Performance Practice Takes Lots of Practice

Thursday, June 30, 2011 at 11:33 PM

I’ve never fancied myself to be a particularly “girly” girl. But every now and then I’ll get the urge to indulge in some aspects of the "gender normative role" set up by society for females years before I was born; I’ll buy a pretty dress, I’ll watch a romantic movie, or I’ll do my face up all pretty with makeup. One evening this past week, I decided that it was time to give nail polish a try. Is it just me or has nail polish gotten really into fashion lately? I’ve never been one to pay much attention to that, but even I have noticed people talking about nail decals and doing super cool things with them.

So I sat down at my desk, Jacques Brel softly seducing me in the background, and I took out a bottle of red nail polish. Staring at it as if it were some strange medical instrument that would be used to operate on me, I cautiously took hold of the bottle, remembering to shake it and listen for the metal ball inside to hit the glass sides. This wasn’t something I hadn’t done before, but it certainly had been a few years. I was a little nervous. Slowly, I took the brush out, wiped some excess polish off before beginning to paint the nail on my pinkie finger. One stroke, two strokes. I took a look at it. I’ve never had an issue with nail polish on other people, but when I looked at that finger, it looked to me like I’d grown an alien body part. It was just wrong. I attempted to finish painting that nail properly, but the final brush stroke took an amateur slip and painted my skin. With some impatience, I gave up on the task and tried to wipe off the nail polish with another finger. Not caring enough to clean it off properly, I spent the following day looking like I’d hit that poor little finger with a brick.

I’m not going to lie: I know that the above story is overdramatic and a little crazy. Why do I have such an issue with nail polish?

“Performance practice refers to techniques that are implied, and not written or notated.”

For those who don’t know, I study music in university with piano as my primary instrument. I will not pretend, however, that I have ever had the intention of becoming a concert pianist...or the ability. It’s just not in me—people who argue this fact underestimate just how much it takes to be a successful concert pianist. That aside, over the years I’ve been interested in pursuing many different areas in the music industry: music education, collaborative piano, composition for film, and—most recently—musicology. As demonstrated by those interests, it’s pretty clear that I don’t want to spend my life in the spotlight. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t write about it.

                A month ago, I attended a recital for piano and French horn, with my dear friend and classmate, Isaac Adams, on piano. Isaac just finished his first year in university, and I must say that I am thoroughly impressed with his performance as a solo and collaborative pianist. He’s probably not going to be too pleased by my saying this, but I can’t help but recall his first performance in the Conservatory and appreciate how far he’s come. That first performance was fairly good, but it certainly highlighted details of performance practice and stage presence that are easily missed, yet make a huge difference to the performance. Isaac, bless his soul, was upset that he hadn’t given his absolute best and refused to bow, despite the audience clapping enthusiastically even after he left the stage.

                Now I understand that “performance practice” applies mostly to the details involved in actually performing music (the way you hold a bow, the amount of vibrato and decorations used, etc.). However, I like to consider the hardly uttered and often overlooked rules of stage etiquette expected by the audience as an integral part of performance practice. Besides, it’s not as if these rules are universal: stage etiquette has changed in many ways throughout the years.

It’s funny, often I see musicians perform and seemingly forget that we, the audience, are staring at them the whole time. When the image produced on stage is not accordingly respected, audiences are prone to cringing uncomfortably.

These are a few of the guidelines I find most helpful in providing a pleasant performance:

1.       My dear friend Isaac got a lot of teasing for not following this one: bow. Always. At the very least, at the end of the performance. Do not curtsy or do some other elaborate variant. The bow is the performer’s thank you to the audience. This is how we say “thank you for taking the time to listen to my performance.” Even if you did a bad job, your audience still took the time to sit and listen to you. Thank them. Recognize their applause. Us musicians like to complain over the lack of appreciation and support music receives. You’d think we’d be extra grateful for what we do receive.

2.       Plan out how you will walk on and off stage. How many performers are you? Where is each performer going and what order of entrance will best facilitate those positions?  Do you know what door you are using to exit the stage? Are you going to bow before the performance? (I should hope that you’re bowing after!) Where on stage will you bow? Will you coordinate the bow with other performers? These details seem fairly mundane, but it’s important to take note of them. Someone who arrives on stage and doesn’t have a clear direction will often look clumsy and may give away performance nerves. It also really sucks when a collaborating pianist, for example, plans to walk behind the singer after the initial bow, only to find that the singer didn’t leave room to walk behind. It looks good when everyone on stage knows exactly what they’re doing, especially if it’s something as mundane as walking.

3.       Look pretty. And by that I mean: judge the formality and intent of the performance and dress appropriately. Brush your hair, tuck in your shirt, do all those things you were taught when you were young. If you want people to take your performance seriously, look like you’re taking it seriously, too. If you want to wear a skirt or a dress, don’t wear one that is much more than a couple inches above your knees. Keep in mind that usually on raised stages, audiences will have a better view of the lower half of your body. Even if you don’t reveal anything, it’s quite uncomfortable for an audience member to avoid looking at you for fear of being flashed. Skimpy clothing in general is uncomfortable for audiences. Yes, audiences are often prudes. But unless you paid them to be there, be considerate to them. It’s also nice to coordinate with what the other performers will be wearing, even if you don’t choose to match your clothes.

4.       Pay attention to performance mannerisms. Most musicians will develop certain mannerisms in performance after a few years. These generally are not a problem, but on occasion, those odd habits can be quite distracting. These are things like constantly flicking your hair back, chewing on your tongue, moving your head back and forth unnecessarily, etc. It is well worth your time to record yourself playing a piece to see what you are doing. Not only is it extremely helpful in practicing, but it also helps you see what unnecessary habits you  may have developed—you can then judge of you consciously want to do something about it or not.

That’s probably enough ranting for this blog post. The point is to always keep in mind everything that you do on stage, if anything, out of simple consideration for your dear audience.

So what is my problem with nail polish? As a student of piano, nail polish is always an inconvenience. It’s simply not practical, due to the fact that piano playing will chip it and make it look bad. As I grew up, a tacit understanding seemed to be agreed upon by myself and many of my colleagues: if you walk around with perfectly painted nails, you probably aren’t practicing much. I can only speak for myself—I’ve never had much of a conversation on this subject with anyone. However, just like having long nails, painting them always seemed to be a major pianist faux pas. Here and there I will notice someone who does use it, and though I generally won’t make a judgement on the matter, I cannot help but judge myself. Should I choose to paint my nails, I feel that I am branding myself as a bad pianist.  Alas, the rules we often impose upon ourselves are often simple foolishness. At least in this case, it is a mere trifle that’s hardly due reason for concern.

Summary: I’m a little crazy, but that’s ok. As long as you’re considerate to your audience, all is well.