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The Weekend Vote weekend vote: Should orchestra musicians smile more?

November 15, 2008 at 2:34 AM

Back when I was in the Omaha Symphony, the local music critic was just getting rolling on a rather routine review when he burst from the page with the following critique: “Couldn't the musicians SMILE now and then?”


Musicians in the orchestra loved this. One musician even xeroxed a drawing of a huge, clownish smiley face and left copies on every music stand for the next rehearsal, with instructions that we should color the faces, glue them to a stick and then hold them in front of our faces during the next concert. This we did not do, but I have amended my memory to include a fictional scene in which we all stand for the applause and withdraw these smileys from beneath our chairs, to the great merriment of us and consternation of the critic.

Really, was he listening at all to the music? Why this irksome, unrelated, unwelcome idea about smiling? “Look, I'm not PAID enough to smile,” I've heard from colleagues. 

And yet...maybe we should smile more. I don't mean to get up after Mahler 10 and giggle, exactly, but I do think we could connect with our audience, and many times a smile of acknowledgment would go well with the applause.

When I played in the Disney College Orchestra, we were fairly brow-beaten into smiling, clapping along... puttin' our Mickey Mouse on. Frankly we had a lot of fun.

I find myself dramatizing this for young students. “Do you want to watch a person who walks on stage and plays like this?” I ask. Then I drag myself across the room, scowling, give them a hateful look, put my fiddle to my drooping shoulder, play a few notes, mutter to myself, and take a bow. “Or would you rather see someone who plays like this?” I walk upright, smile confidently, hold my violin up in a perfect position, play a few notes, smile to myself, smile to them, and take a bow.

They get the message.

I find this to be a huge complaint among audience members, that the musicians look unhappy. Sometimes it goes beyond that. Once, I came to see a colleague's concert. He played so very well, and I truly enjoyed it. I came up to him afterwards to gush a little, and he shook his head, “Yeah, well actually I totally blew it, and so did the violist and the ensemble wasn't together and I hated it and it was awful. But thanks.”

Honestly, I felt robbed. He didn't let go and give that performance to me; he didn't let me enjoy it. 

Then again, perhaps the music should just stand for itself, why should we have to sell it with a smile? We are artists.

What do you think, and what have your experiences been?


From Dottie Case
Posted via on November 15, 2008 at 2:50 AM

I know that my 'concentrating face' looks very much like an angry face.  I play piano for church, and years ago, people would occasionally ask me 'what I was mad about' after a service. So I've tried to look less angry when playing in church. I wonder how much of our serious looks in concerts is just high levels of concentration.

It seems to me that playing a concert is like giving a gift to an audience.  Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if we communicated some of the joy that music brings us as well. A smile at the end of the performance would be a good way to do that.

Of course, there are those concerts where I've felt as though I've survived some highly dangerous and stressful event just to get to the end...... :)

From Jerald Archer
Posted via on November 15, 2008 at 2:41 AM

I have gotten that "you should smile more" comment  many times when I am performing both classical music and popular tunes, even when it is a serious piece! I think that the general public is so overwhelmed by the culture of the "pop artist" image, that it naturally trickles down to the expectation that classical artists should follow suit. Don't try to explain it to a typical listener, as it always seems out of their scope of understanding. I blame Follywood and video producers for the problem. I attempt to explain that violin playing is very complicated brain concentration work, and they still don't understand, because they do not play the violin. I have given up attempting to explain, as they will have to accept it. If one hears me on a recording, how do they know if I am smiling, just been to the dentist for a root canal, wearing bologna in my shoes, or even buck naked (which I do not condone in the studio or in public performances). The real smiles (and all emotions) comes from the music itself, such as would be expressed in a light Mozart work, or even a ripping fiddle tune. Many people comment that I make it look easy, and they never realize how difficult it can be, at times.

