V.com weekend vote: Do orchestral musicians generally need to step up their stage presence?

October 12, 2018, 2:08 PM · One complaint that occasionally arises about classical music is that the musicians onstage look "bored," or that they don't smile enough.

And generally we musicians take some exception to this; after all, it does take keen concentration to play in a symphony orchestra! Of course orchestra musicians will look like we are concentrating, and we may not be smiling. Producing this kind of music is not a circus act, after all!

statue orchestra

But somewhere in between these extremes I think there is a point to be made. I must confess that at times I have noticed orchestral musicians behaving as if they were completely unaware that they were on stage, giving a performance. Sloppy dress, poor posture, scowling, failing to acknowledge the audience, 'mailing it in,' looking bored -- I've seen this, and it's a problem when it happens. I don't think it's a matter of needing to smile constantly, but orchestral musicians need to be engaged and aware that they are making an appearance and trying to connect with an audience.

When I was in college I was in an orchestra at Disney World, and before even the first performance, they absolutely drilled into us the idea that we were "on stage," from the minute we walked out of the break room and into the park, and certainly when we were actually standing on the stage. They demanded that we make an effort to deport ourselves well, look alive, "bring it," be aware of what other musicians were doing, be aware of everything going on onstage, smile when appropriate, clap when appropriate, play our best, look our best. Yes, you are performing the whole entire time you are on stage!

A colleague of mine, speaking of this issue, recalled the conductor of a student choir telling his students that when they weren't singing, it was their responsibility to model the type of behavior that they wanted from the audience, that they should look engaged with the music.

These seem like good starting points.

What are your thoughts on the matter? Is this even an issue, or not? How much should musicians be expected to "perform," beyond playing the music required? Please participate in the vote, and then in the comments please share your thoughts on how orchestral musicians can best engage with an audience, what you feel musicians are doing right and any specific ways we can improve. Feel free to offer examples of orchestras who are making it work and what they are doing!


October 12, 2018 at 07:20 PM · Hey! It's not stage presence that will change the orchestra's

position or audience. It needs a new musical style or genre that the

public wants to hear and DOES NOT want to miss. Musicians will smile

about pay raises then and not cuts.

October 12, 2018 at 08:34 PM · I'm not familiar with the Disney Orchestra, but knowing a person who once worked at Disneyland, I've heard about the "on stage" and "in character" mandates.

Andre Rieu's orchestra works on their stage presence. Most soloists with major orchestras exude stage presence, and most community orchestra players seem to look like they really want to be there. When Feidler conducted the Boston Pops they also looked like they were enjoying themselves.

At the same time I have to understand that while I'm at a performance, the musicians are at-work and this is probably the up-tenth time they played the music and frankly sometimes they looked a bit rumpled and bored. Yeah, it could be focus with a nerdy look while in suits or formal attire (which isn't at all comfortable).

We used to be subscription members of the NJSO till they put the arm on everyone for the infamous "Golden Age Instruments" that turned out to be a debacle. Most of the musicians during a performance looked neat, tidy, and "present" with only a few sparkling musicians in the ranks.

As far as the future of live orchestral music... perhaps it is time to drop the 19th century formal dress code, add some modern composers who actually produce melodic music, et cetera and maybe we'll have more musicians who look like they are enjoying themselves at work.

October 12, 2018 at 09:03 PM · I regularly see and hear performances via YouTube -- demands on my schedule keep me away from live performances these days. Thanks to today's video and audio technology, there are plenty of close-ups that show how engaged the players are -- or aren't.

With professional orchestras like NYP, VPO, CSO, the level of engagement looks and feels about right to me. Student orchestras seem, to me, less engaged -- this may be due to their comparative youth and inexperience.

I remember the late CSO co-concertmaster Victor Aitay as very much a performer, and a leader, whether it was his week to occupy first chair or second. I earned a good chunk of my required semester hours in orchestra as a member of the CSO's training school -- with Aitay leading some of our section rehearsals, by the way. I felt very involved and very much like performing -- although, in orchestra, you have to blend in and not be too conspicuous.

