Behave Yourself at the Keyboard!
Gustav Mahler used to shock his audiences by leaping high into the air while conducting his orchestra, and pianist Vladimir DePachmann would interrupt a recital with derogatory remarks about famous pianists in attendance. These behaviors by musicians are only two examples from a long list of "no-no's." Pianists have their own set of distractive theatrics which can either fill concert halls or drive away true music lovers.
Cyril Scott, one of the most talented pianist/composers of the twentieth century, went so far in the October 1926 issue of Etude magazine as to warn pianists of what not to do at the ivories. Eugene Goossens called Scott the "Father of Modern British Music," but he was far more. A brilliant pianist with long fingers to rival Frederic Dixon, he wrote books on such diverse subjects as dog training, alternative medicine, ethics, religion, natural foods, and had a lifetime interest in occultism. In his diatribe, "Don't! An Article for Budding Professionals," Scott argued that placing a pianist in front of an audience was an invitation to troubling distractions on stage.
"It is just because I have observed a large number of these unpleasantly diverting habits, characteristics, and idiosyncrasies that I am prompted to enumerate the following "Don'ts" so that students and even fully fledged artists may take the necessary steps before it is too late.
Don't rush onto the platform as if you were catching a train, it is both unnecessary and undignified. Don't, when bowing to your audience, wear a perpetual and ingratiating smile. Remember you are an artist and not a head waiter. Don't look inordinately pleased at the slightest applause; it gives the impression that you have never been applauded in your life before. Don't be coy with your audience, if you are young and pretty, it is irritating and superfluous, and if you are elderly it makes you look ridiculous. Don't while performing, think either of yourself or of your audience but solely of art and its interpretation. Don't snort or breathe loudly, while playing, but learn to breathe silently and correctly. Proper breathing is never accompanied by noise. Don't throw yourself about, or squirm and gyrate on the piano stool; remember you are a pianist, and not an acrobat, a ballet dancer, nor a monkey.
Remember also that the piano is not an orchestra to be conducted, nor a child to be punished, but an instrument to be played. Don't, in impassioned moments, jump on the pedal with your whole foot, but keep your heels well on the ground and press the pedals silently. Don't roll yourself into a ball and put your head nearly on the keyboard, following, as it were, every movement of your fingers. The later do not require scrutiny and your appearance is not improved by your turning yourself into a hunchback. Don't perform tricks with your mouth or your tongue, because, if you do, the audience will be so preoccupied with looking at you that they will forget to listen to you. Don't perform with your face."1
Moving forward in time, Julliard-trained pianist Thomas Pandolfi provides his own opinion on demonstrative pianists. Pandolfi has a sweet tooth for the works of Liszt and Gershwin, and his concerts are very popular and well regarded. The Washington Post notes that his "large scale pianism seems to emerge out of careful thought and close concentration."
"I'm guilty! Guilty of having fond memories of photographs of pianists in "action" poses and guilty of the musical crime itself of bad manners at the keyboard.
One of my first introductions to classical music as a small boy was my father's old LP collection. I loved these treasures, and I would sit just holding these amazing jacket covers, gazing at them—daydreaming of the life of an international concert pianist—almost as frequently as listening to the music itself. The cover art varied, but the ones I adored were of the artists themselves—especially those with the artists in action.
On break from school or practice I would listen on our phonograph to Phillipe Entremont perform Liszt's second piano concerto with Ormandy and his Philadelphians. The cover of the LP is marvelous— the young Frenchman, performing on stage, staring into the heavens, transfixed, inspired, and transporting those listening into another world. After listening to Liszt, I would reach for Rudolf Serkin with the Philadelphians playing Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Schumann. The photo showed Serkin, his right arm high in the air. The expression on his face absolutely immersed in this monumental and transcendent music, playing as if possessed!
Also at my side in those days was Harold Schonberg's masterful and witty book The Great Pianists. The book includes a sketch of Liszt looking positively demonic, hands flying in the air and hair blowing, a photo of the elegant Moiseiwitsch, and my favorite camera shot of Rubinstein from Carnegie Hall, pouncing on the piano. This to me, at the time, was the epitome of a concert pianist. Schonberg wrote, 'But if there was no 'ham' in his interpretations, there certainly was some in his stage deportment. Rubinstein put on something of a show, making a grand entrance, lifting his hands high at the keyboard, always conscious of his audience. Rubinstein knew the value of charisma, an element he had in spades!'2
Many other great artists (some would argue, the greatest pianists of all time) sat quietly at the keyboard, almost motionless, and yet there was no lack of intensity or passion in their performances. There was Liszt's rival Thalberg, and, closer to our own time, Hofmann, Rachmaninoff, Lhévinne, Horowitz, Michelangeli, Wild, and Bolet. All of these magnificent artists created their torrents of sound, kaleidoscopic washes of color, and stratospheric virtuosity with a minimum of body motion, allowing their arms, fingers, and even abdominal muscles to be wedded to a fierce mental concentration, all working in conjunction with each other, so that the focus was entirely on the music.
So which approach is correct? After pondering this question for years, including analyzing my own stage demeanor, I have come to the conclusion that the answer is BOTH, but with one condition: as long as the extra musical gestures complement the music making. When the gesticulating becomes so extreme and choreographed that it detracts from the interpretation and presentation of the musical statement, then I would argue that the distraction is a negative aspect of the performer's stage persona.
While a student at Julliard, my teachers drummed into me "economy of motion," but if in the course of things one's hand flies up into the air, or one's left foot kicks out to the side…or if one's so absorbed in the moment that one's eyes gaze toward the heavens, or if there is such energy propelling one to the end of a vivacious composition, as it causes the pianist to almost rise from the bench, just for that extra bit of musical punch and emphasis, then so be it. Those kinds of movements can only serve to enhance the concert going experience."
The Cyril Scott and Thomas Pandolfi lists just about cover the musical waterfront. I have only a few additions. Pianists, do not depend too much on your raw sex appeal and dress, and don't toss your hair out of your eyes as you play. Don't weep or cry in performance, and certainly do not conduct yourself with your spare hand as you plow up and down the ivories.
Concerts are aural and visual experiences. As you teach your students to perform, make sure every visual motion enhances the music the audience is hearing.
1Scott, Cyril (1926). Don't: An Article for Budding Professionals. Etude, October 1926, p. 715.
2Schonberg, Harold C. (1987). The Great Pianists. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, p. 443.