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John Berger

The Making of Charisma

August 27, 2013 at 12:16 AM

A couple of years ago, I saw Vadim Repin play the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D, twice – in rehearsal and the next day in concert.

It’s a concerto I love and know well, one I studied in Japan with Suzuki – with mixed success I might add, but that’s another story. Repin, born in Siberia, knew it so infallibly well he was able to chat away, in Russian of course, with conductor Vladimir Verbitsky whilst playing at the rehearsal.

During both performances I experienced spine-tingling sensations from his charismatic tone and interpretation. I found it hard to sleep that night as the sound of his playing rolled around in my head like the swell of great ocean waves. It set me thinking again about the nature of charisma. I’d previously heard Tchaikovsky’s concerto played in this same hall by other world class violinists on several occasions, without this electrifying effect.

What is Charisma?

What is this magical mysterious quality that attracts us with such a powerful magnetic force? Is it possible to teach and learn charisma? Musical pundits describe it as a pure, mystifying gift – unobtainable unless you’ve somehow always had it. However they are perhaps better at describing what it is not, agreeing that it cannot be created by mere virtuosity and flawless technique. However, the question remains: as performers, is our charismatic appeal automatically created – or constrained – by some intangible force of nature arising at the time of our birth?

I don’t think anyone has completely unravelled the mystery, but my teaching experiences have shown me that many of the contributing factors can be taught and learned, giving rise to authentic charismatic performances. Some of the factors are surprisingly simple. Let me tell you about a very special solo I saw in Japan.

A Memorable Solo

At the Suzuki summer schools in Matsumoto, one evening is set aside for a Gala Concert. It features some of the best young players from around Japan, from the very young – like the 4 year old boy we saw play Vivaldi’s concerto in A minor – to mature teenagers’ renditions of Sarasate showpieces. One performance by a young teenage girl stands out in my mind more than any other. It became the inspiration for how I teach stage presence – or charisma, if you like – for soloists.

From the moment she steps on to stage, we all recognise that the performance will be something special. It begins with her striking appearance: a tasteful red dress, long black boots, her long black hair and quick friendly smile. Striding onto stage with unselfconscious confidence, the sound of her boots echoes around the hall from the wooden stage. At centre stage, she smiles to the audience, pausing for a moment before an unhurried bow. When she bows, her hair cascades down in front, almost brushing the floor. Rising, she tosses it back and lifts her violin into a dramatic stance. A little unhurried glance over to the accompanist and she is ready. We are all holding our breaths. Before a note is played, the whole audience is in her hands. We all know it will be good – and it is!

In my mind’s eye I can still see this solo when I teach stage presence. Beyond the music, she had learned and practised the art of performance until it became spontaneous and natural. It led me to ask myself: can we teach young players to perform with charisma? Now I truly believe so. For genuine charisma to emerge, important skills must be learned and practised in addition to the music. In other words, the right ingredients must be there first.

Prepare the way

Interviewed in her film, Portrait, Anne-Sophie Mutter recalls von Karajan’s response to her audition to play (at 13) with the Berlin Philharmonic as, “come back in a year” or words to that effect. For professional musicians, the first obvious step is to make sure the piece is relatively perfect – confidently accurate at the right tempo and securely memorized. For this reason we choose solo pieces that the student has been playing well for some time; at least 6 months. A year is better. Then I ask the student to play the piece for me and some of the other teachers, in the presence of the parent. If we all agree the student is ready, we conduct a series of mini masterclasses with them, working mainly on musicality and expression.

Moving and Shaking

Times have changed. Almost any body movement when playing was once considered excessive and showy, but music is not just sound, it is also visual. It comes from living musicians who move and breathe with the music. But there is also a cultural factor – take a look on Youtube at the contrast between the way Yehudi Menuhin and Janine Jansen move in the Mendelssohn Concerto in E Minor. We resolved to teach students to move with the music from the beginning. Even 3 year olds love to move. Over time it becomes a natural part of expression, amplifying emotions such as drama, energy, calm, pathos and humour in the music.

Dressed to thrill

Because charisma has such a strong visual component, wearing the right clothes helps to spark it off. I ask parents to take time selecting clothes to suit the performance. It’s no accident that the most charismatic performers dress well. On the other hand, many professional musicians turn up on stage poorly dressed – too conservative or with wrong shapes and colours, exaggerating the body in an odd way. Perhaps they should ask a Parisian – or at least someone who dresses well. Don’t choose your own clothes.

