To smile, or not to smile?

happy face

Many years ago, I attended a summer chamber music school whose faculty were top international artists. During one of the daily masterclasses, a young piano trio performed the Brahms C major op. 87. The piece has its difficulties, and every time the players got through one of the tricky spots, they would look up from their scores and grin broadly at each other.

After they’d finished, a couple of the faculty yelled at them. They said it was not appropriate to pull those wild grinning faces, that it was unprofessional, that it detracted from the music.

Everyone knows that you shouldn’t pull a face or shake your head when you make a mistake in performance. My first teacher once advised me “Don’t, for goodness’ sake, let the audience know you’ve made a mistake, because most of them won’t know the piece. If you pull a face, they’ll know instantly that you did something wrong and it will lessen their enjoyment.” Wise words — and in a thought-provoking post at The Bulletproof Musician, Dr. Noa Kageyama backs up the need to keep a “poker face” with psychology research into audience reactions to a performer’s demeanour.

But what about the happy faces?

Another one of my teachers told me that smiling during performance was a “provincial habit.” I was so eager to please him that I never asked what he meant. So I was interested to watch this video from TheStrad.com of a masterclass with the cellist Leonard Elschenbroich, where he instructs a group of students performing Beethoven’s trio op. 1 no. 3 “If you’re kind of stone-faced all the time, it’s very difficult to really have the…it just informs the rest of your body… The body believes what the face is doing. You have to convince yourself that this is real, that… the teacher said that it has to be bright, but there is brightness here.” Later, when the students start to play more energetically, Elschenbroich comments “I can hear it when you smile!”

The photographer for the Red Lodge Music Festival, where I play and teach every summer, took this snapshot of me during a performance of the Prokofiev sonata.

P1050410

I didn’t actually realize that I was smiling as I played. All I remember is how happy I was to make great music with a great colleague, in front of a nice audience, and getting paid for it. (What a privilege it is to be a musician—to be allowed to be a musician!) I honestly don’t even think about my face that much when I play, other than making a conscious effort to keep it relaxed, since facial tension can cause tension in other parts of the body, inhibiting efficient technique.

And yet, I know myself to be one of those people who is incapable of disguising their feelings, and the photo did give me cause to wonder whether I was becoming the kind of face-pulling clown my mentors would have scorned. So Elschenbroich’s comments made me feel better.

Maybe the “mistake face” is the one that we should definitely avoid, but the “happy face” isn’t necessarily bad?