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Violinist.com Interviews: Vol. 1

Our exclusive, one-on-one interviews with 27 of today's best-known violinists, including Hilary Hahn, Joshua Bell, Sarah Chang, David Garrett, Anne Akiko Meyers, Maxim Vengerov, and others.


Facial expressions and how to control them

Performing: I'm wondering if people want to share their experience with, and advice for avoiding, excessive facial contortions whilst playing.

From Russ McKenna
Posted May 31, 2007 at 05:27 AM

I sometimes make some very strange faces whilst playing. Now I know this is acceptable to a certain degree, but if i see a performance with too much of this kind of thing I think it detracts. One should be able to control one's facial expression, I think. What are people's experiences with this? I went to a Vengerov recital recently, at which he did his characteristic "smirk". This is fine, partly because it's his trademark perhaps, but when I catch my expression in the mirror sometimes it makes me cringe!

From Laurie Niles
Posted on May 31, 2007 at 05:28 AM
Botox? (kidding!)
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on May 31, 2007 at 06:29 AM
Greetings,
many Alexander teachers, including profesisonal musicians , have told me that fac epulling is actually often a manifestation of tension and imblance elsewhere in the body. It might be worth investigating AT, Reiki, Feldenkreis or the like. Certainly can`t harm. Forget the Botox and go for prunes.
Cheers,
buri
From Sander Marcus
Posted on May 31, 2007 at 01:46 PM
It seems to me there was a lengthy discussion of all this on another discussion thread. But, here's my two cents worth.

I believe that playing the violin requires such incredible concentration, focus, coordination, memory, and overall involvement every moment, that spontaneous facial expressions and habitual grimaces are just a natural thing.

I guess that facial expressions can sometimes can enhance the experience for the listener and certainly reflect the concentration and emotion of the performer. But, personally, I find them distracting.

To the extent that they are a natural correlate of the performer's intense level of focus, I think that rather than having to "learn" them, most performers probably have to "unlearn" them.

The great grandadddy and model for "expressionless" faces is, of course, Jascha Heifetz. If you watch him carefully, you get the feeling not that he is void of emotions or the need to physically show them in his face, but that he is making a monumental effort to inhibit them. Considering what an incredible perfectionist he was (whether or not you prefer his playing), there is no doubt in my mind that he probably spent time, effort, and considerable practice in keeping that straight face.

To the extent that this may be true, it means that there isn't a quick fix on getting rid of a distracting facial expression. I think you have to work at it. You have to consider it just as much part of your technique as shifting and bowing and everything else. You have to practice it as yet another technical and musical "skill."

Waddaya think?
Sandy

From Jon O'Brien
Posted on May 31, 2007 at 02:23 PM
I hear tell of a causal relationship between prunes and buttox.

PS I agree Sandy. I guess videoing yourself with a neat little digital camera would be the way to go. You'd be able to check out if you were doing the grimaces.

From John Allison
Posted on May 31, 2007 at 02:27 PM
Try imparting the "facial expressions" through the music. If you are able to transpose all the feeling/concentration you are experiencing in the piece from your face and body, through the music, the listener will experience more. IMHO.
From Bruce Berg
Posted on May 31, 2007 at 04:19 PM
Re John's comment, try practicing with your mouth slightly open. This may prevent the musical impulses from going to your face.
From David Dickerson
Posted on May 31, 2007 at 05:10 PM
Hello, Russ!

My personal perspective on facial expressions by performers is that they are irrelevant, unless one is deliberately making "goofy faces," ;-) which obviously is not the case with you.

Anne-Sophie Mutter has been criticized for much of her career because of her tense and serious facial expressions when she performs on stage. (You can find excerpts of some performances, such as the Beethoven sonatas, on YouTube.)

I have Anne-Sophie Mutter's two-DVD set of the ten Beethoven sonatas, and she displays her usual serious expression when playing each sonata's movement.