Staging the Walk

I tell my students that their solo begins whilst they are still off stage. Walking on to stage you are already communicating with the audience. If you step confidently with a welcoming demeanor, the audience will be with you – even before your bow touches the string. Practising the walk on to stage also minimizes and eliminates nerves. A senior student recently said to me after his solo, ‘I played well, but felt a touch of nerves, because I didn’t practise coming on to stage enough.’

Taking a Bow

The friendly unrushed bow on centre stage is the musician’s opportunity to greet the audience with genuine appreciation for their presence. It is more natural to look towards the feet when bowing. We teach our students to hold for a count of three, before arising quickly with a smile.

Posturing

Too many performances are tainted by poor and unusual posture. Drooping violins, strained necks, open mouths are ingrained habits practised unknowingly and can be an unwelcome distraction to an otherwise good performance. There’s little point in trying to fix them up on stage. Attractive playing posture is an integral part of studies. Play in front of a mirror sometimes.

Projection

The ability to project well into a large space takes practice. Musicians know that making a larger sound is not achieved simply pressing harder or moving the bow more quickly, it means practising for more tone resonance. Professional soloists work hard to produce a big and beautiful tone, one that has the power to reach the far corners of any auditorium. They can then adjust their projection to suit the space.

This leads me to related point. Rehearsing in the actual performance space is good professional practice, because the hall or room space forms part of your violin’s voice, with a large influence on your sound and confidence.

Finishing

A good finish is as important as a good beginning, e.g. Is the ending dramatic, graceful, or fading into silence? There's a couple of opportunities in the early Suzuki violin repertoire. The ending of Schumann’s Two Grenadiers is enhanced by lifting the final bow off the string in a dramatic gesture of triumph. By contrast the last note of Dvorak’s Humoresque finishes before the music ends – after several seconds of silent stillness.

These ‘charisma skills’ are not learned overnight. As with every consciously acquired ability, they are achieved by mindful and guided practice, one skill at a time. Stars are made, not born. (Just ask their parents.) We are born with our personality, our view on life, our take on the world, to colour our star in our own unique way, illuminating our music with our own distinctive light.

Cheers, John
Teach Suzuki Violin


From elise stanley
Posted on August 27, 2013 at 6:26 AM
John - thanks for this its very interesting and instructive, not to mention useful.

I'm not so sure about the 'movement' part. Recently I was advised by an active soloist to be still. The reason given is that you will get more emotion into the music and less into your body. I'm not sure this is true but I for one get irritated if the soloist moves too much, sure its a performance in all senses of the word, but music has to have sound as the priority and movement as second. Hillary Hahn comes to mind: she plays with very little body movement (there is some) but I think that gives the music more gravity. Indeed, it seems to me that a charismatic performer (e.g. Heifetz) can create a performance tension by NOT moving.

From Eric Rowe
Posted on August 27, 2013 at 6:54 AM
Much of what you write is true but I find it personally sad that so many people put style ahead of substance.

The last statement apparently denies the undeniable role of experiences. Can we really have a valid outlook on anything before we have even experienced it?

From Sue Hunt
Posted on August 27, 2013 at 8:32 AM
Performing with charisma seems to be a popular subject this week. I have counted no less than 3 articles on line, (mine not included) about performance over the past 24 hours.

Performing is all about giving to an audience. While you can teach an individual how to dress, smile, walk and move on stage, the result will not be convincing unless the performer has been empowered to communicate from within. It all depends upon how you help a child to practice, not your instructions. If by the end of a session, a child feels an HONEST glow of accomplishment, you are on the right track.

From Thessa Tang
Posted on August 27, 2013 at 9:04 AM
Vadim Repin is a joy. We love his playing and once went back stage to meet him and was surprised to hear this gentle, quiet man speaking incessantly in Russian. Whatever it is or he has, it is not in the main foremost from his inherited genes. Repin said he did not come from a musical family and is the only musician in his family.
From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on August 27, 2013 at 1:26 PM
Hi, very interesting!

Repin is truly wonderful... I heard him play many times and in 3 masterclasses too. I spoke to him once in an autograph session.

While I agree that he sure has a lot of charisma and natural charm and I'm sure he practiced his stage presence a lot as a student and later on as a soloist, I think (my impression) most of is natural. Just the way he always laughs happily, you can't practice this. I mean, he doesn't make a style freak of him and is not excentric at all. (if I just compare with Vengerov who is always dressed in a very fashionable way etc.) Repin seems more on the conservative side and we like him like that.... He is not an enormous showman and still has plenty of charisma necessary to play classical music which should be anyway a quite sober art.

I agree that times have change but I think that we are too much on the visual side nowaday for classical musicians. What would the motionless Heifetz and Oistrakhs of today do??? How many older woman are out there soloing? etc. Is that ok of fair?