I can't really understand the logic, but have to look at the common sense part of performing. It would not matter if I was performing classical or popular music, I am so into concentrating on what I am doing, soundwise on stage, that it never crossed my mind. If you really want to see me smile, give me a good accompainist or group to work with! Certain emptions for certain circumstances seem to be the order of the world, and I should find it very strange for a violinist to be smiling while rendering a heart felt work. A smile at the end of the work, along with a modest bow, is a very courteous sign to the audience that their applause is appreciated.

From Giancarlo L
Posted via on November 15, 2008 at 3:42 AM

Smiling makes everything more fun.

But although it may make people smile in turn, I don't think it needs to be done 100% of the time on the classical stage. When it's right for the music, sure, by all means, smile.

But when you're playing Mahler 2 or the Berg Violin Concerto, you might not always want to be beaming at the audience. (For that matter, you probably shouldn't even be playing this stuff for non-experienced listeners. Stick to Bach.)

Vadim Repin and James Ehnes both used facial expressions in their playing when I saw them perform, but a lot of aritsts don't.

I think it needs to be something that you do when the time is right, and it can't by all means be overused.

That's my say.


From Bob Annis
Posted via on November 15, 2008 at 3:49 AM

While I (and most people) can actually hear whether someone is smiling on, say, a telephone, sticking an inane grin on one's face while trying to concentrate is more likely to frighten than not.

Personally, I rather enjoy the bizarre faces that some folks generate while concentrating on making music. I can live without a smiling string section, at least until the performance is over, at which time a smile of relief, or other appropriate emotion, is called for.

From Bethany Morris
Posted via on November 15, 2008 at 4:05 AM

I think that performers should smile at the end of a performance, when they are being acknowledged by an appreciative audience.  While playing, however, how much concentration can a musician afford to give to his or her facial expression?  It certainly isn't fair to wind players, whose facial expressions are decided by the embouchure needed to play their instruments....

From Roy Sonne
Posted via on November 15, 2008 at 6:32 AM

About thirty years ago I was playing in the Columbus Symphony  Orchestra for a Messiah performance. A woman in the audience later told me, "I was watching the musicians of the orchestra and there was one violinist who stood out because he was the only one who seemed to bee enjoying what he was doing." That violinist was me and the woman later became my wife.

From Rosalind Porter
Posted via on November 15, 2008 at 7:26 AM

Awww, Roy - what a lovely romantic story.

As far as smiling goes - my answer is a big YES for two instances without fail:  One when the artist walks on in front of the audience and takes their bow before the concert, and the other at the end of each piece when they are acknowledging applause. 

People have made an effort to come and hear/see you, possibly paying a substantial amount of cash for the privilege and a welcoming/grateful/thankful smile is the very least they deserve as a basic courtesy.  If someone came to your house for a party - would you just scowl at them when you opened the door? 

As for smiling during the concert while one is playing - well unless it is distracting from the music being played - I'm not particularly bothered one way or the other, it is the music and interpretation that I am concentrating on. 

Let's consider other performing arts genres:  Look at the strong interaction between popstar and audience; folk musicians and audience; jazz players and audience; world music and audience - in my experience it is a much closer relationship than exists between the average "classical" group and their audience...   We know historically that wasn't always the case with classical and perhaps nowadays in these financially straitened times we especially need to rethink the boundaries/barriers that we've erected between the performers and the listeners?  

From Jessica Hung
Posted via on November 15, 2008 at 9:24 AM

I agree with the folks who advocate smiling before and after a performance, while walking out and for bows--it's absolutely the gracious thing to do for your audience!  Smiling while playing might look a little bizarre, unless it's really your natural style.

I definitely understand your story about feeling robbed with your rejected compliment, Laurie--I used to do the same thing and blow off compliments when I thought I hadn't played my best, until I realized how rude that was!  Even if a musician can't find the value in his own performance, he shouldn't take away from what anyone else got out of it too.  Now I genuinely say thank you, regardless of how satisfied I might be, which is really a personal issue.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted via on November 15, 2008 at 1:59 PM

Last week at my concert, another orchestra member came up to me and introduced himself.  I'd seen him around and I'm still somewhat new to the orchestra.  I'm also terrible at remembering names but have gotten better about wearing my name tag at rehearsal.