My opinion is that one attends performances to listen to the music and I have defended Anne-Sophie Mutter (for what good it does) in many public forums. I do not see that she has a problem; she has played with a very serious, intent facial expression since she started performing with Herbert von Karajan as a teen.

With my best wishes for your success --

Cordially,

David

From Emily Grossman
Posted on June 1, 2007 at 09:12 AM
Mouth slightly open... Isn't that called gaping?
From al ku
Posted on June 1, 2007 at 01:33 PM
ever consider trying to look more presentable during a sneeze?:) or keeping a smiling face when lifting a very heavy object? oh i got it...another way to try to look sexy:)


i am not sure if i agree with sandy's assertion that he thought that heifetz made a conscious and successful effort in controlling his facial affect during play. if you are heifetz, whatever you do probably is put under the golden light. just the way it goes:)

heifetz strikes me as someone who does not wear too much emotion on his face in general, thus my speculation is that his on-stage poker face might be an extention of that bogart demeanor that he grew up with. and i really appreciate that perlman and ma did not follow that track:)

what is interesting, though, is how vengerov's facial expression has evolved over the years. his early-day face was intense but not twisty. right now, it is in full oh-la-la bloom...will be an interesting question for laurie if she ever gets to, eh, face him--something that is on everyone's mind but just too prim and proper to ask. hey by the way mr vengerov...

so, can we voluntarily controlled muscle movements that are involuntary? with effort, for some people, yes. probably easier with slower passages than sustained, super fast ones. essetially it is a form of biofeedback, if you think you have the time and energy and interest to do even more with your violin practice:)

there is a phenom called disinhibition, where under some circumstances, primitive reflexes (those we are all born with), since inhibited with maturity, are revealed yet again. in infants, reflexes around the face, ie, the pouting of the lips with touch, blinking of the eyelids with tapping of the forehead, are routinely
tested to assess developmental milestones. in some cases of brain injury in adults, you see some of those reflexes resurface, thus the theory that those primitive reflexes have been present, just made dormant, or overridden by voluntary impulses. it is my conjecture to say that with very intense violin playing, some parts of the brain are more focally recruited, thus leaving the room or space for some grimaces to creep out, more evidently in some players.

somehow to me the desired effect of a changed face reminds me of the other thread on the effect of "sexiness" on a performance.

does it really matter in classical music?:)

From nigel le
Posted on June 1, 2007 at 11:48 AM
practice with a mirror and change what you don't like and keep what you like... all of these things are personal; Cho Liang Lin, Itzhak Perlman, Maxim Vengerov all have their own unique facial expressions and are somewhat a signature to their playing.. don't strain yourself on how you look too much it's the voice you produce that matters
From Sander Marcus
Posted on June 1, 2007 at 01:54 PM
Al:

Regarding the comments about Heifetz, you may be entirely correct. It just seems to me that when it comes to facial expresses, we all somehow treat them as "innate" or "natural" or somehow uncontrolled or unaffected by learning, calculated effect, and practice. I still think that Heifetz was so particular, perfectionistic, and obsessive about every detail in his life (from downbow stacatto to mixing drinks), that he would not have overlooked so obvious an aspect of his demeanor as his stage presence. Take a careful look at his facial expressions on those old kinescopes and movies. It doesn't look natural to me. It doesn't look effortless, either. It looks like he is intensely concentrating and working hard at not moving those tiny facial muscles which at points almost seem on the verge of breaking out and doing something. No?
Again, I may be entirely wrong, but do take a second look. I'd like to hear your response.
Cordially, Sandy

From al ku
Posted on June 1, 2007 at 02:24 PM
sandy, in your line of work, i am sure you are very observant about body language, in addition to what is said and not said. and i have to trust your judgement on that.

one thing about heifetz, that people find his playing "cold", is probably partly or largely due to his, as you suggested (and i agree), controlled demeanor.

thus, it is a spectacle to experinece the polar opposite of the "controlled" exterior (him) and the powerful emotion from his playing which obviously has to come from inside.

was he trying to be a "detached" messenger and let the violin sound walk the walk and talk and talk?

did the culture influence back then promote or even mandate the conservative, minimalist display of emotion?

hey, just thought of it...how does heifetz's smile look like:):):)?

