[piano] Leif Ove Andsnes and the self-consciousness of movement

On Saturday, 14 January 2012, I had the great opportunity of seeing Leif Ove Andsnes play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 1 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Here is my flimsy attempt at a mini-review: it was pretty good. Not mindblowing; sometimes I thought the orchestra and piano were not well-balanced with the orchestra being a shade too loud. Nonetheless, Mr. Andsnes had wonderful and clearly articulated lines which is especially needed for early Beethoven.

After briefly thinking this, I then became very fixated on his body movements while playing the piano. I saw a lot of what I do in his playing– the gentle and graceful, almost affected, lift of the hands at the end of a delicate passage; the epileptic moment when a large ending chord is played; the hand conducting to yourself when it is free; the downward movement of the neck at downbeats, and many more.

If you would like, watch the following video (Grieg’s Piano Concerto) to acquire a general idea of how Mr. Andsnes moves:

Why do pianists, or musicians in general, beyond the general motor requirements, move while playing?

“Several features may interact in the musician’s body movements – the motoric elements of the physical execution of any piece of music, plus physical manifestations of affective states, and intentional changes to the music for particular musical effects. As well as conscious changes to mood and the music, unconscious states may also become apparent though the performer’s movements.”

The article states that movement is caused by physically playing the music, the feeling which the musician is trying to achieve, intentional decisions on how to move, and personal feelings at that time. The author makes a separation between the unconscious and conscious movements.

Mostly, pianists discourage conscious movement, but the argument for intentionally movement goes thus:

“…the idea that the performer can add a level of movement to the performance that is not of direct necessity to the production of the musical whole, but assists the perceiver’s understanding of the performance. In other words, there may be a ‘surface’ level of movement that can be explicitly taught, but is not intrinsic to the intention of the performance, although there will clearly be a congruence between the surface and intrinsic elements as it will be the performer’s explicit intention to use these gestures to make the performance intention clearer.”

Movement may actually enhance the audience’s understanding of the music. It certainly explains why Lang Lang is able to have such a captive audience after all his theatrics. Yet, I would say such theatrics are unnecessary, because for every Lang Lang, there is a statuesque Martha Argerich who get along their points just fine without having to move much. Especially for amateur pianists like me, it is easy to get caught in the movement and being showy instead of playing the piece correctly.

I play with the belief that you should not move more than necessary. Therefore, all of my movements are spontaneous and unconscious. However, ironically, I belong to the camp of ‘excessive movement’. In addition to the moves I mentioned above, I will sometimes look up at the ceiling, to the side, my body will do this circular movement going towards and away from the piano, sometimes I will get extremely close to the keyboard so my face is about horizontal, my hands will stay suspended for long seconds after launch.. the list is endless. Often, I will only realize how silly I may look after I complete the action– play the cadence, a few seconds later: wait, I should put my hands down now!

I am afraid of looking deranged and weird, trying to act like a big-shot concert pianist with a lot of fancy flourishes. Naturally, I talked to my piano instructor about this, and she told me that body movement is fine as long as it does not hinder my playing. She has even coached me on adding body movement, which makes for totally awkward moments because since my movements are largely unconscious, doing them consciously makes me feel, well, self-conscious! At times, my instructor holds my ponytail to keep my neck from moving on downbeats and giving the notes accents. Otherwise, she has largely refrained from talking about my body movement.

I’m very interested to hear your thoughts on body movement, as a musician or as a spectator. For example, I cannot stand to look at people who nod their head at every downbeat, and I think one of the great things about an orchestra is that you can watch all of the bassists playing at the same time. Do you feel musicians with more movement are more expressive? Do you move around a lot? Is it conscious?

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