Anyway, he said to me "you're always such a cheerful presence here, it's great to have you!"  I was really touched, beyond words in fact.  He was smiling too.  I said it was great to meet him and get to know him better.  Maybe when I stand up there for the tuning I don't look like as much of a doofus as I fear I do. 

But I know from pictures that when I'm actually playing I look pretty serious, and I don't think I can change that or would want to.  I don't want to have to think about my facial expression on top of everything else, it would just make me more self-conscious, which is very bad for my playing.  There's too much else to be thinking about.

So I think smiling before and after the music is great, but while playing, we should get a pass.



From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted via on November 15, 2008 at 2:08 PM

p.s.  Roy, that's a great story!  The first weekend I met my husband, it was Easter and I took him to church where I was singing in the choir.  He is not normally a churchgoer or a singer, but he said that after watching me sing in the choir, he decided I was the one he was going to marry.  We were in fact married 6 months later. 

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted via on November 15, 2008 at 3:49 PM

I think like a lot of you said that a musician can look how he wants while performing but after he or she must smile to say thank you even if he or she is really angry because it went wrong.  If you do plenty of mistakes, even for an adult or a pro, if you smile after, you will get forgive very easily!  I personnally think I look kind of cold when I play because I have for my opinion that one shouldn't move any no necessary muscle when playing and dancing around gives you the impression that you are more "in" it but in fact it's such a waste of essential energy that you should put in your playing to have a better sound. (but now the style is to smile while playing and if you can dance, it is even more cute (for those who like this it's find and there are soloists who sound great even if they do this!) and I would be call old fashion with my kind of not moving style and normal facial expression style...) However, after I always do my best to smile because it is the last thing that the public sees and my real personnality is to be kind to people, so I must show it!  What I find awful is when people juge soloists with their expression while playing.  Many people say that Oistrakh looks boared, tired and Heifetz cold etc.  Look at their faces after the playing or close your eyes to juge of the real personnalities of those of the "non moving/facial expression" era.  In these times, they were not taught to make a little dance in the stage so we must be understanding!


From J Kingston
Posted via on November 15, 2008 at 8:06 PM

It is definitely more fun to watch someone who enjoys what they are doing. Before during or after doesn't matter so much. Sometimes an audience worries for performers who look stressed. I know I do. When they project that they are relaxed the whole thing is so much more enjoyable to watch.

From Bill Busen
Posted via on November 16, 2008 at 12:49 AM

I would put one important caveat on the point that being a second violin is a little different from being a talk-show host:

If you are doing outreach to children, PLEASE show some enjoyment somewhere.  My strongly negative impression of classical music throughout grade school came from the same four elderly, expressionless quartet members showing up every year for an assembly.  "Why do they do that?  They don't enjoy it at all..."

Since the visual element of communicating emotion is there by virtue of it being a live concert, there are often a lot of very mixed messages sent.

From David Rose
Posted via on November 16, 2008 at 4:43 AM

I remember being slightly annoyed talking to office staff from my orchestra about letters they had received complaining of sour looking musicians, and shoes which weren't shiny, and all such manner of things.  My thought then was that this was an art for the ear and not the eye....

...and then I went and watched my own orchestra play.  I was a little surprised to admit that I found these same issues which appeared in letters from patrons to affect me as much as they did.

I then remember taking a test way back in grade school to determine if I was a visual, auditory, or kinesthetic (by touch) learner.  I was visual (as are I think 80% of people, 15% being audio, and 5% or so being kinesthetic).  I was bummed, as I wanted to be an auditory learner, as a musician.

But in a concert atmosphere, where the eyes take in the information and process things first...frowns, dirty shoes, shoddy concert gear were indeed a real block to me being able to enjoy the music. 

