Doing weird things when you play
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
@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.
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.
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.
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 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".
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!!
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.
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.
This is another situation where one can watch people who are really good..and do what they do.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
As far as I know, only kids in youth symphonies look out into the audience. :-)
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.
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).
Wow, what a discussion !!!
Susan, at least your son isn't grunting like Pablo Casals! ;-)
Or Keith Jarrett.
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.
No, he doesn't grunt! But he does have allergies and sometimes you can hear him sniffing in videos. It's always something!
The single best thing I ever did to improve my playing was closing my eyes.
For a blind person, or one with their eyes closed, sight-reading might be problematic. ;-)
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 :-)