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.



Organizer of classical concerts at St Mary’s Perivale and St Barnabas Ealing. Pianist, organist and retired physician

3 thoughts on “The crucial role of platform manners and appearance”

  1. Communication between performer and audience is an integral aspect of a concert and probably the most significant reason for choosing to be there rather than listening to a recording.

  2. Delighted to hear you say this, Hugh, and agree with every word…..having undergone a similar journey through “purism” (in 1950s and early 1960s, music teacher parents, studied piano and violin, considered music as a career……overwhelming ethos that expression and presentation were “vulgar” and Jacqueline du Pre was criticised for “swaying about too much”).

    Yes, it is an exercise in total communication, and it does matter! Shyness (etc) can sadly be misinterpreted as diffidence, or even arrogance, but totally agree that a brief introduction can help, making contact with audience, regardless of language difficulties,(which can be endearing, and one hopes the resulting ripple of warmth would help overcome a performer`s nerves). A brief word here, having taught presentation skills (part of journey to get over own childhood shyness!) ….easy when nervous to waffle on….preparation and brevity /simplicity really pay off – and to speak more …slowly… and… clearly… than one thinks necessary, with breath control…..(which will then help performance nerves) – many introductions are sadly rushed and semi-audible.

    Thanks, Hugh, for raising this – in “my day” it was almost the done thing to shuffle on looking motheaten and nervous – such a joy these days to see younger performers looking more confident, and engaging with audience. It is not about “us” – it is not about ego – performers are “vessels” for music, and need to remove as many distractions and barriers as possible. (Actually, it could be argued that letting shyness get in the way is a form of ego …….)

    I was brought up with (and adore) Bach`s and Handel`s choral works………At a recent wonderful performance of the Messiah, (Ars Eloquentiae at St Anne`s Kew), several of us were moved to tears – in my case partly through hearing the familiar arias shining and soaring out with utter authority through young music students and recent graduates (whom I had seen earlier, arriving in their jeans and tracksuits). An elderly neighbour confided, “I`m afraid I`m rather in love with the young lady soloists” …..and on reflection I believe this is part of the same phenomenon – we are divinely “in love” with the music, and the performer becomes transfigured, when the “transmission” is as nearly perfect as possible.

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