January 7

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Should Pianists avoid expressive body movement?

By Thomas Gunther

January 7, 2024

To Move or not to move (at the piano)

This is a question that leads to many heated discussions among pianists and piano teachers. I myself am obsessed with finding the right answer to this difficult question. Should I avoid expressing my emotions through body movements that are not technically necessary in order to play the piano? 

With this article I want to share my thoughts on this topic with you.
Maybe you are kind enough to share your own thoughts at the end of this article.😉

Arthur Rubinstein versus Keith Jarrett

There are two examples of super talented and highly respected pianists that could not be further apart when it comes to how they physically express themselves during performances.

I am talking of course about Arthur Rubinstein and Keith Jarrett.

Arthur Rubinstein is considered by many experts to be the ultimate roll model for how we can reduce our body movement to the bare minimum when playing the piano. His focus is entirely on preserving energy by only engaging those muscles that are essential for pressing down the keys in such a way that it produces the desired sound. No facial expression would ever make the hammer move any different, is the idea here.
On one hand, watching Rubinstein playing the piano is very impressive, especially because he makes everything look so easy. On the other hand it is perplexing because it seems like he is in no way emotionally moved by his own performance. In fact, seeing him perform is more reminiscent of what a perfect machine in human shape would look like when programmed to faithfully reproduce a piece of music, rather than a human being made of flesh and blood, full of passion and emotions. This is no criticism, just an observation. And just to be clear, Rubinstein was known to be a very warm, charming and fun person to be around.

Keith Jarrett, in contrast, literally dances during his performances, while making all kinds of noises with his vocal-cords, changing his facial expression with every phrase he is playing. His entire body reflects his musical intention. You can feel the intensity of the music by just watching him. Yet, it doesn't seem to have any negative influence on his playing. Every phrase is executed perfectly.

The only difference is their body language

Arthur and Keith both sounded fantastic and were extremely successful, adored by their fans. The only huge difference between them - besides their repertory - is their body language.

A teacher's dilemma

Now, who is to say one way is right, and the other is wrong?
Many teachers tell their students to sit still in an upright position, at a certain distance and hight, etc.. Are they right?

When I look at pictures and videos of some of the greatest performers in history, I found many differences in body posture, distances,  and so on.

How about teachers who tell their students to hum along, move their body in accordance to their musical phrasing, and reveal their emotions by constantly changing facial expressions. Are those teachers right?

The answer is not that simple, but it should be obvious that the old saying "one shoe doesn't fit all sizes' definitely applies here.

What history teaches us

Performance styles and technique have changed with every musical epoch, and even by country and region. Expressive body language was first promoted by pianists of the romantic era, when the focus shifted from auditory to include more of the visual aspects of a performance. But not everyone followed this trend. Some considered it grand-standing and contradictory to performing with what ever was considered proper technique at the time. 

We are all unique

 Just like there are introverted and extroverted people, there are pianists who express themselves not just through the sound they are producing, but also physically.

Fact is, to cut off our body from expressing emotions through movement may work for some, but certainly not for everyone. And the same goes for trying to be an extroverted performer that incorporates facial expressions and other unnecessary body movements, when it goes against our very nature.

My advice to pianists

What ever kind of pianist you are, the trick is not to let physical expression interfere with your playing apparatus and musical intention. 

Finding the right balance between letting go and containing harmful movements is difficult for many pianists (and I have to include myself here!). Imagine you are playing with a great rhythm section that is really swinging heard. And imagine the tempo is pretty fast. My foot just wants to tap along with the rhythm really hard, and my entire body moves along with it, even my head. It's fun, but it is also exhausting and can creat tension and a kind of excitement that takes focus away from the music.

Oscar Peterson always tapped the beat with his feet, but the rest of his body was completely relaxed.

Count Basie, one of the greatest swing pianists, looked like he was about ready to go to bed when playing some of the hottest jazz music imaginable.

So, again, every person is different. Do what ever feels right and natural to you, as long as it doesn't interfere with the music. Pay attention to yourself while performing. Ask yourself this question: Do my expressive body movements help me to play better or not? Then act accordingly. 

My advice to piano teachers

Considering all of the above, the best advice I can give a teacher when it comes to this topic is to carefully assess where a student's body movement originates from, and the effect it has on his playing apparatus.

When he/she looks natural and relaxed and can perfectly execute the music, telling the student to sit still instead would be a crime. It would break the student's natural ability to incorporate natural body movement that originates in the emotions evoked by the music. In other words, you ask your student to be someone else. This can have horrendous consequences for such a pianist's development. It's like teaching an extroverted story teller to sit still and not move their hands.

On the other hand, when it looks like a student's body movements cause unnecessary tension and prohibits the student from properly executing the music, it is advisable to make the student aware of it. However,  keep in mind that just because his/her body movement may look strange to you, this is never a good enough reason to correct a student's appearance

A great teacher knows that every student is different. There are certain concepts that every piano student should be taught, of course, like using the under-thumb when playing scales. But there are also many things that need to be left up to the student, especially when it comes to technique and body movement.

There is no doubt that it is a tricky endeavor trying to mold a human being. But when someone is truly talented, we need to get out of the way rather than trying to model them after our own image.

Advice from a master

Chick Corea, one of the greatest pianists ever, once said something that sums it all up:

"Those who strictly follow all the rules, are those no one will ever hear about". 

His point is that we need to allow our students to do things differently, to break conventions, to find their own way that allows them to play their best, and this includes physical expression.

Last but not least

What is your opinion on this topic. Please leave a comment below. And please keep the discussion civilized!

Thomas Gunther

About the author

Thomas Gunther (Thommy Günther) is a versatile internationally active jazz pianist and keyboardist, music producer, and music educator. Born in Germany, Thomas moved to Chicago after receiving his masters in teaching and performing popular music and jazz piano (from the State University of Arts & Music Stuttgart/Germany) to become the principle pianist with the Chicago Jazz Ensemble. Soon he formed his own bands playing piano and keyboards all over town and touring Europe regularly. Today, Thomas is a well respected member of the Chicago music scene. For many years he has also worked as an instructor at Columbia College Chicago where he still designs and teaches courses for its Contemporary Urban Music Program (CUP) such as Pop-Jazz Keyboards & Theory, Applied Music Production with Logic Pro, Contemporary Arranging and Orchestration, Harmony & Rhythm, etc.. Thomas is also the creator and owner of several educational websites such as popjazzkeys.com and MusicTrainingOnline.
Visit http://www.ThomasGunther.com for more info.

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