A frequent comment I hear when I play is that I don’t “smile enough”. I don’t think it’s always appropriate to smile as the subject matter of some of the songs and pieces we play is fairly serious. For instance, one of the pieces my group played for our Christmas show was Cutty Wren which at the least involves animal cruelty and has possible references to cannibalism. I don’t think smiling through that is appropriate 🙂 However, I do know that I tend to have a look of intense concentration on my face while playing. How can I look more relaxed while I play?
How weird. I was just thinking about the smile thing.
And I know I’m not answering your question.
Once I sent someone’s web site to a friend, and she commented that the harpist was smiling and looked so happy playing. I commented that the harpist was NOT playing…she was just posing for the picture.
I think the only person who successfully smiled and played at the same time was Harpo…because he was trying to look silly. If I saw a harpist smiling while playing, I’d wonder what was distracting her/him from the music. Sometimes, something might cause me to smile, but it would be a distraction of some kind.
At a baby shower, I think I smile when I play “This old Man” or “Twinkle,” but that would be the kind of thing where a smile would be appropriate.
I suppose someone will write in about Salzedo and the pencil in the teeth while practicing. If that’s your thing, go for it!
I also tend to look a little too serious when I play. To combat that, I usually just try raising my eyebrows (just to stop the concentration-frown) and turning up the corners of my mouth a little when I don’t feel it’s appropriate to do a full smile (which is most of the time for me–I would feel a bit silly trying to grin through an entire piece).
When I’m working up a piece for public playing, I will practice in front of a mirror and/or video record myself playing. It helps me see when I’m frowning the most, so I can focus on my facial expression at those parts. When I’m playing from written music, sometimes I even make a little smiley face before the tough passages to remind me to lighten up. 🙂
It’s called orchestra face by people I know. Non playing audience members don’t realize what skill is involved or how much hard work goes into playing an instrument. At my last lesson before our Christmas recital this year, after I finished playing my solo for her, I asked my teacher why she was laughing, and she said, “You always smile after you make a mistake.” I love watching some of Robbin Gordon-Cartier’s videos where she frequently breaks out in a smile.
I think a look of concentration is okay, but if one appears to be in pain do something about it! If playing a lively piece then look happy (not a grin, just a pleasant smile)! If the piece is romantic, then look lovingly at the strings or something, just try not to appear as though you are constipated, LOL. Yes we do play a difficult instrument and we try to make it seem effortless. I think we should try to add a little to our performance if we can and break the “mold” of stiff musicians that we are most of the time.
I agree, Sid, we try to make playing the harp look effortless! I was just thinking about a funny thing that happened at the Christmas Eve pre-service mini-concert that I just played. About midway through my all-memorized program, a cute little girl, dressed in an angel costume, freed herself from her father and “danced” up the aisle in front of the audience and toward me and my harp. Her father bounded after her, snatched her up, and took her back to their seats, amid chuckles from several in the congregation. I immediately smiled and began to play “O Come Little Children” to the amusement of everyone. It was a very special moment, and people said that set the tone of the whole service.
LOL Sid! I definitely don’t want to look constipated as I play! On the other hand, there are times when I think I look “thoughtful” or something along those lines and still get the smiling comments. Do you think this is more of an issue for female harpists?
In a concert setting, smiling while bowing before welcomes the audience into your performance, smiling while bowing after thanks them, but in between, your expressions need to be a natural reaction to the experience of performing the music at hand. Typically, we aren’t conscious of our facial expressions in a performance. Wearing a cheesy grin turns a thoughtful performance into a staged, pageant-like schtick.
On a background music gig, the rules are different. You should separate yourself from the music at regular intervals and each time you make eye contact with a guest, offer a pleasant grin.
Ultimately, though, I can’t help but go to that feminist place when reacting to anyone’s command to smile. People (read: certain men) expect other people (read: women) to be pretty, vacant, and ready to make them happy. A person (again, read: woman) who is deep in thought and not generously offering exactly the superficial source of happiness some folks they encounter or entertain expect is not at fault for failing to smile 100% of the time.
I think some of you are missing the point of the thread; it is NOT to grin and look silly. It is about to smile or at least LOOK LIKE you are enjoying what you do. Diane, I have been told to smile more (by other musicians and have taken their advice) so lets not make this a men vs. women thing please. No one is commanding any of us to smile. It was a suggestion.
While a pasted-on smile can easily look strained when things get difficult, one’s expression is a big part of your impact on the audience. One should practice with a mirror, and when you know a piece well enough to watch your face instead of your hands, it would be quite instructive. You should definitely smile through errors. It’s gracious and puts people at ease. I, personally, cannot stand a cold performer. Consider what you radiate.
Thank you Sid and Saul for weighing in! Unfortunately, as there are different expectations for male and female harpists, I think it is appropriate to ask so it’s really important to me to hear your expectations. My friends and I have also discussed the differences in expectations for coffee shop gigs such as we have been doing and a formal concert setting. As I tend to think of Saul as a high caliber, concert performer, it is important for me to hear his experiences as well.
In looking at photos from my last few performances, I think much would be improved by looking up from the music once in a while so that will be my first goal 🙂
Yes Jennifer, there are different expectations for male and female harpists but our expressions aren’t so much apart from that. We should all look comfortable with what we are doing on the harp. Saul is more of a concert performer than I, but even in a concert setting emotion is okay. I once heard a conductor say to the first violins,” dig in to the strings, get dirty with it!” This isn’t the norm and of course was instructed (to do so without would be a distraction). Would I have been able to do that had he asked me? Would you?
In a formal setting we should be more poised but in a coffee house show your work. Presentation is all part of the show. I like Saul’s idea to practice in front of a mirror, I’ll even go further and video myself; that way I can see what I look like when not looking up! Bet I’m gonna hate it!
The mirror is a good idea. Whether or not you choose to smile, it isn’t good to have unappealing expressions on your face when you perform in public. There is probably a youtube video somewhere of musicians or conductors grimacing as they perform.
Here’s another general thought, not directed at anyone in particular: Try videotaping yourself while you are playing at home, to make sure you are not making strange faces or leaving your jaw hanging open while playing. A mirror may not work as well, because you have to look up at it to see yourself, and that may alter how you really look when performing.
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