “Hannover” competition). But the clips had no music in them. The video was only of the competitors’ stage entrances – the instant each musician walked on stage, through the moment they lifted their bow to begin playing.

What creates a first impression?

The researchers first ran a pilot study to identify the elements of a performer’s stage entrance that have the most influence on the audience’s first impressions.

Based on previous research in this area, the feedback of an acting coach, and comments from an audience, they generated a list of 141 variables ranging from the performer’s hairstyle and shoes, to their attractiveness, to the depth of their bow, eye contact, and body posture.

Through some statistical modeling, they whittled down the list to 10 items that most reliably contributed to first impressions:

  1. How often the performer nodded at the audience.
  2. The direction of their gaze.
  3. How often the performer changed the direction of their gaze.
  4. How often the performer touched their clothes, hair, etc.
  5. The width of the performer’s stance.
  6. The size of the performer’s steps while walking on stage.
  7. How quickly/slowly the performer walked on stage.
  8. The level of confidence the performer exuded.
  9. How resolute the performer appeared when walking on stage.
  10. How likable the performer appeared.

Note that hair, shoes, attractiveness, and more “superficial” elements of a performer’s presentation aren’t on this list. Apparently, they didn’t have a large effect on the overall first impression.

How much does the first impression matter?

With this list of 10 competence indicators in hand, they then conducted a larger study to find an answer to the second question – how much of a difference would the musicians’ stage entrances make in an audience’s motivation to watch the performance?

The main study involved 1002 participants, ranging in age from 18-60. 653 had had some music training, but most considered themselves to be music-loving non-musicians (542 total), with very few who were professional or semi-professional musicians (15 total). Many were regular concert-goers though, with about 45% having attended a classical concert in the last year.

The stage entrance

Each participant was shown 12 randomly ordered video clips of contestants’ stage entrances from the same 2009 Hannover competition. To ensure the most fair comparison, the video selected for each musician was the stage entrance for the same exact piece – the first movement from the Bach G minor Sonata . The thought being, the way you walk on stage and approach the very opening of unaccompanied Bach may be quite different than how you approach, say, an Ysaÿe Sonata , Waxman Carmen Fantasy , or Brahms Concerto .

After watching each clip, the participants were asked to evaluate how appropriate they felt the performer’s stage entrance was on each of the 10 criteria above. Something like:

It is appropriate…

  1. …how often this performer nodded at the audience (“I agree” or “I disagree”)
  2. …which step size the performer used for stage entrance (“I agree” or “I disagree”)

Then, they were asked the key question – would they like to continue and watch that musician’s performance?

The best, the worst (and meh)

The results were pretty compelling. At least based on the results of this study, an audience’s first impressions of a performer does seem to make a big difference in their motivation to watch the performance.

Among those musicians who had the highest stage entrance scores, participants expressed an interest to continue with the performance 43% of the time.

Among those with stage entrance scores in the mid-range, participants were inclined to continue watching the performance 27% of the time.

And for the group of musicians who had the worst entrances, the participants were inclined to continue with the performance only 3% of the time.

Take action

When I was 4 or 5, I once gave an entire performance with my back turned to the audience. On other occasions I forgot to tune. Or bow. Or smile. And so at some point, my mom cleared out some space in the living room, and made me practice walking out on stage briskly, with a smile, with purpose.

I thought it was silly at the time, but given the results of this study, perhaps not so much?

It seems that we have an opportunity to engage our audiences from the instant we walk out on stage. To capture their attention even before we’ve begun to play, and ensure that they are interested and motivated to listen to what we have to say.

But to make the most of this opportunity, we have to plan, think about, practice, rehearse, record, and review this oft-ignored moment of a performance – the stage entrance.

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 if I just put in the time, the nerves would eventually 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 bad performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking the gap between practice and performance, because their practice looks fundamentally different. Specifically, their practice is not just about skill development – it’s about skill retrieval too.

This was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing more fun (and successful), but practicing a more satisfying and positive experience too.

If you’ve been wanting to become more “bulletproof” on stage and get more out of your daily practice too, 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 how to start making every day a good practice day. 😁


You'll also receive other insider resources like the weekly newsletter and a special 6-day series on essential research-based practice strategies that will help you get more out of your daily practice and perform more optimally on stage. (You can unsubscribe anytime.)

Download a

PDF version

Enter your email below to download this article as a PDF

Click the link below to convert this article to a PDF and download to your device.

Download a

PDF version

All set!

Discover your mental strengths and weaknesses

If performances have been frustratingly inconsistent, try the 4-min Mental Skills Audit. It won't tell you what Harry Potter character you are, but it will point you in the direction of some new practice methods that could help you level up in the practice room and on stage.