Why Your Playing (or Singing) May Become Less Musically Expressive on Stage

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Pianist Leon Fleisher once said something along the lines of how playing a note is easy – but playing that note musically is much more difficult.

And when you start adding more notes, and more expressive possibilities to the equation, the challenge only increases. Whether it’s elements of phrasing and timing, dynamics, sound and color, articulation, or even one’s physical movements, expressive musical performances include ingredients from many different dimensions indeed!

But how much of this do we need to think about on stage? Research and experience tells us that thinking too much about what our fingers or body ought to be doing on stage is just asking for trouble (more details about why that is here). But what about the musical or expressive aspects of our playing? 

Is this something that we do have to think about during a performance? Or should “musicality” just flow out of us naturally? Where everything is so well-ingrained that we could easily give an inspired performance (as far as the listener is concerned), while thinking up new ice cream flavors on stage?

A study of singers and instrumentalists

A group of Belgian researchers (Çorlu et al., 2015) recruited 21 musicians to participate in a study to explore this. Altogether there were 9 singers and 12 instrumentalists (including string, winds, and brass), ranging in age from 18 to 40. All with at least 8 years of formal music training.

Each was asked to perform a short piece of memorized, well-learned music twice, each time while looking at a computer screen on which shapes would randomly appear.

First take

During their first performance, they were presented with blue squares on the screen, one at a time, in random locations. Although they were asked to look at the screen, they were free to ignore the squares, so this wasn’t intended to be particularly challenging or distracting. The idea was to establish a baseline of how well they were capable of playing/singing when they had the mental bandwidth to focus on their performance.

Second take

During their second performance, however, they were presented with multiple shapes appearing simultaneously on the screen – squares, circles, and triangles – constantly changing every second or so. And unlike in their baseline recording, this time they had to pay very close attention to what was on the screen, as they were asked to count up the total number of circles and triangles (but not squares) that appeared over the course of two minutes.

This was the “dual-task” condition. And the idea was to see what exactly might change in their playing/singing, when their cognitive resources were being shifted away from the music and onto something totally irrelevant. Even though they were told to play exactly the same in the dual-task recording as they did in the baseline recording.

So did anything about their singing/playing change when they were distracted?

A panel of musicians

To find out, three professional musicians were asked to listen to each pair of baseline/distracted recordings, in random order, and with no idea that distractions were involved in one of the recordings.

There are lots of different aspects of musicality and expressiveness of course, but they were asked to listen specifically for differences relating to a) rhythmic hesitations, b) wrong phrasings, and c) tempo instability. And they were also asked to indicate if one performance was less expressive than the other.

Here are the prompts they were given:

  • In which of the following performances are there rhythmic hesitations (if there are any)?
  • In which of the following performances are there wrong phrasings (if there are any)?
  • In which of the following performances is there tempo instability (if there is any)?
  • Which of the following performances is less expressive than the other (if there is any difference)?

Results

A few musicians’ data had to be thrown out (it’s a long story), so ultimately there were just 18 musicians’ worth of recordings. And in 16 of these pairs of recordings, the jury felt that the distracted recording was indeed less expressive than the normal baseline recording.

And what exactly was different about these recordings? Was it related to rhythm? Phrasing? Tempo?

Phrasing

The researchers analyzed the audio recordings and found that the difference in expressiveness seemed to be related to the space or silence between phrases. Kind of like that quote often attributed to Debussy (or Mozart? or Miles Davis?) – that “music is the space between the notes.” 

Specifically, the duration of pauses between phrases in the distracted performances were shorter than the pause durations in the musicians’ baseline performances.

It’s not that they played or sung faster when distracted. The playing bits were mostly the same in both recordings – they just gave each phrase less breathing room.

And why did that happen?

Why did this happen?

Well, it’s pretty interesting actually. The authors explain that as “cognitive load” increases, our perception of time can get distorted. And in this particular case, the increased cognitive demands of the distractor task may have led to a sense that more time had elapsed than it really did. Leading the musicians to believe that they were taking more time than they really were.

The other possibility is also rather intriguing. In a post-study questionnaire, 74% of the participants reported feeling “increased restriction of their body movements” in the distracted performance. Which might be very much relevant to the issue of timing.

It takes our body a certain amount of time to perform certain activities. Like, it takes a certain amount of time to lift/lower our fingers, to take a breath, to move our arms, etc. And this movement gives us an “unconscious frame of reference” for how much time has elapsed. Kind of like how it’s easier to keep better track of time when we’re conducting or moving our body in some way as opposed to when we’re just counting in our head.

So if the musicians’ movements were constrained, this could have left them without the natural internal metronome or ”embodied reference” that they needed to guide their perception of time.

So what are we to do with all of this?

Takeaways

Well, if you’ve noticed your own singing or playing becoming less expressive under pressure, or observed this phenomenon in your students, then the model that the authors present below might help to explain why this could be happening. Essentially, that while we want to be able to trust our motor skills to operate effectively on autopilot – we never want our thoughts to go on autopilot or be occupied by task-irrelevant thoughts like who’s in the audience, or concerns about memory, or whether oat or almond milk is the superior non-dairy option. Because a musically expressive performance depends on there being enough cognitive resources available to devote to actively creating the expressive details and nuances of each moment.

From Çorlu, M., Muller, C., Desmet, F., & Leman, M. (2014). The consequences of additional cognitive load on performing musicians. Psychology of Music, 43(4), 495–510.

So how does one facilitate more automatic motor skills and figure out what exactly to focus on in performances for more expressive playing or singing? I’ll actually be teaching a live course on this in July, designed specifically for educators (dates and info here), but it’s also a topic that came up in next week’s interview with Oberlin music theory professor Brian Alegant (and guest co-host Molly Gebrian).

And before your brain reflexively shuts down at the phrase “music theory,” I think you may be surprised and come away from the episode feeling very different – and maybe even excited – about music theory. I haven’t decided if I’ll leave it in or not, but it’s the first time the word “turd” has come up in an interview, which hopefully gives you a sense that the talk couldn’t have been too dry and serious. =)


References

Çorlu, M., Muller, C., Desmet, F., & Leman, M. (2014). The consequences of additional cognitive load on performing musicians. Psychology of Music, 43(4), 495–510. https://doi.org/10.1177/0305735613519841

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.

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