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Body Movement when playing the Piano

It's not the first time I have heard people say "look at that girl (or boy), she (or he) moves a lot with her (or his) body when playing the piano. She LOOKS so expressive and seems to be enjoying the music that she's playing!" Is it true that we should add more body movement when we are playing the piano (shaking ones head while closing eyes, moving the shoulders up and down, moving the upper body forward and backward from time to time, waving the arms non-stop...) to "show" the audience that we are feeling the music deeply and playing in a highly expressive way? The answer is a definitive NO.

Many students, parents and lovers of live piano performances have this mindset, including some of my diploma students. Some who have just started to have lessons with me for a higher level and they include those who have already passed the grade 8 or even achieved the ATCL diploma with their previous piano teacher and some of them are working as the piano tutor. There was one instance a new student came to me, when I asked her to play a piece that she had practiced for a while in preparation for our lesson, she showed a lot of problems technically and musically. One of the problems was, she kept moving her body, from her head to her feet (toes didn't show, as she was wearing shoes), shaking her head, shrugging her shoulders and arms through the piece, even moving in with grand gestures with her whole body when she was playing those passionate passages. After she finished, l asked, "Do you know what you were playing is not an expressive piece at all?" Her jaw dropped and answered me with surprise "What?! I've always moved my body to show emotion while playing!" (Not to mention, she told me that it's also how and what she taught her students to do when playing the piano!)

If music is not judged by the body movement, how could we evaluate if someone is playing the music with the proper expression of a particular piece of music or not? A very simple answer, by our ears. Music is an audio art.

As a professional musician, we are focusing on and aiming at getting the correct "sound" of that particular piece and produce the nicest "tone color" when playing the music. As for music performances, it will become a little more complicated as there's a mixture of visual stimulus for the audience, as they are listening and watching you play at the same time. However, the main idea is to bring out the best timbre of the music.

When we play the piano, we will have a certain movement. At the very least, our arms are required to stretch and close when playing different registers of the piano. We won't hold our body and sit still with only moving our fingers. This is impossible and unnatural to do so. With the concept of bringing out the shape of the each melodic phrase, together with the breathing within the phrase, different articulations, etc., all these factors require our hands, arms and body coordination and will lead to a certain level of body movement. However, any unnecessary or excessive movement won't help in bringing the musical ideas outward or the correct sounding timbre. Instead, it will disturb the beauty of the tone, musical shape, and other elements of the music.

To all music lovers and students, please reconsider your mindset about the level of body movement with the level of expressiveness, it doesn't have an equal sign in between the two of them. Extra body movement that one adds to the performance are just a trick, to mislead the general audience with the visual entertainments effect. As for real musicians, we won't be easily fooled by the eyes while listening to someone's playing, but we will focus on the sounds and follow our professionally trained ears to determine who can play better. The sound is what carries the performance.

Stephanie Fung Copyright © 2015

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