I attended a concert of another orchestra, and have to admit that I was drawn to the principal 2nd violin, who smiled and seemed to enjoy herself while she was playing.  I would be lying if I didn't say that she improved the overall musical experience for me.

As for the blog question, YES we should all smile more!!!!  I like that thought.

From Kim Vawter
Posted via on November 16, 2008 at 5:36 AM

After reading this and some of the responses to the discussion about smiling I quickly looked up at my reflection in the window in front of my desk. There is an unpleasant old person with a frown on her face. I have a face that at rest looks angry as there are lines that go down from my mouth.

When I practice the violin I do not think about how I my face looks because for the same reasons that have already been stated: it is hard mental work to play this instrument.

A young friend of mine who was practicing with me one morning said, "I just can't look at you frowning all the time. Try to be happy."

When I ever get to the place where I will be performing in an orchestra or with a small group I will not only pick out something pretty to wear but will work on a pleasant expression as if I am enjoying myself.

It would be my hope that I would be well prepared and the piece that I will play will be stamped into my brain and be very well rehearsed. (I am still pretty new at this stuff.)

It won't be easy but I do not want to scare the audience--and if anyone is still there at the end i will smile and thank them for coming!

From Deborah McCann
Posted via on November 16, 2008 at 5:54 AM

When I was 15, my father told me of a "little thing" I did when I played. Every time I missed something important, I stuck my tounge out at the music.  That was a moment of "oh my" for me.  Wind players have it easier as they can must control their facial experessions to play well.  For us, it is more a matter of caring to do so.  How can we expect people to love what we do if we look like we would rather have root canel surgery?  We also need to breath through the parts for phrases.   My piano teacher taught me the importance of this and it works for violin, too.

From Louise Pallet
Posted via on November 16, 2008 at 7:27 AM

When I go to the concerts of our philharmonic, my eyes automatically go to the two people who always smile. I never thought of it and since reading your article I realise that they make an enormous diffrence. A lady violinist and a lady celliste. Do men never smile?

From Luis Dias
Posted via on November 16, 2008 at 7:54 AM

Our conductor used to try this experiment with us, if we were playing a section of a piece that seemed to suggest joy or ecstasy. He would ask us to play it with deadpan expressions on our facesd, & then again, but this time with huge smiles. There was an audible difference.

So yes, smiling at appropriate times even during performance can raise the standard of playing, I think.

I'll grant you that wind & brass players will have problems due to embouchure.

Posted via on November 16, 2008 at 10:09 AM

The audience must have keen sight perception to detect smiles vs concentration. Should we also emit audible laughter during the largo movement? This question and entire topic is ridiculous!!!

From Oliver Bedford
Posted via on November 16, 2008 at 9:58 AM

Personally (as a listener), I don't care whether musicians smile or not. It's the music they make that really matters.

But what really detracts from my enjoymemt of the music is when soloists make heavy breathing or even snorting noises while playing, like one famous cello player I heard in a recital some years ago!

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted via on November 16, 2008 at 12:32 PM

There's an interesting article in the Journal of Social History called From good cheer to "Drive-By Smiling": a social history of cheerfulness by Christina Kotchemidova

The author argues that the American (white, middle-class) culture of cheerfulness serves to regulate emotion and feed consumerism:  

" . . . Our present-day "emotion spaces" are not exactly private since they can be public theaters, bars, casinos, stadiums, TV programs, print media, and so forth; they transcend the distinction between "public" and "private." These are environments created for experiencing various emotions--individually or in-group--at a particular time and place (for example, a two-hour video). At the same time, cheerfulness remains the only emotion that is almost always appropriate in the vast public space."

She also makes the point that "emotion management" in Europe and the United States is focused very differently and writes about the role of the cheerfulness culture in the rise of diagnosed depression and the psychotherapeutic industry.  

