What is Your Body Language Saying on Stage?


“If language was given to men to conceal their thoughts, then gesture’s purpose was to disclose them.” John Napier

Recently I walked into my husband’s office where he was watching videos of a recent cello recital on the computer.  The sound was off as he had his Bose noise reduction headphones on as he stared intently at the computer screen.  What I found fascinating was that despite the fact that I couldn’t actually hear a note, I knew exactly what the cellist was playing-just by watching the gestures.  It reminded me of a game I used to play as a child in my Suzuki cello class.  We would “air bow” measures of a piece and had to “pass” the piece around the circle of cellists.  If someone rushed, or had a memory slip or used the wrong bowing, they were “out”.  The last cellist remaining won the game.  This was a fun and challenging way to really learn the piece-we had to hear the piece in our head, stay in tempo with the group, know the bowings and be ready to start and stop at any time.  All of this without making a sound.

This whole train of thought got me thinking about body language and the impact of body language on performance.  On one hand, the act of playing an instrument is very physical.  We spend endless hours mastering the physical execution of technique.  On another, the body is a direct expression of our thoughts and feelings, and vice versa!  Our thoughts and feelings are also impacted by the habitual posture we carry. (It’s hard to feel open and excited, if your arms are crossed tensely across your chest, chin tucked and brow furrowed, for example.)


The above cartoon shows just that-the embodiment of confidence and the embodiment of irritation, for example. How does this all fit together?  Well, imagine if you are the guy scowling on the left, and you walk on stage to perform.  What message are you giving your audience?   Same thing, imagine that you are the guy on the right. What mood or impression are you giving your audience?

Jeff Thompson, a PhD candidate in nonverbal communication,  wrote an article about this for the online site Psychology Today.  He cites  two research studies (Mehrabian & Wiener, 1967 and Mehrabian & Ferris, 1967)  responsible for the percentage breakdown detailing the importance of nonverbal communication channels compared to verbal channels. The numbers show that  55% of communication is body language, 38% is the tone of voice, and 7% is the actual words spoken. 

So what does this mean really?

To put it bluntly, a minimum of 55% of your performance is being expressed by your body language.  And your body language is a direct reflection of your thoughts and feelings.

So what kind of message are you giving your audience when you walk out on stage?  Are you excited, open, warm, welcoming, engaging? Are you cold, tense and impersonal?  Are you apologetic?  Shy? Do you make eye contact?  Do you bow quickly, slowly, deeply or shallowly? Do you take your audience in or block them out? Do you smile?  Do you frown and tense your brows every time you don’t like something?  Do you shuffle around in between movements?

People tend to dismiss the importance of stage presence, thinking that nothing really counts until you’ve played the first note.  The next time you play a concert make sure to video tape it and then watch the performance with the sound off.  You’ll be amazed at what you’ll learn.

This past week I watched three different performances and was amazed to see a direct correlation between how a person walked onstage and how they performed.  The guy who shuffles out on stage slumped and distracted, actually played that way.  The woman who was very tense and critical, bowed as if she was apologizing for her performance.  The soloist who walked out with confidence, presence and self-respect drew the audience in and demanded their focused attention for the entire concerto.  It was amazing.

Your thoughts and feelings translate into a somatic posture.  This posture has a direct impact on your playing.

When you practice, consider that your performance is a multifaceted experience for you and your audience-not just the notes and rhythms and whether or not you make a mistake, but a live, personal experience that lasts from the moment you walk out on stage until the moment you walk off.

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