Doing weird things when you play

January 30, 2020, 10:55 AM · My son has been criticized by judges twice over the years for "looking at the judges" while playing. He doesn't actually look at them, but he sometimes stares off into space when he plays, and if he happens to turn his head, it appears like he is looking at them. I've seen him do it in practice and it is definitely weird, distracting, and disconcerting, especially because he is kind of glassy-eyed.

We've worked on just looking at the violin or a spot on the wall or even closing his eyes, but when he gets in the moment, it's the last thing he is thinking about.

Any ideas on how to help him with this?

Replies (36)

January 30, 2020, 12:27 PM · Yes, where you look definitely plays a part in how the performance is perceived. I suggest looking downwards, either at the floor or contact point, or at the left hand, or just closing the eyes. Looking up at the ceiling gives the effect that one is trying to remember something. Think about how people often react when asked to recall something. They look up and to the side, which looks like what they are recalling may require some effort, as if they might be unsure. Looking directly at the judges smacks of arrogance, or an attempt at intimidation, as any sustained stare might.

Why not video him looking in different places and see what he thinks? It may give him a new perspective.

Edited: January 30, 2020, 12:43 PM · Performing violinists typically position their bodies so their vision includes their accompanist or conductor AND points the right f-hole somewhat toward listeners (sounds better too). Playing this way makes it hard to look at any audience members but those toward the performers left.

Don't competitors do the same thing?

I have not attended any "real" concerts in recent years, but I vividly recall a recital by Sarah Chang, her long skirt and the way she would kick her right foot and how it and the skirt flicked back and toward MY left.

January 30, 2020, 12:56 PM · If he's going to look at the judges / audience / etc., he should actually make eye contact -- hold eye contact for at least several seconds -- and smile. Otherwise, don't look there. In a decent-sized hall, picking people in the middle of the audience is usually best. In a recital room, a couple rows back, towards the performer's left, is most natural. Letting a gaze drift throughout the audience, without focusing on anyone in particular, is not a good idea.

January 30, 2020, 1:12 PM · Benjamin Zander is always trying to get the violinists to look at audience members rather than staring at their fingers or contact point in his interpretation classes (on YouTube). I don't know that it would be useful for your son to watch some of those videos for ideas about what he could do with his gaze during performance. I worry it would throw me off to look at audience members in the eyes.
January 30, 2020, 2:38 PM · @Andrew -- usually, yes, his gaze is angled in such a way that he does not look at the audience, but he sometimes moves a lot and then ends up facing slightly angled or moving his head at an angle.

The video idea is great -- it is just a matter of catching it. He does't do it all the time.

I guess I will just encourage him to keep working on looking at his violin!

Edited: January 30, 2020, 3:11 PM · I think different people may have different tastes in what they want out of a performer, but it's probably not a bad idea for a performer to be thoughtful about their presentation to some extent. If I go to a performance and someone is doing something I find obnoxious, I close my eyes and listen to the music, and if someone is doing something I don't find obnoxious, I often close my eyes and listen to the music. If I'm actively watching a performer as an audience member, I'm usually watching their contact point and use of bow and their left hand for vibrato.

But then some people like someone dancing on stage, and other people hate it, and some people like someone standing stock-still and others find that cold.

Anyway, I suggest that your son make eye contact with people in the audience until they turn their heads - That means that they are filled with the human warmth they hope to suck out of the performer, and that he can then move on to the next person, until, reverse-Green-Mile style, he has done his messianic duty to fill the hollow spiritual insides of the audience, one Jesus-like stare at a time.

January 30, 2020, 3:38 PM · Build an audience "wall" (or other constructs) with stuffed animals or the like -- anything vaguely anthropomorphic with eyes. Put them at a proper distance for an audience -- across the room, properly. Practice making eye contact with the stuffies.
January 30, 2020, 4:19 PM · Susan,

You did not mention your son's age. I think that is important. In addition what are his goals/aspirations about the violin?

Chances are that he is expected to play from memory and that often results in a blank stare because the focus is internal, not external.

If he wants to be an on-stage soloist work on his "stage presence" is essential. If he doesn't want that try finding auditions where the judges are behind a screen and they are judging how he plays, not how he looks.

I spent my violin performing time deep in the second violins and in the back of the church behind the congregation with the choir.

FWIW: I was a professional public speaker but that wasn't about performing on the violin - I never wanted center stage with the violin as I had enough center stage in my day-job.

January 30, 2020, 5:44 PM · George, Susan has posted about her son (currently 13, I think) in the past. He's a very advanced pre-professional student, doing significant regional competitions and performing fairly frequently. She's posted a very nice video in the past and her son's website.

I imagine that most of the competitions he's playing in have fairly decent judges and if multiple judges are noting issues with where he's looking, those issues are actually real. His teacher should have good suggestions. (My tips above are drawn from public speaking, but should apply to a performance art for the same reasons they work for public speakers.)

Absent looking at the audience, the Milstein intense focus on one's bow contact point and left hand is perfectly fine.

