Looking good can make you play worse…

Lola Astanova

Lola Astanova

Bryan Townsend, in a post about Uzbek pianist Lola Astanova, made some comments about a review of the pianist by Zachary Woolfe in the NYT.  I’m going to quote an extended excerpt of the piece as it relates to some interesting studies about how visual stimuli can affect how we hear things (ironically, the studies came to light after Yuja Wang’s recent ‘scandalous’ attire at a concert from last year).

Though Ms. Astanova has secure technique, the most memorable part of her recital was her physical performance. She likes to throw back her arms at the end of sections, as if she were doing an arduous pectoral workout, and she finishes most pieces in one of two ways: with her hands cupping her face or her upper body tossed back, ecstatic and spent. As she finished Chopin’s “Ocean” Étude (Op. 25, No. 12) on Thursday, she gasped loudly.

Many pianists have succeeded with an arsenal of broad gestures, though Ms. Astanova’s are more exaggerated than most. She seems to be trying to evoke the grandiose, generous spirit of 19th-century pianism, with its heart-on-sleeve emotionalism and aching soulfulness, its valorization of feeling over cool precision.

Ms. Astanova does indeed love to make a big sound, even at the expense of some murkiness of tone. But her taste for drama and her extreme physical abandon end up emphasizing that there isn’t a great deal of emotion in her playing.

I had commented on Bryan’s post as I recalled having a discussion at Eric Edberg’s blog that sounded eerily similar if only because I was quoting specific sections about studies done on listening and the kinds of biases that happen when visual stimuli begins to interfere with aural stimuli.

Given the criticisms by Woolfe above, here is a section I quoted about a study regarding “appropriate dress”:

Yuja Wang playing with the LA Phil in her 'scandalous' dress

Yuja Wang playing with the LA Phil in her ‘scandalous’ dress

In a recent article in Psychology of Music published in April 2010 ( http://pom.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/38/2/159 ) Noola Griffiths found that female performers were judged to be most appropriately dressed when wearing traditional concert ‘dress’, and least appropriately dressed when wearing a nightclubbing dress, particularly when playing classical music. Jeans and a top was more appropriately rated when playing jazz or folk. However, Griffiths also found that the performances were rated as less musical when the performers were wearing inappropriate dress. Griffiths concludes that “performers that excel musically may find their physical nature devalued” (p. 174) and “women wishing to project a body-focused image should note that this may have a detrimental effect on perceptions of their musical ability”

And even more remarkable was this study that was conducted with both sets of performers “play-syncing” to the exact same recording–with significantly differing evaluations of the skill level of the performer depending on how much ‘emotive’ movement was involved:

The participants viewed videos featuring four student musicians at the keyboard. Specifically, they watched two renditions of Chopin’s Waltz in A-Flat Major, and two performances of a capriccio by Brahms.

Unbeknownst to them, the soundtracks for the videos were recorded by the same pianist. He was seen in one of the four videos; for the other three, the on-screen performer was actually a body double.

For both the Chopin and Brahms works, one of the “performers” was male, the other female. After watching both renditions, participants rated what they heard using five-point scales to judge the players on such elements as confidence, precision, drama, virtuosity and expressivity.

Despite the fact the soundtracks were identical, “Nearly all participants identified differences between the pairs of video recordings,” the researchers report. Duplicating the results of the 1990 study, the “performances” by the male pianists were perceived as more precise, while the female pianist’s “performance” of Chopin was judged as more dramatic.

How could people with finely honed listening skills be fooled into thinking they were hearing different interpretations?


Obviously, looking good doesn’t make you play worse.  But it can give the impression that you might not be playing as well as someone less concerned with looking good.  And if you’re attempting to secure gigs, this might be something to take into account since in the end, it’s the audience that decides what to value rather than the performer.

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