Chamber Music and Body Language

Edited: October 29, 2017, 12:26 AM · I have to admit that I move when I play, especially during chamber music playing. I can't help it and it just brings music out of me more. It seems to be supported by research. As Noa Kageyama has shown us in his “Why Being a Great Ensemble Player May Require More than Just Our Ears”, to play chamber music well we need to both listen to each other and watch each other. Comments?

Replies (21)

October 29, 2017, 7:25 AM · Just 2 days ago I gave a lesson on Sibelius concerto to a student preparing for grad school auditions. She was getting tied up both musically and technically in her quest for perfection. I had noticed that when she was playing in a string quartet (2nd violin) she showed excellent leadership ability. So, I suggested that she lead herself as she played through the concerto. Bingo! All the sudden she was playing expressively and much more accurately. The difference was quite amazing.
October 29, 2017, 7:50 AM · I'm no expert but I've seen and read debates about moving when playing. I think just as long as it does not become distracting then it's fine. I would think some amount of movement is necessary in chamber or when you are a principal player.
October 29, 2017, 8:07 AM · This is something I have thought about a lot, and I have always wondered if anyone had studied it extensively. I wonder if the movement and eye contact serve the same purposes as they do in non-musical socializing.
I know that it's been shown that body language makes up more of the bulk of our communication than speaking does, so maybe we get the same cues from them in music. But what is interesting is how musicians usually have to be trained rather explicitly to tune into body language and eye contact while playing chamber music, whereas most of these same musicians learn the way these are used outside of music with little to no explicit instruction.

Edited: October 29, 2017, 9:31 AM · A player's movement can express the music, or it can be an ill-applied release of tension.
In my experience attending chamber performances, if only one player is physically active, it can be more distracting than if there is cohesive or harmonious movemment within the group. Overall, I admit do find weaving and swaying, let alone bouncing, to detract from the music. Of course, I can always close my eyes...
As a performer, when the group is in synch with itself, then the movement tends to come naturally together.
But there should be inner discipline in one's movement, as in every other facet of, I always worry a bit about anything I 'can' t help' doing, because I wonder why not.
October 29, 2017, 10:15 AM · Why not? I can't help being moved by the music. To be totally still is not natural. I am an amateur player and playing chamber music is largely for players' own enjoyment, as Lydia rightly pointed out in the other thread. Distraction to audience if occurs in rare occasions is easily outweighed by the joy of freeing myself into the music making and communication within the chamber group.
October 29, 2017, 11:07 AM · In a lesson with Ivan Galamian he said, "99% of the audience look, only 1% listen."
October 29, 2017, 11:12 AM · I can find performer motion can be highly distracting and it may be one reason I usually keep my eyes closed when attending concerts unless I actually want to observe some technical details.

I almost laugh when watching some of the YouTube performances of standing chamber orchestras where each player is swaying to a different part of the beat. It's like trying to catch the beat when playing in an amateur chamber ensemble by watching a foot tapper. Each person seems to feel the beat with their foot at a different height from the floor - where is the beat?

The administrative leader (and founder - a horn player) of our conductor-less chamber orchestra has told the strings it might help if we would move like some of those YouTube ensembles. I think it sufficient to watch the few head nods form our concertmaster and her right arm.

Heifetz seemed to get his message out to us without having to dance too!

On the other hand - if it is natural to you to swing and sway when you play - go for it!

Edited: October 29, 2017, 12:07 PM · So the studies that Noa Kageyama's article referred to have shown:

1) There's a difference in reaction time and we can react more quickly when we’re actually looking at where the sound comes from.
2) Musicians’ body movements both facilitate better ensemble playing as well as a byproduct of good ensemble playing.

I'm not sure if it's the change of culture or playing or both, like it or not, it's pretty hard to find top (young or youngish) chamber ensembles don't move when they play. Could it be just be a matter of necessity?




October 29, 2017, 2:53 PM · I belong to both a string quartet and piano trio, and I'm renowned for moving my body to the music. (maybe a bit too much!) Sure, it does help with leadership and creating that special "ensemble sound", but I think if you move around excessively, it is detrimental as the audience is drawn to body movements rather than the actual music. (What I need to learn ahahaha)
October 29, 2017, 3:28 PM · I think you should try to match whatever your ensemble is doing to some extent.

Soloists are another matter. I've seen and heard pros who move a lot and some who doesn't at all. Both are equally valid. Again just as long as it is not distracting.

