Seeing and hearing

This post by conductor Kenneth Woods set me thinking about how we engage with concerts in the 21st century. There was a time when we would speak of going to “hear” a concert, but today, in our image-conscious and visually heightened times, we tend to “see” a concert as well.

The concert hall is like the theatre, and the performer the actor on the stage. And for the audience, a concert is both a visual and aural experience – we listen with eyes as well as ears. Today audiences are likely to be as much concerned with what they see in performance as what they hear. But surely the sound of the music should be enough? Sadly, this isn’t the case and what the performer looks like, how they behave on stage, and what they wear has almost as much, if not more in some instances, bearing on the entire performance. I know of promoters, for example, who will only engage “good looking” or attractive artists, and if you don’t fit into what is currently fashionable you may not get as much work.

It shouldn’t matter what performers look like, but in our visually-aware times it does. Because isn’t it nicer to enjoy music played by performers who are easy on the eye as well as the ear? I freely admit to spending an entire recital by Angela Hewitt admiring her gown, and let’s not forget the furore surrounding Yuja Wang and “that dress” and “those shoes” at a concert at the Hollywood Bowl some years ago.

Yuja Wang (Photo: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

Of course we want performers to be attractive (no one wants to watch some “fugly“, socially awkward, twitching hairy freak) and attractively-attired. On one level, it indicates that the performance is an “occasion” and concert attire “identifies” the performer for the audiene. It is a “uniform”, a means of differentiating one from the audience and defining one’s role for them. Some performers prefer to go to the other extreme and appear in casual clothing which they feel better connects them with the audience by making them appear “normal”, and that it helps break down misconceptions about classical music being “elitist” or “inaccessible”. One’s concert attire is also dictated by the time of day and venue. For example, I probably wouldn’t wear a full-length evening dress for a lunchtime concert at my local music society, and a man may feel comfortable performing in shirt and trousers rather than a suit and tie.

Once we have got over what performers are wearing, there is a whole other area – that of movement and gesture. Performers use body language to convey the “story” of the music, expressive elements, drama and their own involvement in the music. This is an area of performance which, for me, has far more importance over what the performer is wearing. I believe gesture should serve the music, not obscure it. We have all witnessed exaggerated gestures at concerts – extravagant hand and arm waving, swaying across the keyboard, and gurning as if one has extreme indigestion – and now and then we have wondered what is the point of such pianistic gesticulation.

The physical movements and gestures of the performer not only influence the character and quality of sound but also enhance the dramatic content of the work and “explain” the music to the listener. Music is emotional and expressive – even the most mannered passages of Bach are rich in expression – and the performer’s physical gestures communicate the content of the music being played. Sometimes, these gestures can seem extreme, and when the performer’s gestures get in the way of the music or have no connection to the ‘story’ in the music, it can be frustrating or impossible to watch. But at other times, with the right gestures, the performance is magically enhanced and heightened – for both listener and performer.

Gesture is crucial in piano playing as our movements at the keyboard are immediately translated into sound: smooth, flowing movements will result in a smooth, flowing sound, while prodding or poking at the keys will result in an ugly sound. Gesture should always serve the music – not only in terms of the sound being produced but also in guiding the audience through the narrative of the music. At the end a performer may fling their hands away from the keyboard and the audience will know that the performance has ended and will take that as the cue to applaud. Or a performer may choose to allow their hands to remain on the keyboard, withdrawing them slowly to allow the memory of the sounds to continue to resonate with the listeners. The audience reads these gestures and will (hopefully) know not to applaud immediately.

The spectrum of gesture in piano playing is very broad, from almost complete concentrated stillness at the piano (Marc-André Hamelin, Stephen Hough) to exaggerated flamboyance bordering on the ridiculous. Sensitive performers will adjust their gestures according to the character and mood of the music. I have noticed a trend amongst certain younger performers to use gestures which seem unnatural and contrived, as if they have been “given” these gestures by teachers or mentors, or are trying to imitate another performer. Turn off the sound on the YouTube clip below and consider whether these performers’ movements have any value without the music?

By contrast, the late great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter liked to perform in darkness, with only a small lamp illuminating the music stand. He felt that this setting helped the audience focus on the music being performed, rather than on extraneous and irrelevant matters such as the performer’s grimaces and gestures. What’s the point of watching a pianist’s hands or face, when they only express the efforts being expended on the piece?” he said. And at a concert hall in Bremen, Germany, concerts take place in complete darkness, owing to the venue’s design which avoids light leakage, allowing the audience a very special aural experience without visual distractions.

Further reading:

Telling tails: do special clothes help us to perform better? – article by pianist Stephen Hough


  1. Some of the movements and expressions of a performer may not be intended for the audience – they just help the performer. It may be difficult to tell which movements are communicative and which are not.
    I think I close my eyes when I want to savour the sound in a concert. I am probably affected by visual information when I listen but I hope that I do not give them undue weight.

  2. It shouldn’t matter what performers look like, but in our visually-aware times it does. Because isn’t it nicer to enjoy music played by performers who are easy on the eye as well as the ear?
    -I guess today’s generation really enjoyed looking at musicians who look good rather than really talented one. Sometimes appearance matters a lot to them rather than the quality of music.

Comments are closed.