Edited: January 30, 2020, 7:32 PM · I often see young players looking like they are on auto-pilot. Their attention seemingly totally elsewhere, looking up and around while their hands operate independently of their mind. I suppose some judges might be looking for some degree of concentration (and what they perceive should look like) and thinking "he/she should be focusing on his/her playing rather than us".
January 30, 2020, 7:54 PM · I do a similar thing. My eyes are open but sometimes I look really blank. Oddly, I noticed while watching my practice videos that I go blank at particular points in the music. What helped me is while I'm learning a piece, I take a video, watch where I do this, and note it in my music. It breaks the habit while learning. Hope that can help your son.
January 30, 2020, 8:43 PM · Your son must be an amazing player if the judges have to resort to eye contact to find criticism. I wonder how they feel about Hilary Hahn’s robotic like moves, Menuhin’s terrifying micro expressions, Eugene Fodor using his finger to wipe rosin off his string in the middle of a concerto, etc?? sure, it would be nice to not have such tendencies and we should try to correct some of them, but we are all human and after all it is about the music. Would it be better if he danced around the stage like Lindsey Sterling?
Edited: January 30, 2020, 10:34 PM · How come when Ray Chen winks at the judges or mugs for the cameras, he wins first place? Watch his Queen Elizabeth tape if you don't believe me.

Following up on Roger's comment, I have also seen young players who seem like they're half-there. Afterward I find myself asking, "Wow ... I wonder how good this kid would be if (s)he actually tried?"

January 30, 2020, 11:43 PM · I do not think it is a good idea for a violinist in competition or performance to make eye contact with judges, or with audience members. It's weird. Public speaking is not a good parallel in this case.

I usually look at my contact point although not consciously.

January 31, 2020, 3:17 AM · Yeah, closing my eyes is my go-to move so I don't do anything weird. I also find it just helps me play better in general.
Edited: January 31, 2020, 7:17 AM · I wish they would turn all the lights off and listen! Makes you hearken back to the days of vinyl when you had no idea if the performer had any clothes on, let alone whether their gaze was correct. These 'judges' should get a life!!

But that does not help you much. Perhaps the only important thing is that your son looks like he is into his playing, that he is 'engaged'. As mentioned above, you can not satisfy the entire audience, judges or not, because each person will have a different idea of what 'engagement' means. What you don't want to do is to give off an aura of 'disengament'. Is it possible that that really IS the problem? That your son plays technically superbly but is not connecting to his inner emotions or expression? That is the only thing I would be concerned about.

January 31, 2020, 4:29 AM · I wish I could stop my mouth working from side to side, roughly in proportion to how far out of tune I think I am! Even when I concentrate hard I can't stop it completely. Rock guitarists on the other hand seem to be particularly prone to gaping.
Edited: January 31, 2020, 7:07 AM · On British TV there is a music talent competition (I don't recollect the name) in which I understand the judges are seated on swivel chairs facing away from the performer(s) before and during their act, and do not see them until they have finished. Simple solution.

[edit added same date] You can see how this works from a similar show on French TV. The singers in this YT clip are Russian Orthodox seminarians training in Paris. The judges themselves are pop singers and were obviously wowed by the Orthodox chant, but apparently the seminarians didn't get anywhere in the vote.

January 31, 2020, 9:14 AM · This is another situation where one can watch people who are really good..and do what they do.
Just pick your favorite well-known violinist: are they looking around the audience?
January 31, 2020, 9:52 AM · My son is 14 and actually has really good stage presence for the most part...he is a very engaging performer. In fact, for the past 4 years we have worked to get him to settle down a bit, because he has a tendency to do things like stomp or jump or move so much that he has trouble keeping his bow where it should be. This particular thing he does with his eyes is definitely not a lack of concentration or engagement with the music; it is just more an inner concentration. Nonetheless, it is definitely weird. Shutting his eyes works fine, or looking at his contact point or the floor. I think it is mostly a matter of getting him to recognize when he is doing it.
Edited: January 31, 2020, 10:10 AM · If he wants to look at a person, then look at the pianist, conductor, or other musician who's onstage with him. These are the people he should be interacting with directly during a performance.

It's creepy to make eye contact with an audience member (smiling or not), unless it's his grandmother or he's playing in a boy band.

January 31, 2020, 10:25 AM · If you watch a non-classical musician, you'll see them make eye contact with the audience. (You'll see some classical players gazing into the audience as well, especially soloists during orchestral tuttis and whatnot, but most string players have a much stronger propensity to look at their bow. Watch a video of James Galway -- he often plays eyes closed, but when he looks into the audience from time to time.)

Note that eye contact at a distance is somewhat abstract. The reason that you aim for "eye contact" (or perhaps I should phrase it "targeting your look at a specific person") is not a notion of interaction; the person you're targeting almost certainly won't feel the gaze. Rather, it focuses your gaze in a way that an abstract gazing off into the audience doesn't do, and humans can perceive the difference. The unfocused gaze disturbs people.

If you ever do a television interview or the like (or film a webinar or similar talking-to-the-audience video), they will usually have a puppet that is where you are aiming your gaze, specifically to avoid this unfocused effect.