From Jay Azneer
Posted on June 1, 2007 at 02:36 PM
::hey, just thought of it...how does heifetz's smile look like:):):)? ::

Did anyone ever see it?

From Jessie Vallejo
Posted on June 1, 2007 at 02:51 PM
About the mouth opening thing...I tend to do that (not intentionally but because I can't breathe through my nose very well), and some people feel that is distracting.

If the faces, and especially strange faces, come with mistakes, then I think you should try and fix them. I personally had to just quit thinking a mistake was a big deal and learn to let it roll off my shoulder.

You can't please everyone, so don't get overwhelmed if someone is always distracted.

From Carolyn Ohlbaum
Posted on June 1, 2007 at 03:18 PM
Jay,

Go to www.youtube.com and watch the Heifetz Masterclass with Erick Friedman - Paganini 17th. You can see him smiling there. He also grins in the video of the Bach Double Concerto (2nd Movement) with Erick Friedman.

Carolyn

From Sander Marcus
Posted on June 2, 2007 at 11:06 AM
Carolyn: Ditto. There are many still photos and films of him smiling. And, he indeed had a great smile (when he did it, that is). What a character.
From Russ McKenna
Posted on June 3, 2007 at 04:10 PM
Hi All,

Thanks or all the interesting responses. Clearly this problem (if indeed that's that it is) is not unique, and it's good to hear that many of you have also encountered it.

I will have to look into any connections with tension in other areas, thanks Stephen. I think this will determine whether or not I really need to focus: if it's causing or due to tension then I obviously do, but if it is simply a manifestation of concentration and emotion etc. then perhaps it is not such a big deal. The quesiton then seems to be whether you consider this sort of thing to be too distracting. From the responses so far the majority seem to think not, and I would tend to agree. It certainly is a very personal aspect of your playing, and hence not something which you can give a generic answer to.

Once again, thanks for the contributions!

From Mihalis Kourniotis
Posted on June 4, 2007 at 05:31 PM
Well I love Perlman's expression...

sometimes he looks like crying but this is reflected to his passionate playing...

Mutter is very serius and sometimes she looks the violin very angry..she was asked for this in Greece and she answered : "you have to be very carefull because its easy something to go wrong"

Vengerov is very hypnotised when playing..just watch his Ysaye Ballade or the Tzigane :)

Mihalis

From Maura Gerety
Posted on June 4, 2007 at 05:40 PM
I love Vengerov, but I have to admit that his facial expressions do make me laugh sometimes. I can tell it's involuntary though, so I'm not bothered. :)
From Sander Marcus
Posted on June 4, 2007 at 05:53 PM
To be contrary to what appears the dominant opinion on this subject, and to be honest, everyone's facial expressions while they play bother me. I just find that kind of visual theatrics or even natural gestures distracting from the auditory experience of the music. Which is why I like the older generation; they (for the most part) didn't mug. Not only Heifetz, but Milstein, Menuhin, Francescatti, Grumiaux, Ricci, Rabin, Oistrakh, Morini, almost any of them. Almost none of them made faces (at least, the kinds of mugging that is more typical today).

Maybe because they were before the era of television and the Internet, who knows. And maybe I just grew up with that kind of stage presence as my model. But I just find that almost any kind of facial grimace is a distraction from the sound; it doesn't add anything (for me, anyway). In fact, I keep thinking things like, "Why does Perlman have to make those faces? Doesn't he have any self-control? And if he does, and if he's making those faces on purpose, what's the purpose?"

