Why Every Performer Needs a Good Poker Face

My daughter loves card games. And what I enjoy most about playing with her, is how completely transparent she is. Anytime she gets dealt a good hand, or picks up a special card, it’s written all over her face. Her eyes light up, and I know something bad is about to happen to me.

In time, maybe she’ll develop a better poker face , but for now it’s pretty cute.

And maybe not all bad, because when it comes to performing, research suggests that this sort of emotional expressivity is an important part of communicating from the stage. But…there’s a flip side. Where we frown and scowl, or express frustration when the performance isn’t going well.

We’ve all had teachers tell us to avoid making such faces when we’ve made a mistake, but really, as long as we sound great, how big a deal is it really?

The visual impact of what we do on stage

A number of studies in the last few decades have shed more light on questions like this (like this one that caused quite a stir), suggesting that what we see affects our evaluation of a performance more than we might like to think. And researchers George Waddell and Aaron Williamon at the Royal College of Music’s Centre for Performance Science recently conducted a study to look at two specific visual aspects of a performance – first impressions, and facial expressions in response to mistakes.

Same performance, but with a few tweaks

53 musicians and 52 non-musicians were recruited, and randomly assigned to one of several groups. Each group was to watch and evaluate video of the same performance of Chopin’s Aeolian Harp Etude, but with a few slight modifications made to each video.

Participants in Group #1 and Group #2 watched an error-free performance. However, while Group #1 saw the pianist walk on stage confidently, Group #2 saw the pianist walk on stage with poor stage presence (hands in pockets, barely looking at the audience, not smiling, etc.).

Groups #3 and #4’s videos both used the “good” stage entrance, but in their videos, the pianist makes a pretty major mistake. Midway through the piece, he flat-out stops and fumbles around for a moment before resuming the performance – noticeable even to the non-musicians. In Group #3’s video however, the pianist makes a face, shakes his head, and looks frustrated in response to the mistake, while in Group #4’s video, he has no discernible reaction to the mistake at all.

Rating the performance

The participants were asked to rate the quality of the performance, as if they were judging a competition.

But to get a sense of how quickly we form first impressions, and how our impressions change over the course of a performance, the researchers used an interesting “continuous” rating system. Where instead of waiting until the very end to ask participants for a score, participants were allowed to rate the performance from the very beginning, making adjustments to their score from moment to moment, as their opinion of his playing changed.

From Waddell, G., & Williamon, A. (2017). Eye of the Beholder: Stage Entrance Behavior and Facial Expression Affect Continuous Quality Ratings in Music Performance. Frontiers in Psychology, 8. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00513

So how much does a performer’s stage entrance, and facial reactions matter?

The impact of a poor stage entrance

Walking out on stage with poor stage presence did have an immediate impact.

For one, both musicians and non-musicians were much quicker to judge the performance, giving it a score 8 seconds into the performance. Those who saw the “good” stage entrance didn’t give the performance an initial rating until 18.52 seconds in.

Two, the pianist’s poor stage entrance totally affected his score – at least amongst the musicians, who gave his playing an initial rating of 34.91 (out of 70). Curiously, the non-musicians didn’t seem to mind his poor stage entrance. They gave him an initial score of 47.30, which was on par with what he got from non-musicians in the other groups who saw his good stage entrance.

But wait – that’s not the end of it!

But even the musicians didn’t seem to hold his poor stage entrance against him for long. By the 25-second mark of his performance, his performance rating had already recovered and was on par with the score he got from musicians who watched the video with his good stage entrance.

So while first impressions may have some impact and shouldn’t be ignored, perhaps the way we walk out on stage isn’t quite as influential as we may have thought. Or at least, it’s something we can overcome as long as our playing is at a high level and we exhibit good stage presence while playing.

So what about mistakes, and making faces in response? Is it possible that this too is not as big a deal as people say it is?

Making faces

As you can imagine, making a very audible mistake led to an immediate drop in performance ratings. But the magnitude of the drop depended on whether it was accompanied by a face or not.

Participants who heard the mistake, but saw video of the pianist looking blissfully unaware of the memory slip, dropped his rating by 7.43 points (relative to the error-free performance).

Those who not only heard the mistake, but saw the pianist shaking his head and looking frustrated dropped his rating by 19.20 points (relative to the error-free performance).

So obviously, making a mistake is not great, but expressing frustration apparently makes the mistake seem waaay worse.

Which is interesting, but there was actually something even more intriguing to come out of the data.

