Looking good can make you play worse…

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.


  1. Obviously, this is a case where it’s the total opposite in belly dance: the better you look, the better your skills are perceived… and you’re not necessarily better. I call it the “shiny” factor.

    But my day job is in corporate America. Lemme tell you that, to a certain extent, the pretty girl factor affects what people think of your intelligence, skills, knowledge, etc. It can be fought and, after a while, you get your rep for your actual skills. But it’s still very much prevalent.


    • I think what’s also remarkable about the studies above is how much they bias against women. Obviously with dance or some sort of movement based art form looks can enhance more than not, but in the end, with music you can’t hide shoddy playing with good looks!


      • The uncomfortable but inevitable conclusion to be drawn — which I hate saying,but someone has to say it out loud — is that if you’re female, no one really cares how skilled you are anyway. It’s an ugly thing to realize, but there it is.


  2. I’ve always always always known this, in direct contradiction to what people believe — that being attractive as a woman gets you downgraded fast. The common belief is that being pretty makes things better for you, but the immediate conclusion drawn is that, “Well, look at her, we all know why she’s on stage … ” 😛

    This is a HUGE part of why I do not wear makeup and love to let my hair go grey. I can’t alter what I look like, but I can be free of the BS that’s attached to it. Especially letting my hair come in — it’s unbelievably freeing to be talked to as a person who thinks things and accomplishes things. It’s like a burden being lifted. As a musician and as a human being, I intend to stick with my current “middle-aged chain-smoking French novelist” look for as long as it will last me, and that’s a lokk that should last a long, long time. (Minus the cigarettes, of course!)


    • I used to occasionally trim the white hairs in my goatee but since I’ve gone for the fully bearded look I decided it was not worth the effort. And I sure as hell am not going to dye my beard or hair (as I’m letting that grow back in). So much of this is part of that obsession with youth that Americans seem to have–and I’m sure some of that is a part of our genetic make-up–having a preference for a younger[looking] mate which implies more vitality.

      And yes–I don’t know how many times I’ve heard folks in pop bands say the “she’s only a band member because she’s f**king one of the band members” –not something you hear as much about women in Orchestras–especially since the institution of blind auditions!


  3. Unfortunately, playing ability isn’t the only thing people judge- women especially are required to be attractive as a marketing reality. Society deems us worthy of notice based primarily on our looks. Which is frustrating, because they fade in very short order. A 60-year-old pianist has the potential to sound better than her younger self, but I suspect she’d have a far more difficult time getting gigs. This effect isn’t so pronounced for men, whom society deems worthy based more strongly on skill.


    • That’s the sad thing, and ironically that “look” aesthetic is particularly damaging for dancers–the career span for classically trained dancers is far shorter than for classically trained musicians. Sure, part of the issue is the athletic demand is far to great for older dancers in ballet, but why hasn’t ballet designed roles which don’t create that kind of demand?

      One of the most fascinating dance troupes I came across was one designed for “retired” dancers who wont to continue dancing. The choreography wasn’t created with virtuosic dancers in mind–one of the pieces was actually a “sign language” piece where the dancers did a just stood and signed in unison–fascinating conjunction of two different performance modes and one I would love to see explored further!


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