The crucial role of platform manners and appearance

Over 300 pianists have performed in my 1000 concerts over the past decade, as detailed here .   The standard is always very high indeed, but I am increasingly aware that the very best ones often don’t make as much impact on my audience as some others, who may not be quite as good.   The total impression of a performance is not simply dependent on the quality of their piano playing – other factors are involved.  One is the crucial art of platform manners and presentation – in other words, their non-verbal communication with the audience.

I used to hold the ‘purist’ view that all that mattered was the quality of the musical performance, and that an unattractive platform manner or irritating mannerisms were irrelevant.   After sitting through 1000 concerts, I now know that this is totally wrong.  A concert is an exercise in communication between the musician(s) and the audience, and this commences before a single note is played.  As in most aspects of life, first impressions are overwhelmingly important.   So pianists who bound on to the platform with a big smile and an apparently warm personality, and then play as if they are at ease with themselves and are enjoying the experience, will win an audience over, almost regardless of the quality of their performance.    We – the audience- will want to relate positively to them, and get on their side.   By comparison, a diffident approach to the audience and a ponderous shuffle to the keyboard can easily be interpreted as unsettling insecurity, and a cold, aloof approach might indeed indicate a cold and aloof personality.   Among great pianists, Gilels and Richter were notorious examples of the latter, and Ashkenazy and Rubinstein good examples of the former.    These extraneous factors do make a difference in a concert setting.

Many pianists have irritating mannerisms, often involving distorted facial expressions – pulling ‘funny faces’.  Although they may be difficult to eliminate, pianists need to be aware of their considerable importance.    ‘Making faces’ in the difficult passages suggests to the audience that the pianist is unduly stretched and invokes a sense of unease, regardless of the excellence of the performance.   It is very difficult to relax and enjoy a performance, if it appears to be an uphill struggle.    Alfred Brendel has referred to the use of a big mirror by the keyboard to monitor these bad habits, but now the simplest way is to use a video camera, to see how distracting they can be.  Youtube has many highly amusing examples of extreme mannerisms, with grotesque expressions from the likes of Lang Lang and Daniel Trifonov – see the final clips…

Facial expressions are also important with string players.    Some violinists play with a stern, unsmiling countenance, and some with an anxious expression, which again can seriously distract an audience, whereas others can look positively happy.  These factors really come into their own with cellists, where the mood conveyed by their body language is inevitably an integral part of the overall performance, simply because their faces are so much more exposed those of pianists and less inhibited by their instruments than violinists.  Some look seraphic, happy and/or transported to another world – as Jacqueline du Pre memorably did –  whereas other equally good cellists look strained, anxious and  suffering from severe constipation !   Some breathe heavily at the start of every phrase – another distracting mannerism.  These factors are more important than is generally recognised.

One way of establishing a good rapport with an audience, in a music club setting, is to introduce the music to the audience.  This is an art in itself, and is obviously difficult if the musician’s English is limited, but can have a marked impact.   A warm bond of communication can be established, and this will persist into the performance.  Conservatories should help musicians develop speaking skills, as well as playing skills, for this purpose, and teach them how to project their voice in a similar way to the projection of their instrument.

In conclusion, musicians should focus attention on their platform manners and appearance, as an integral part of their performance.  They should consider whether their current appearances help or hinder their communication with the audience.  The acid test is to take a video recording of their performance, turn the sound off, and watch it in total silence, to see how they look.  If they appear slightly bizarre, or even downright ridiculous, particularly with irritating mannerisms, they need to take steps to tackle the problems.  And they need to reach out with warmth to their public if they are to receive reciprocal goodwill in return.    I am convinced that these factors, which may seem rather peripheral, can play a significant part in the success or otherwise of a musician’s entire career.