Audiences may be surprisingly forgiving

The musicians who watched the video where the pianist displayed no facial reaction to the mistake gave his performance a final score of 48.55 – which is identical to their initial rating of 48.55. The non-musicians’ scores were similar – a final score of 46.00 and an initial score of 45.00.

So in other words, the mistake did not affect the final score that musicians and non-musicians gave his performance. It appears that they either forgot or “forgave” the mistake by the time he reached the end of the piece!

But this was not the case for those who saw him make a face in response to the mistake. These musicians’ initial rating (44.00) dropped in response to the mistake and stayed down, ending at 35.50. Same for the non-musicians (45.50 initial rating; 36.50 final rating).

Why did this happen?

So why are both musicians and non-musicians more likely to forgive a mistake when it isn’t accompanied by a look of frustration?

The authors note that when we interpret facial expressions, we don’t just intuit the person’s current mood, but also make generalizations about more stable characteristics and traits. So when we see a musician expressing frustration at making a mistake, instead of interpreting this as a random mistake, the expression of frustration may lead us to conclude that such mistakes are habitual, and that this is a musician who routinely struggles with consistency.

Take action

As usual, it seems that our teachers were totally right. Making a mistake is not the end of the world, and an audience is often much more forgiving than we give them credit for being – so long as we can keep our face from giving us away and ruining the experience for them.

Would an audition committee or competition jury be as forgiving? That’s hard to say, but it’s probably a safe bet that maintaining your poker face is a better way to go, no matter how many mistakes you find yourself making on stage (or alternately, I guess you could make sure everything is a “hole-in-one,” ala Happy Gilmore ).

Dig a little deeper

If you’d like to geek out about this some more, the full paper and all five videos are online here:

Eye of the Beholder: Stage Entrance Behavior and Facial Expression Affect Continuous Quality Ratings in Music Performance @Frontiers in Psychology

Supplementary Material (e.g. videos, etc.)

Or if you only have time for the highlights, the researchers have distilled the videos down to 88 seconds here:

Does stage behaviour matter? @YouTube

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6 Responses

  1. The older I get, the more I’m happy to communicate everything including mistakes to the audience. I laugh at myself , roll my eyes… just be myself. I find they appreciate utter candor and sincerity. It makes the concert a lot less stiff and more real like having a musician to dinner.

    1. I’m with you Bradley. The most common comment I get after a gig is “I love watching all your faces when you play”. This flies in the face (rim shot, bad pun intended ) of what every classical music teacher has taught me.

      Outside of the classical world, if you play stone faced people say you have ‘no stage presence’. People do listen with their eyes. They seem to have an expectation of emoting and making the stinky smell face when you play cool licks on stage.

      I hope someone does a study where the musicians smiled, made a funny face or laughed off the mistake to see what effect that had on the perception. Positive bias instead of the negative bias with the frustration act.

      Thanks for your blog Noa! Awesome stuff, always thought provoking and I sure enjoy reading it.

      1. Thanks, Scott! I think you and Bradley are both spot on…in hindsight, maybe “poker face” was not the best choice of words. There’s a vocal study which speaks to how important our facial expressions are in terms of expression in the music, so if I was guessing, I imagine the real issue with making faces that suggest frustration, disgust, annoyance, etc. is that this breaks the spell we’re trying to create and pulls the listener away from the experience and puts them in a different place.

        So as long as our facial expressions are consistent with the kind of mood we’re trying to create, I’m betting the audience will still respond favorably. And so it makes a lot of sense that an audience would respond in the way you describe to your performance – it’s totally congruent with the performance experience you’re trying to give them.

  2. I just love when your blog backs up the things I have taught for so long. Unhappy facial expressions make the performance about the performer, and not the music. Students have to be taught to not confess to the audience about their mistakes while they are playing, and to just say “Thank You” when they finish instead of enumerating all their errors. Most non-musician audience members don’t even notice mistakes unless they are pointed out.

  3. Thanks for considering these comments Noa. I appreciate you taking it as intended; as points for discussion. I admire and learn from your writing. Scott – “making the stinky smell face when you play cool licks on stage” made me laugh. What an apt description!

  4. This article, and the discussion here, come to me just in time! I’m going to do my recital in 15 days and now I am more confident than ever. The bigger intense preparation, a thing that a didn’t in the previous recital, give more optimism. I am a percussionist and a gig drummer and what I’m trying to do is to bring the sensation of being live on stage playing the drums to the very intense pieces I’m going to play. And it’s working.

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