I am all for good dressing and stage behaviour of course, I'm just telling that it is perhaps overfocus nowadays (just my opinion). My say is that no matter what I see, I wait for the first notes to charm me :) Of course, if one is in a seious masterclass, no students will play badly so if you see someone very eye catchy for some reason, good chances are they will be good too... Then they're lucky to have it all as we say!
Anne-Marie

From Corwin Slack
Posted on August 27, 2013 at 2:29 PM
What would a concert be like if members of the audience started to move to the music?
From Laurie Niles
Posted on August 27, 2013 at 3:41 PM
Maybe it would be a good thing, Corwin! My two-year-old danced in the aisle when we took her to a performance of the Nutcracker, back when I was playing the pit (which she called the arm-pit). Imagine everyone dancing in the aisles to the Tchaik violin concerto. Hmmmmm.

I would agree that at least some "charisma" can be taught. I find that students, when not made aware of their role as a performer, will sometimes walk onstage slouching, or rolling their eyes, etc. I like to do a little dramatic demonstration; have them pretend to be the audience member, and then I'll walk into the room (pretending I'm walking onstage) several different ways: once rolling my head around, looking at the ceiling, walking funny distractedly; another time looking really angry; and another time pleased and confident. "Which one is the really great violinist, can you tell just from looking?" They always pick the confident one! Same person, three ways of doing it.

From Ronald Mutchnik
Posted on August 27, 2013 at 4:48 PM
A well known soloist whom I met some years back when I was a student had talked about projecting your emotions and grabbing the audience with your passion. One of my fellow students noticed that the soloist had actually written in to the music instructions on what to show in the face or the body gestures to indicate a particular emotion at a certain point. We were somewhat put off with this seemingly calculated planned approach to expressing what we thought should come through naturally. Years later, I met this soloist again, this time as an observer in a masterclass. The soloist specifically told the student that the factors that showed what they might be feeling about the music needed primarily to be communicated through the bow and that all expression was at the service of the meaning in the music, both structurally ( that is, deciding where the greatest climax is and how all other phrases are shaped to lead to or away from that) and based on all one's life experiences that could be brought to bear in expressing a particular mood or feeling. This soloist gave many useful examples and analogies and specifically told the student not to write anything in the music but to study and understand the levels of phrasing and think with the bow to the point that what you felt could naturally unfold in your bow arm. The soloist specially said that one should be able to hear the emotion through the use of the bow and that exaggerated body movements and gesticulation would distort the tone and the message. I must say that hearing this soloist demonstrate in class and in performance convinced me of the rightness and sincerity of this approach. It was also interesting to note that the initial movements the soloist made in performance seemed to be used to get into a state of conviction - that one must believe in the mission one is about to be engaged in- that the charisma was really coming from within and projected outward rather than an outward manifestation that one had to practice until it could be felt deep down inside.
From Vincent Han
Posted on August 27, 2013 at 10:27 PM
In response to the movement (adding on to what Elise said), there are many people who prefer to stay still. Although I understand the logic, I find it mundane for one to stand still while playing. On 8/21 (last week) I saw Joshua Bell perform Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35 at Avery Fisher Hall in Manhattan, New York. He really performed while playing, like a dancer. He put a lot of emotion and feeling into it, and could be seen by the way he tilted down on some notes or how he stood on tiptoe when he played high notes ever so quietly. I believe that playing an instrument, you have to feel the instrument and the piece well to be part of it and become one with it. I met him after the show and got an autograph and a picture with him!

From Brent Hudson
Posted on August 27, 2013 at 10:21 PM
Mere showmanship can be artful or artificial; charisma, on the other hand, is that quality of inclusion, of "embracing multitudes," that a performer may at times share with her or his audience. Both may be taught, but if you have the second, you mightn't need the first.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on August 28, 2013 at 2:20 AM
It's generosity, really, whether it involves moving or not.
From Eric Won
Posted on August 28, 2013 at 4:26 PM
Might there be an empathy that a performer experiences that enables the performer to reach (or read) the audience? Having observed audiences around the world, I believe there are different cultural norms that govern how an audience responds to a performer, which may reflect on their expectations of performers, including animation and body movement. From the genteel palm tapping to the roaring standing ovations, to the whistling and screams of "Brava!", a performer may adjust their level of animation to that of the audience. Charisma is about giving; empathy probably helps to understand and offer what the audience wants or needs.
From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on August 28, 2013 at 8:34 PM
But there are some international feelings that no matter what a performer looks (moves or not), if he/she has these in its sound and phrasing, people of any language will understand...

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