Interesting study. Maybe related maybe not - but imo when I see professional symphonies who at the end get up and bow but do not smile I tend to wonder if they are enjoying it and whether they like what they are doing. Tend to make it less enjoyable to me personally.

Edited: October 29, 2017, 4:25 PM · My daughter and I have had some pro coaching at summer camps with string quartets (no, we don't play in the same quartet) and invariably the coaches are trying to get the students to move more, mostly to lead one another for entrances, dynamics, and the like. Affectation, however, is not helpful. But when you have a violinist as wild and crazy as Geoff Nuttall, I guess anything is possible. I have seen SLSQ in performance and they're incredible. I don't recall Nuttall coming completely out of his seat but I think both his feet do come off the floor with some regularity.

For solo playing, I understand what Bruce is saying, his student just needed to come out of her shell. And he's right that people are there to watch you. Very few will close their eyes unless they're sleeping. On the other hand look at Leonid Kogan. He's not dancing all over the stage.

October 29, 2017, 4:36 PM · There is only so much that can be communicated with the eyes when reading a page and interacting with several musicians in different locations. Additionally, a down beat is often not enough to communicate the rest of time, dynamic change, articulation, etc that often comes between the beats. Not to move in order to synchronize a group is to ignore this type of subject matter that must be communicated.
That said, movement that ignores or distracts the group or the audience is counter productive.
I’’m not a fan of dancing and am still a little embarrassed by my teen Bernstein antics when I subbed as conductor for a show in high school. I still find it more amusing than useful when conductors and musicians do that today. -distracting
Edited: October 29, 2017, 4:45 PM · "On the other hand look at Leonid Kogan. He's not dancing all over the stage."

Er, Paul, do you really buy this kind of arguments? Kogan or the other greats could do anything while playing beautifully, moving about or not, standing or lying down... But we are talking mortals here ;)

Edited: October 29, 2017, 4:56 PM · On the other hand, Lindsay Stirling (sp?) is kind of cute jumping around in those YouTube videos and she sure is selling a lot of books to kids. That said, I hope that nobody’s seeing any of those kids doing that sort of thing in recitals.;-)
Then again, that’s solo, not chamber, and not classical at that, although I bet she would do one mean version of Carnival of the Animals for the kids.
Edited: October 29, 2017, 5:19 PM · Sometimes I think we tend to miss the point when we see players doing things that we are taught not to do (don't move, don't hold the violin too high or too low, don't hold the bow this way or that way, don't play with straight pinky...) and start to think something is wrong with what they are doing. Yet, we keep seeing top soloists/chamber musicians who have broken all the rules still sound great. What can we say about that? Yes, we should follow all the good rules, but considering each individual is different, we should also be okay to let people just work with their own unique physiology and music instinct. For me, whatever works as long as we can play well.
Edited: October 29, 2017, 5:28 PM · If movement is organic, fine. You just have to wonder, sometimes, how much of it is pure affectation. Geoff Nuttall is a brilliant violinist. He can easily play Haydn Op. 20 without all the histrionics. On the other hand, when he played here in Blacksburg, you heard people talking afterward how wonderful they played and how exciting it was and -- this is for real -- how it wasn't boring like classical music usually is.

About "breaking the rules" I'll tell you what ... when I saw Arnold Steinhardt here in Blacksburg he was totally slumped in his chair and yet he sounded fantastic. I guess the Mendelssohn E-flat Octet is child's play for him.

Edited: October 29, 2017, 6:19 PM · Sort of like Pinchas’s relaxed almost bored looking affect or Heifetz’s ‘cold’ stance as they play some of the most emotionally effective music we’ve heard.
Ditto on individuals who are brilliant can do whatever works for them - Nadia SS.
For the rest of us mortals, we have to objectively reflect on what makes us play better.
back to the original question- whatever movement makes the group perform better is what you should do.
Edited: November 3, 2017, 8:46 AM · If you only react to what you hear, you will be late! Pre-listening usually has to be accompanied by pre-motion
November 3, 2017, 9:46 AM · Adrian, this is true. I have always found it frustrating when conductors ask you to follow behind your section leader. In the better groups, it doesn't work like that. Everyone is one big organism.
November 3, 2017, 12:14 PM · Body movement during playing is as natural as breathing, and chamber players get visual cues from one another, which is an essential part of intimate, multi-way communication. As long as it is not excessive enough to be distracting to players or audience, I don't see any problem at all.
November 4, 2017, 8:57 PM · Regarding movement, I tell my students, "I'm okay with it as long as you don't make your bow play tag with your instrument." :)

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