The Joyce Hatto scandal and music criticism

There has been some discussion recently about the role and value of classical music criticism.  One salutary episode from a decade ago shed valuable light on this issue, yet seems to have been largely forgotten.   It is the Joyce Hatto affair.  Briefly, she was a British pianist, born in 1928, who had a modest career in the 1950’s and 1960’s, before developing cancer in 1970, whereupon she retired from the concert platform.  She married a record producer, and apparently spent the next 30 years producing a vast legacy of over 100 CDs, despite her chronic debilitating illness.   Her recordings were issued by her husband’s record label, Concert Artist, from about 2000 onwards, and earned consistently glowing reviews.   At her death in 2006, The Guardian obituary stated that she ‘was one of the greatest pianists Britain has ever produced…. Her legacy is a discography that in quantity, musical range and consistent quality has been equalled by few pianists in history…Not one of her recordings, covering a spectrum from  Scarlatti to Messiaen and with each composer stylistically defined, lacks some special insight even in the most familiar repertoire. Her musical imagination, unlike so many virtuosi, matched her awesome pianistic mechanism.’   These views were unanimously shared by the critical establishment, led by Gramophone magazine.  In fact her huge recorded legacy was ‘pirated’ from other recordings on obscure labels, made by over 100 different pianists, many of whom were virtually unknown !  It beggars belief that this ‘hotch-potch’ collection of recordings from so many pianists could be accepted by knowledgeable piano critics as the work of a single, ‘great’ pianist – but it really happened.    Further details on this remarkable story are on Wikipedia , and should be compulsory reading for all musicians and all critics.

This elaborate hoax is perhaps the most astonishing episode in recorded music history.   Most attention was focussed on the motivation of Joyce Hatto and her husband – the driving force – which seems to have been to ‘cock a snook’ at the musical establishment.  More importantly, it vividly demonstrated the fallacies and subjective nature of music criticism in general, and of piano performance criticism in particular. Some well-known critics had reviewed the original CDs in disparaging terms, and then enthused wildly about the same performances when apparently played by Joyce Hatto.  It seems that they were unduly swayed by the stirring story of an ill woman ‘triumphing against the odds’, and that this influenced their critical faculties.   It would be unfair to name the critics concerned, but it inevitably raises serious questions about their critical judgement.

We can all be guilty of similar lapses.  I occasionally listen to Classic FM, and enjoy trying to identify the performers, before they are announced afterwards.   Working with a ‘clean sheet’, without any preconceptions, I am often totally wrong, having either disliked a performance and then finding out that it is by a favourite musician, or vice versa.  It seems that most people have the same experience.   We all have our inbuilt powerful prejudices about the merits of particular musicians which are hard to dislodge, and which tend to outweigh any objectivity.   The Hatto affair shows this natural tendency to perfection.     In addition, all judgements on the merits of a piano performance depend on the particular tastes of the listener.  A good illustration was provided last year by the publication of the mark sheets of the distinguished judges at the International Chopin Piano Competition held in Warsaw.  It seems that some of them took an idiosyncratic dislike to individual performers which are difficult to explain. One can only speculate about the reasons, but clearly assessing piano performance is a very subjective art indeed.

So reviews need to be taken with a considerable pinch of salt, and liberal spoonfuls of humility and kindness.  I enjoy reading the reviews of critics, particularly in their assessment of recordings in magazines such as Gramophone, BBC Music Magazine and International Piano.  However, I am troubled by the tendency to cruelty and arrogance occasionally shown by some of them.   All reviewers should always imagine the impact that critical remarks might have on their subject.  As a courtesy to the musicians, they should only state in print what they would feel able to say directly to them.  Virtually all musicians feel vulnerable to critical reviews.   I used to socialize with a famous pianist, who ignored all the superlatives and praise heaped on his playing, and instead would focus solely on the ‘but’ or ‘although’ moment, detailing the few inevitable reservations.   Few musicians are immune from these anxieties, regardless of their eminence.   It is all too easy for critics, from the comfort of their seat in the stalls, to cast aspersions on the performances of musicians who have trained a lifetime, and been brave enough to perform in public, ‘putting their heads above the parapet’.   It all seems rather one-sided and unfair.  I sympathise with the violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja who has decided to retaliate on her website .  As it happens, I am not an admirer of her playing, but I do respect her decision to answer her critics directly.

Critics also need a large dose of humility.   I suspect that some of them achieve their niche because of the quality of their writing rather than their erudition or sound opinions.   There is a constant impression of arrogance in many reviews.   A damning assessment of a performance might have a catastrophic impact on a young musician’s career, and I don’t see why they should be able to wield this power.   As is constantly alleged, many are ‘failed musicians’, but at least this group will be aware of the supreme difficulties of public performance at first hand.  Even worse are those who have never experienced these pressures first hand, and yet still feel able to pontificate in print.

So the musical world would benefit considerably from more kindness and humility from reviewers and critics.  And we all need to recall the Hatto scandal on a regular basis, to realize the inherently flimsy foundations of much of what passes for erudite critical writing.