Physical presence is part of performance. If it wasn't, we'd all just stay home and listen to our pristine audio recordings. Any judge should also be watching how a player physically executes their playing -- many skilled players can guess what someone is doing physically simply by hearing them, but the visual confirmation is valuable. (On the flip side, many skilled players can judge how something sounds simply by watching it visually -- you can test yourself by finding a nice high-resolution YouTube video of a student-level player and first watching with the sound turned off, then with the sound turned on.)

January 31, 2020, 2:58 PM · Orchestral players gazing into the audience during rests or tacet movements is also generally not done. It, too, comes across as weird to most people, at least that I know.
January 31, 2020, 3:25 PM · I look down, at the void. If I look at my fingers it will confuse me and I will start making mistakes. I've always been like this.
January 31, 2020, 3:31 PM · It seems like being able to look somewhere appropriate (aka, not at the judges) while performing will come in the same way all other aspects of playing are achieved: through practicing it specifically thousands of times before a successful performance of these elements actually happens. In this case, what I would do if I were in his shoes is practice performing in front of willing audiences (like your family members), and EACH time he looks somewhere other than the ideal, someone should stop him and he should start from the beginning. Annoying, I'm sure. But you have to first realize WHEN you're doing something, which the "STOP!" will achieve, and then eventually do it enough times properly that it has a chance of happening in a high-stakes performance situation.
January 31, 2020, 3:41 PM · As far as I know, only kids in youth symphonies look out into the audience. :-)
Edited: February 1, 2020, 10:35 AM · The only times I look at the audience when playing in orchestral concerts are when we come on stage at the start (checking how many of the audience have actually turned up!), and when we stand up to acknowledge applause.

At other times it can physically be impracticable were I to wish to look at the audience (I generally don't so wish) because (a) the orchestra has the lighting and the audience is in relative darkness - and is therefore "delighted" :), and (b) when playing seated there may be things in the way, such as music stands and other players, depending on my location in that particular venue, all of which can obstruct a possible view of the audience. Anyway, my time is fully occupied in either playing the violin, or keeping an eye on the conductor and section leader for cues or other information.

Edited: January 31, 2020, 7:53 PM · If your son is imitating performers, I suggest you keep him from watching too much of Ray Chen, Nigel Kennedy, or Chuanyun Li (geniuses they all may well be).
Edited: February 2, 2020, 2:51 PM · Wow, what a discussion !!!

I would add only this. Whatever you do, keep your main focus on the music, not on your non-verbal acting ability. If it turns out that you appear to be "making faces" (or whatever), that's a better problem to resolve than not focusing on the music you are creating in the moment you are creating it.


PS: Why is it that the American Dental Association doesn't have a drill team?

PPS: If the police arrest a mime, do they tell him he has the right to remain silent?

February 2, 2020, 5:42 PM · Susan, at least your son isn't grunting like Pablo Casals! ;-)

February 2, 2020, 6:06 PM · Or Keith Jarrett.
February 2, 2020, 6:23 PM · Yep! You can hear the famous Casals grunt on just about every studio recording he made. I suppose the grunt could be digitally removed using today's technology, but then you'd no longer be hearing the authentic Casals.

Segovia had the occasional problem, too. He was making a recording in the Alhambra Palace in Spain, a very prestigious location, the recording session being held in the early hours of the morning when there wouldn't be any tourists around or extraneous noises. However, there was an extraneous noise, an intermittent buzzing on every take, but only when Segovia was playing. This understandably was driving the sound engineers nuts, but after an hour of abortive takes the buzzing was tracked down - a button on Segovia's woollen cardigan was vibrating against the back of his guitar. Source for this story: my guitar teacher, who knew Segovia.

Sandy, how would the second sentence of the Miranda Warning* by a police office apply to a mime artist? Would the court interpret mime as speech? This would be a great field day for counsel!

*The second sentence in Miranda is, "Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law."

February 2, 2020, 8:11 PM · No, he doesn't grunt! But he does have allergies and sometimes you can hear him sniffing in videos. It's always something!
February 3, 2020, 3:10 AM · The single best thing I ever did to improve my playing was closing my eyes.
I had a major obsession with looking at my left hand for intonation security and my teachers told me to change this for years but I never listened. One day I realized I was plateauing, and I decided to make a conscious effort to close my eyes even if I played more out of tune in the short term as a result. Now I am able to be less tense when I play, and my head is more centralized and forward facing.

Would anyone here say that a blind violinist is incapable of playing as well as a sighted violinist of the same training? If not, then I would definitely recommend giving it a try! I have sticky notes all around my flat now with the words 'you look, you lose'.

Edited: February 3, 2020, 9:07 AM · For a blind person, or one with their eyes closed, sight-reading might be problematic. ;-)
Edited: February 3, 2020, 7:39 AM · I think I've told this anecdote here before, but anyway, about grunting: at one of the earlier editions of the Queen Elisabeth violin competition, during a first-round session, the candidate on the stage was playing solo Bach and there was clearly someone in the audience who had fallen asleep and was loudly snoring. Or so we thought. Half the audience was puzzled and looking around to locate the culprit. Until we finally realized that it was the violinist on stage who was making the noise himself! Somehow he didn't make it to the semi finals :-)

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