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Grins and Grimaces: Putting on Your Concert Face

The close-up of the soloist reveals the look of intense concentration on her face. The performer’s total commitment to the music is visible in her closed eyes and slightly furrowed brow. There is strength and beauty in her expression.

A quick ramble through YouTube videos will reveal a wide variety of “concert faces.” Some of the most remarkable will be found in videos of live performances filmed by audience members.

What is an appropriate expression for when you’re playing? Do you smile or frown? Ignore the audience or acknowledge them? Grimace or grin when you’ve made a mistake?

The easy answer would be that it depends on the situation. While that’s true enough, it isn’t really helpful for a musician who is self-conscious about his or her own facial expression.

Don’t Make a Face!

Of course, we all know what we aren’t supposed to show on our faces; we aren’t supposed to react to our mistakes. Gliding over the missed notes preserves the continuity of the music for a listener. We performers are much more apt to notice the error than a listener, and if we don’t draw their attention to it, either by stopping or by making a face, we won’t mar their experience of the music.

It is important to recognize that not reacting to a mistake is not about trying to fool anyone. It’s about serving the music and the listener. When a performer grimaces at a mistake, it is the listener who loses. The abrupt facial change takes listeners out of the mood that the music has created for them and reminds them that they are hearing notes played by a normal person. The magic of the music is gone.

This is skill is developed when we practice performing our music. Playing through a piece without stopping or correcting mistakes is a crucial part of performance preparation. It’s the perfect time to practice your “concert face.”

Your Face is a Musical Accessory

Once we understand how the wrong facial expression can detract from the impact of our performance, it’s just one more step to realize that the right expression can support your performance.

Are you playing a wedding march? Be careful not to frown, glower or grimace. Trust me, the mother of the bride will notice.

Are you playing a mournful elegy? If you smile, your face will be conveying a conflicting message. You don’t need to hold a sad expression on your face; just being in the mood that you want your listeners to experience will keep your expression appropriate.

The Neutral Face

I suggest that you practice playing with a neutral facial expression. By this I mean one that is neither smiling nor tense, not serious or smiling. Think about the way your face feels when you are relaxed and calm; that’s the way you want your “concert face” to look.

Consider the benefits to you of having a relaxed facial expression. It will help the energy flow rather than being a place where you hold tension. Experiment and see if you hold tension in your forehead or jaw when you play or practice. These are two common sources of tension and they can actually make playing more difficult.

When you practice your scales or exercises, be sure to check your face for tension. Can you wiggle your jaw to be certain that you’re not clenching it? Is your forehead relaxed? Are you squinting? Make this relaxation check a regular component of your practice.

When you have mastered the neutral face, you will discover that it even helps create a feeling of calm within you. Your audience will feel that sense of calm too, even if you are actually nervous inside. Keep in mind that working harder won’t make the music better. Relax and let the music flow. And when you’re finished, be sure to smile and take a bow!

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