When Stage Presence Happens

Stage View

I want to raise another topic that is relevant to the good performance/bad performance discussion we’ve been having, prompted by the article “A Great Live Music Performance Requires More Than Being Rehearsed.” What makes a live performance really great? The linked article above is an interview with live performance producer Tom Jackson, in which he talks about the need for bands to develop and refine their concert performances in order to thrive. It’s focused on the rock and pop music worlds, but the concepts essentially apply to any kind of performance. A successful performance of contemporary music is subject to similar criteria, in that ideally there is a real connection between musician(s) and audience. In our musical universe, performers face some very real (literally) obstacles in this regard: music stands.

Just because what an artist plays on stage is musically good, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a live performance of that music will make a good show. Knowing what works musically…. and knowing what works on stage are two different things.

Not only do music stands create a physical barrier between musician and audience, but presumably the music stand is there because the musician needs to read from the pages it holds. If attention is focused on the music stand, there’s not much left to give directly to the audience. It can certainly be done, but it requires some seriously outrageous charisma.

Musicians who memorize the pieces they play are at a distinct advantage when it comes to performances. They have the music at their fingertips and can move that focus to creating a connection with the audience. Memorization is business as usual for eighth blackbird, and the results show. Another performer, cellist Joshua Roman, insists on memorizing as much of the music he performs as possible, because he feels constricted when blocked by a music stand. Obviously everyone can’t be expected to memorize all of the music they perform, and orchestras and choruses definitely are different beasts (however, things seem to go well when the conductor has memorized the music). It does make a difference, though. Music groups in other genres go on tour and play two-hour sets from memory. Major touring bands have likely rehearsed eight hours a day for several weeks before they set foot on a stage. Opera singers memorize their parts. Actors memorize all of their lines. Yes, all of that takes a long time, a lot of effort, and many rehearsals, but the impact is clear. Just imagine if they were carting their scripts and scores around the stage with them.

As the article states, being well rehearsed is not enough to guarantee a great performance, and that’s where stage presence comes in. Some people naturally have it, but it can also be taught. Not only would I love to be a fly on the wall watching a training session by Tom Jackson, but I would love to know what a session would be like for a classical music ensemble that does perform with music stands. How does that work? I think it could, and I believe that it is an important ingredient (possibly the number one ingredient?) in the “audience engagement” recipe that too often goes unacknowledged.

6 thoughts on “When Stage Presence Happens

  1. Mark Winges

    Presence . . . really makes a difference. Children’s choirs almost always perform everything from memory. So when they do new music, it’s often convincing. On a different side of the street, a good string quartet where the members are obviously communicating / having fun with each other can also draw the audience in. However, string quartets pretty much rehearse a ton on anything they do. Zappa was notorious for the amount of rehearsal he did before a tour (a good percentage of his discography is from live shows).

    I think that one way we, as composers, can increase our presence quotient (when we talk before a performance, for example) is to study singers. Or even get some coaching from them. Singers are taught more about stage presence than instrumentalists (and composers). They don’t get to hide behind a machine / instrument; all they have is their body.

    Speaking of a group in need of seriously outrageous charisma, pity the poor pipe organ recitalist (dwarfed in the cockpit of his machine, stuck up in a balcony that’s behind the audience). But I digress . . .

      — Mark Winges

    Reply
  2. Brian

    I definitely agree about the music stand serving as a barrier between audience and performer. I try to get over this by always setting the stand low as it will possibly go. Seeing musicians–especially young musicians–perform with a music stand blocking their body, instrument, or even face is such a pet peeve of mine that it has become a joke among my colleagues when we are giving masterclasses. People come to concerts not just to hear music but to see a musician’s face and their fingers moving, right?

    The problem for working (and hard-working) musicians in terms of memorization is that there often isn’t time. Unless you are fortunate enough to enjoy a very singular career, most players simply don’t have the hours or bandwidth to devote to memorizing new music all the time. That’s not to say it can’t be done, but when you are stretched in many directions at once with multiple rehearsals with different groups, a large volume of music, and of course, other life commitments, even your best intentions or desires have to be checked and put into perspective.

    However, no matter what the situation, I think a musician should always strive to be as far off the page as possible in performance, meaning the music (or music stand) should never be completely necessary. In a perfect world, a performer has internalized the music to such an extent that the music sitting on the stand isn’t a crutch, but a reference and guide for an engaging performance.

    Reply
    1. Alexandra Gardner Post author

      Good to hear from you, Brian! Yes, while it is definitely not possible in many cases to totally memorize music, I really like the idea of being as “off the page” as possible. It’s a positive way to deal with a music stand.

      Reply
      1. Colin Holter

        I have a student who’s just finishing a piece that he’ll play on his upcoming piano recital, which also features a bunch of older rep pieces. He’s required by the department to have those warhorses memorized – but unfortunately that hasn’t left him with enough time to memorize the pieces [i]he[/i] wrote! I’m confident that he’ll do a terrific job despite the cruel irony of the situation.

        Reply
  3. Pingback: stage: presence | Drew Whiting, saxophonist

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