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Here Comes Treble: Where To Look

Describing the stage presence of various musicians Isabel Bradley concludes "It takes a master performer with supreme self-confidence to perform comfortably while gazing into the eyes of an audience.''

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Dad always said that he admired pianists who had the music on the stand in front of them, because, “that way I know they can read music”. He was derogatory about pianists who needed page-turners, saying acidly, “What do they want an apprentice for? Can’t they do it themselves?”

However, Dad wasn’t a pianist…

At public performances, pianists usually perform without sheet music. It’s too complicated to keep an eye on their hands and to read the notes at the same time, never mind turning pages as often as they need to, sometimes at incredibly inconvenient moments. At a grand piano they may look over the keyboard, beyond the music-stand and see the golden strings inside the instrument vibrating as they play. It is seldom that they will look up to meet the eyes of a member of the audience, unless they’re performing in an informal setting where seats are arranged in a semi-circle around the piano.

Recently we attended a piano recital in which the soloist was a twelve-year-old. He played for an hour without any sheet music to help him. The youngster had already reached that stage of learning, ‘conscious competence’ (see Here Comes Treble: From Unconscious Incompetence): he knew what he had to do, how to do it, and when he concentrated, everything worked. His technique was fluid, nuances were wonderful and his eyes sparkled as they darted between his left and right hands. Occasionally, though, as the performance grew longer, he repeatedly shook his left hand as if it was cramping and had a couple of memory lapses. At those times, he stopped, breathed deeply, mentally turned back the pages, returned to the part he remembered, then off he would rattle again at full speed. It was a phenomenal performance. One day, when he can forget about his cramping fingers and find the music in his soul, rather than ‘reading’ his memory, maybe he’ll be a great pianist.

Years ago, I was privileged to attend two performances given by Sir James Galway in South Africa. He was starting out on his solo career, and had not yet been knighted. His first recital was at the old SABC Studios in Commissioner Street, Johannesburg. Before the performance, he mingled with the audience in the foyer. His dark, curly hair and beard were fashionably long and his bright eyes danced around the milling crowd, taking in everyone. Among the items he played that night was the Poulenc sonata. What a glorious recital it was, my eyes didn’t move off the great flautist once, I was enthralled.

About a week later, he performed a lighter programme for an audience of over a thousand people in the packed Great Hall at the University of the Witwatersrand. My seat was towards the rear and off to the left. A friend lent me her heavy field binoculars for the occasion, and they remained glued to my eyes for the entire programme. Not once did the great man read a note. As he played, he strolled around the great expanse of the stage. His eyes darted around the audience, seeming to meet the gaze of everyone there, including my binoculars, at least once during the evening. What charisma and charm he had, what a marvellous stage personality.

In contrast, a short while ago, Leon and I attended a concert in which the soloist was also a flautist, accompanied by guitar and African drums. This man also did not use any sheet music, but that is where the similarity ended. His stance was rigid, his gaze, when he deigned to look at the audience, was wooden and disinterested. Much of the time, his eyes were closed, his face entirely without expression. Each time I began to think he had talent, he made horrid ‘spitting’ sounds with the instrument, turned a bright run into a fuzzy mush of tangled breathiness, or sang into the flute while playing, silver sounds turning to rust. I suspect that though these astonishing sounds were supposedly ground-breaking techniques, they disguised a lack of talent and musicality.

I’ve watched violinists who close their eyes in bliss at the glorious music they’re making, others who focus fiercely on their fingers rather than raise their eyes to meet those of their audience. Few players of wood-wind instruments perform without sheet music. They prefer to have the music in front of them while putting their full concentration on the many nuances of sound, volume, rhythm, speed and timbre to offer their audience a perfect peformance.

It takes a master performer with supreme self-confidence to perform comfortably while gazing into the eyes of an audience.

Until next time, ‘here comes Treble!’

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