A paragraph near the end of the (quite long) article makes me really sympathize with what the musicians in the Omaha symphony did in making fun of the critic's comment.

"At the same time, business and corporate pressures on workers to look upbeat might be causing the psychic burnout Hochschild unveiled, which would be easily diagnosed as depression . . . Delta Airlines, which institutionalized positive emotion management in the 1970s, now spent nine million dollars paying the bulk of the costs of antidepressants for its employees and their dependents in 2003 . . .  Another one is the national emotional etiquette which makes any kind of grumpy condition subject to public reproach. Recently a Florida activist group put on a national event called "The Great American Grump Out." The group staged a "Drive-By Smiling" campaign flashing cardboard smiley-faces at passing motorists. It says it aims to do for cantankerousness what the Great American Smoke-Out did for tobacco addiction--purge low spirits from the culture."

I hadn't really thought about it before in this way, but I do see classical music as one of the few remaining refuges we have in American Society from the "Great American Grump Out."  It is a vehicle for strong, complex emotional life.  If it loses that under a pasted-on smile, I think I'd lose interest entirely.

From David Rose
Posted via on November 16, 2008 at 2:25 PM

Hey Karen,

That's a very interesting (and I think largely true) point, about cheerfulness being the only acceptable public emotion in North America.

Another thing to consider...when I was investigating the Alexander technique, one of my teachers - in an effort to rid me of the notion that every physical thing we do is directed from within (ie - our body is a big bus that our mind and emotions drive) - told me that there are studies to support that simply smiling actually brings about inner change.

That is, the physical act of smiling can actual change how you feel.  Prior to that, I had always felt unauthentic if I smiled without support from deep within.

Very complex issue for sure!  Perhaps Charlie Chaplin was onto something in the bittersweet words to his own tune, 'smile'.

From E. Smith
Posted via on November 16, 2008 at 2:30 PM

 For me as an audience member the most interesting smiles and facial expressions are those between musicians when they connect during a communicative moment. Sometimes it's a smile, or even a glimmer of a smile; sometimes it's simply a shared look of common purpose. I see this in orchestra situations between section leaders and the conductor; between section leaders themselves, and to a lesser extent between stand partners during moment such as page turns. Of course, shared looks and smiles are common in chamber music. 

Some musicians look fierce, or even blank when performing in orchestra while others seem to be having a merry old time on stage. I actually think that the variety of countenances makes for a more interesting visual spectacle. 

One of the many small qualities that separates amateurs from pros is the ability to cover graciously when there is some kind of error or problem during the performance. In other words, when something goes wrong, sort of say an assassination or fire in the hall, the performer should never allow his face to reflect that circumstance. 

As for the point others made about a soloist smiling and connecting with the audience both before and after the performance, I concur completely. 

From Rick Savadow
Posted via on November 16, 2008 at 2:39 PM

As an amateur player, but avid concert goer, I don't get this. I don't expect the musicians to be smiling any more than I would expect myself to be smiling when I'm concentrating on a project at my desk at work. If something amuses me, I do smile, but that's up to me. At the end of a concert, when the orchestra stands, I appreciate a smile and eye contact with the audience. But after a long concert, if the musicians look tired, I understand. The eye contact is still appreciated though. I think a general awareness that you are playing for an audience is more important. That has to do with being connected--reaching out in a more important way to your audience.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted via on November 16, 2008 at 3:26 PM

Rick, you are right!

What I think many get confuse is that if you are concentrated and have what I call a neutral face (not angry, not stressed, not happy, not anything!) a little bit like some of the older players, it doesn't mean that you are stressed or mad.  If you do funny faces and make an odd look when you make a mistake, then you will look stessed or angry. But beeing concentrate and neutral, if you smile much after to show your gratitude to people is great!  I am North American but find that this culture of always smiling all the time is great for those for who it is a natural bihaviour but many North American kids feel obligated to do this behaviour while playing and it can somehow look artificial or superficial.  I can see a difference between a real smile and a smile because you are forced to do it!  As, I repeat, after the concert, it is a must!


