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.