From Mihalis Kourniotis
Posted on June 5, 2007 at 10:14 PM
Sander, simply because Perlman FEELs it..he feels deeply his music...dont u think that he is doing faces when he plays alone or in studio ?
From Jim Hoyle
Posted on June 5, 2007 at 10:39 PM
Has anyone ever watched Peter Cropper, leader of the former Lindsay SQ? He's a great player and it doesn't detract from it, what you would call a "feature" of his style. But rather OTT all the same!
From Sander Marcus
Posted on June 6, 2007 at 01:26 PM
Mihalis: Thanks for your comment. Perlman is a great artist and I love his playing. I'm sure that his facial expressions while playing are not some sort of sideshow or a calculated attempt at showmanship (He's to accomplished and honest an artist for that). But if you didn't know any better, it sure looks like it could be theatrical mugging. And, in any case, I still personally find it annoying.
Cordially, Sandy
PS. Yes, I assume he makes the same faces when he's alone.
From edwin franklin
Posted on June 7, 2007 at 03:04 AM
I remember Perlman remarking that some of his facial expressions were do to his efforts at breath control.
From sevi d.s.
Posted on June 7, 2007 at 09:58 AM
when i was small i would keep *raspberrying* the audience when i made a mistake. it took my teacher 1 and a half years to make me stop that :P
From al ku
Posted on June 7, 2007 at 11:35 AM
of all people, i never "noticed" mr perlman's gesturing. i thought we have been referring to only mr vengerov's monopoly:)
From Sander Marcus
Posted on June 7, 2007 at 06:07 PM
Ever wonder if Paganini or Joachim or Wieniewski or Sarasate made faces? We know that Ysaye did. Anyway, I think the idea of this aesthetic device(if it is one) has been taken to the extreme by the rock music industry. All the mugging and jumping around the stage and (what I regard as) silly and affected gesturing is just for its theatrical effect. If you don't pay attention to it, the music isn't that impressive. In fact, my personal opinion is that many of the most famous rock stars (if you listen carefully to their actual music-making) aren't really so impressive, if you simply listen to them. And if I hear one more singer pronounce the word "I" as "Ahh," I think I'll puke. Is that fake southern accent a stereotyped affectation or what?
Anyway, I think a little of that aesthetic has rubbed off on classical musicians (especially violin and piano soloists).
Wait! What am I talking about? It was Paganini and Liszt who started the whole modern "virtuoso" thing in the first place.
Oh, well.
:) Sandy
From Sander Marcus
Posted on June 14, 2007 at 12:28 PM
"Sex appeal is fifty percent what you've got and fifty percent what people think you've got." - Sophia Loren
From Rob Schnautz
Posted on June 14, 2007 at 03:46 PM
Someone pointed out to me a few years ago that I have always played with my mouth open. Actually, they were more rude about it, by asking, "Do you ever drool when you play?"-- which isn't exactly a polite way to point out that you play with your mouth open. I guess it's not a bad thing...it just looks weird to some people...and it reminds me of that little fun fact that women can't put on eyeliner with their mouth closed. (I'll let you do the research on that one, since I already know why...and not from experience!)

Like Bruce suggested, playing with my mouth open doesn't really make me do any weird musical facial contortments. Makes me glad I've always played that way!

But it's not the facial contorments that bother me...those are understandable. What I can't stand when I watch a concerto is those jerky robotic-like movements that the concertmaster will invariably do while standing up to play a complex concerto. I don't mind swaying or turning from side to side, bobbing the scroll up and down, or repositioning your feet while playing, but to constantly do it very jerkily takes away from a) the music and b) the liklihood anyone will see those weird facial contortions. Hey-- maybe there's a way to hide them, right there! :)

From Bobby Ni
Posted on June 14, 2007 at 11:53 PM
haha i used to be made fun of for opening my mouth (to hold down the violin) when I played. Now, I have back pain because I tend to bend my neck to CLAMP down the violin. :(

I don't think controlling facial expressions or any gestures are necessary. unless they are SO REDICULOUSLY distracting (which is rare) that they take away from the performance its alright. Look at shaham play. he's an amazing violinist, and his gestures and facial expressions are very expressive - but its okay, because to me it doesnt take anything away from the music. to me it just shows he really enjoys the music.