From Nicole Stacy
Posted via on November 16, 2008 at 4:23 PM

Smiling during Tchaikovsky's 6th is perhaps inappropriate; in general, though, do we have to take ourselves so seriously all the time?  I hate attending a performance and feeling that to the musicians, it's just another job.  Especially when the music itself is of excellent quality.  I don't particularly care if it's the 500th time you have played it, because it may be the first and only impression I have of you.  To paraphrase one of my favorite conductors, if you aren't enjoying this, why are you here?  There's the door...

Is it really asking so much that you occasionally show us why you got into this profession?  Surely it wasn't for the money, right?  

And please acknowledge the audience; we look like idiots when we stand around staring awkwardly at each other during the applause. 

From Roland Garrison
Posted via on November 16, 2008 at 6:31 PM

I would like to extend this a bit. I think the musicians should give indications they are enjoying the music; a smile is not the only way to do so. I am in the group that agrees that smiling during some serious pieces may be contrary to the message of the music. Also, some musicians focus without concern to their expression, and an intense focus is seldom presented as a smile.

When not playing, between pieces, etc. I think the musician should consider the image they are projecting. This can affect the perception of the audience as much as how the musicians looks while playing. Someone sitting there with a bored look on their face, and a smile when they actually take bow in hand will NOT create a favorable impression. Also, I do not think it should be like a beauty pageant, where everyone has a smile pasted across their face for the entire time they are in front of the pubic.

Since I do not play in public, only for myself and my grandkids, I cannot say I do this; I smile and even laugh when I play. However, as an audience member, I feel more of a connection to the artists who show personality (in a good way), and reality.

From David Wilson
Posted via on November 16, 2008 at 6:42 PM

In regard to smiling during performance:

I have found that as a violinist, it's holding the darn thing under my chin that makes it difficult to smile. When I play guitar, piano or accordion it's much, much easiler to put on a happy face. Really!

From Stephen Brivati
Posted via on November 16, 2008 at 10:55 PM


I strongly advocate smiling like crazy prior to a performance.  Its an aexample of the mistaken use of the have/do /be  we so often make.  That is,   tyoically we go throgh life thinking `if I had more money ,  I could go to Majorca,  and then I would be happy.`    By changing ones perpsective to `I am happy,@  what you desire to happen typically follows. And if ut doesn`t you still have more fun.

In performanc eterms instead of thinking if I had better nerves I could play without termbles or whatever and thwen I would enjoy performingone starts out with the belief that one is enjoying onself and lo....



From Rosalind Porter
Posted via on November 16, 2008 at 11:41 PM

Slightly related to this - one of the things which ALWAYS annoys me when I encounter it at a concert is when there is a tutti at the start of a concerto and the soloist, rather than looking "involved" in the music right from the beginning of the performance, simply stands there with a bored look on his/her face.  It is something which really transmits to people watching/listening, so DON'T DO IT!!

From Hannah Frey
Posted via on November 17, 2008 at 7:23 AM

I voted no, because I don't think musicians should smile or anything during the performance--they should do whatever is natural to them to make the best music possible.  However, it is nice to smile for the audience during the applause--I always like to do this, just to make them feel like you appreciate it.

From Don Sullivan
Posted via on November 17, 2008 at 8:30 AM

I do realize that musicians are focused on concentrating.  Not every piece is written with sanguine intent.  Certainly, I would not like every piece to be turned into a toothpaste commercial but I believe you are right, that a subtle connection with your audience is important.  I do not have the benefit of being a professional musician, but I have attended concerts where the perfomers truly enjoyed their work.  Itzhak Perlman for one, truly concentrates but also does not hide his pleasure throughout his performance.  Yo Yo Ma also smiles when he plays.  Again, some pieces are meant to be more somber than others and may not require such display.  But a subtle connection with us in the stands when appropriate is quite welcome.

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