Pop music concerts are intense. Most of the time the audience is standing and dancing. Everyone is singing, being loud, and having a great time. There are usually intense visual effects, and the music is blaring. The pop music industry has figured something out that classical music sometimes has a difficult time with. That is that musical entertainment doesn’t have to, and shouldn’t, rely completely on the merits of the music itself.
There is more to a performance than just the music.
If you are involved at all in the classical music scene, you definitely have heard of Lang Lang. He’s a classical piano superstar. Is he the best pianist in the world? Probably not. Although on occasion he’ll receive negative comments from the classical elite, there’s absolutely no denying that he’s a phenomenal pianist.
One thing that sets him apart from other pianists is he really moves to the music. There are plenty of pianists that move quite a bit, but Lang Lang a little more so. If you haven’t seen him play before, check out the video below.
Is it Needed?
There was a time in my life that I would have definitely said that excess moving to the music is completely unneeded. Does Lang Lang have to make all those extra movements? I would argue that for him, yes he does. It’s what makes him perform his best. Physically is it necessary to make a certain sound though? Of course not.
If you were making an audio recording, there’s really no need to do any extra movements unless they help the musician express the music, which is often the case. But if you are playing for people live, or making a video, those movements are part of the art. The movements by the performer help the listener to see what the musician is feeling.
Let the Audience Feel The Emotions
When I was in school we had a world renowned pianist teach some masterclasses. He was known to be pretty outspoken, and it wasn’t unusual for students to come out crying from his lessons. In one class a student that was known to make a lot of movements during his playing played for him. Once the student finished his piece, this teacher couldn’t stop complimenting him. He spoke about how musical it was, and then he praised his teacher for teaching such a musical pianist.
As the masterclass continued on the teacher stopped and said “When I close my eyes, you aren’t very good.” Although probably not the nicest way he could have put it, it really opened my eyes to something. This teacher, one of the best in the world, was tricked by the fact that the student was moving around a lot while he was playing. Tricked may be a strong word here. Perhaps what was going on was that the student was feeling the music in a deep way and through his motions he communicated those feelings to this teacher. That’s powerful isn’t it? What he lacked musically he made up with visually. Art is meant to be felt, and if we can help our listeners feel something by adding visual cues, then why wouldn’t we take advantage of that?
This is one good reason why all musicians should not be afraid to express themselves visually with their bodies.
When I was in high school I played in a Bach competition. The competition took place at a nearby university. After I played through my piece my teacher, and the head of the piano department at the University, was sure I was going to win. I had felt I played the piece pretty well also.
After the results were in, I didn’t even place. Not even an honorable mention. The comments from the judges were pretty harsh. But not one of them said much of anything about the music itself. Technically I had played the piece pretty well, and my teacher at least thought I played musically as well. The comments from all three judges were in agreement though. I looked like I didn’t like piano, and I didn’t want to be there. That obviously wasn’t true. I practiced 6-8 hours every day on my own. Very few people enjoyed piano as much as I did. But that wasn’t portrayed in my body language. I should have learned my lesson by this experience but it took me many years, until I was a teacher myself, to realize the importance of being musical with the music as well as with my body while playing.
Last year I was preparing one of my students for a talent show called VStar Kids. We were working on Chopin’s first Scherzo. He played it pretty well, but there was still a lot of work we could have done musically and technically. While working on the piece like we usually did, I realized something. The judges weren’t classically trained musicians. Just about everyone was going to be playing/singing popular music. He was playing an exciting piece, so I wasn’t too worried about that. But I didn’t think that he could do anything better musically or technically that the judges would even notice. So we spent a lot of our lessons learning to move to the music.
I was never one to move much to the music, so my student was basically the same way. He would sit pretty still and play through the music. He looked a little robotic. This is how I always played, and I used to have the opinion that moving around a lot was extraneous.
We spent time in the lesson not discussing the music, but actually planning out how his hands would fly off the keys after a big chord, or how he would move his body during other parts of the piece. In my experience this is something that isn’t often taught or practiced. But why? People are going to be watching you play your instrument. Adding movements help the audience feel the music. This is especially helpful for people who aren’t classically trained.
Conductors and Vocalists
Have you ever seen a conductor that just conducts? They keep the beat, and cue the orchestra. It’s pretty boring. Conductors have a different job than most musicians though. The orchestra needs to feel their energy because the conductor controls the musicality of the entire orchestra. That’s why when you see a professional conductor more often than not they are very animated.
Vocalists are great at this as well. They are actually taught acting in their lessons. Why? Because they have to communicate the words and feelings of the music to the audience. Just because a sonata or concerto doesn’t have words, does that mean we shouldn’t try to physically communicate the feelings of the music to the audience? I don’t think so.
How Much is Too Much
Is it possible to overdue this? Maybe, maybe not. It really depends on the type of musician you want to portray yourself as, and who is listening to you. If it were me in college I would have said let the music speak for itself. If you move to the music, some people are going to dislike it. If you don’t move to the music, other people are going to dislike it. You can’t please everyone. I teach my students to not worry about overdoing it. If it’s too much, I’ll tell them. But for the most part it’s not often a problem.
Teachers should be spending time teaching their students to move to the music. Some students do it naturally, but for others like me, it should be taught. Time should be taken out of lessons to explain what movements to make where. Eventually, like everything else, these movements will come naturally. If they come naturally for you, you may be thinking that you should just move your body as your emotions lead. It doesn’t work for everyone the same way. I’m pretty reserved and it shows in my playing. That doesn’t mean we have to stay that way forever though! With a little practice it can become natural.
As musicians, we are performers. Not just musically, but visually. What do you think? Are you in the camp that music should speak for itself? Let us know in the comments!