By 21, though, I could see that this really wasn't the kind of music-making I wanted; so I decided at that point to vacate my chair and let someone else have a shot at it. This fading enthusiasm, I suspect, is a factor in some players looking bored or tired. It may be, although they're earning a paycheck, that it's become "just a job" to them. None of this is meant as a slam against the orchestral profession -- thank goodness there are those who thrive on making this music and maintain the zeal for it. I remain an avid listener.

October 12, 2018 at 09:30 PM · The wonder and genius of the most cherished genius works called classical music demands quite a bit of work, practice, talent, presence and love of your work. I would love the honor of being in a symphony orchestra.

When the musicians are moved, smiling and exuberant it is amazingly fun for me too. Their liveliness brings those great pieces of work to its highest level and everyone responds with happiness. Especially when the conductor is sp engaged that he is jumping up and down.

The Houston symphony is such a wonderful place to see this in action!

I think the patrons of any orchestra should agree to request all the orchestral participants to BRING LIFE to the greatest music on earth so we all can come alive!

The end result will last forever in your body and soul.

Still! I dance through my life just to remember those great moments in our orchestra at Jones Hall, in Houston, Tx.

Patricia Najhawan


October 12, 2018 at 10:35 PM · I totally agreed that orchestra musicians need to be involved & engaged with the music they are playing as well as the audience. Nothing bothers me more than seeing a player who didn't seem to be in the music, such as using minimal bow for the most passionate passages & with no expression.

Of course too much movement would be distracting & annoying but in general, a little movement or emotion will add to the performance.

Berlin Philharmonic is one of the orchestra I admire & I think their stage presence is just about right.

October 13, 2018 at 12:03 AM · I think we can all agree that orchestra musicians should comport themselves in a professional manner by being present and paying attention to making the music, however, that's hardly the same thing as stage presence. Section players especially should avoid calling attention to themselves through their attire, hairdo, mugging, posturing, or other excessive body movements. Leave that to the soloists and/or conductor.

October 13, 2018 at 12:41 AM · I'm not sure I agree with excessive movement for the sake of stage presence. Movement that helps the sound, e.g. to allow the intended bow and left hand movement, is plenty. Without those movements, of course, the orchestra won't sound right anyway. Principal players should move more, so as to be easier to follow. An orchestra that is doing these things properly will not look bored.

October 13, 2018 at 02:53 AM · We spent last summer break in France and we went to a symphony event there. Everybody in the orchestra behaved normally, then my mother showed me this amazing young bass player at the end of the section. He was so involved, so obviously happy with what he was doing at any time that we ended up spending the whole evening watching him. He stole the show ??

October 13, 2018 at 07:08 AM · Mr or Ms says it well for me and yes, the BPO sets an excellent example. There needs to be a certain theatricality about any performance, and this should extend throughout the period the performers are on stage (excepting perhaps the first entrance which can be unobtrusive). At the end look as if you enjoyed the music, appreciate the applause and aren't just anxious to get to the bar before the mob. In my experience community orchestras are particularly bad at this.

October 13, 2018 at 01:52 PM · Imagine an orchestra with Heifetz as CM and the rest of the section playing ala Salerno-Sonnenberg ??? Would look strange, yes ????? The Berlin IS a very bodily-active gang for sure.....even the ww's bob and weave....None of this is evident on recordings. To say Heifetz was not an emotional interpreter based on physical gyrations is silly. Each performer has a personal demeanor....take it or leave it.

October 13, 2018 at 02:20 PM · Another group that gets it right is The Knights.

October 13, 2018 at 03:08 PM · Three of the changes I had always wanted to see in orchestras were:

1. Eliminate onstage tuning. It's not really that necessary. Tune backstage.

2. Eliminate the din of frantic onstage warmup.

3. Have the women dress better.

#3 will be controversial to some: in many, if not most orchestras, including some top ones, the men wear tuxedos, and the women wear......whatever. Sometime ratty black track pants. They really try to get away with just about anything. We can debate the overall level of formality, but the men and women should match that level. Men aren't perfect either though. If they're wearing tuxedos and sit on the outside, then they should wear patent leather shoes. Not black Reeboks with blue socks.

October 13, 2018 at 04:21 PM · Scott, I am with you. Onstage tuning is a ritual, though. People just pretend to move their pegs around. They all tuned backstage using phone apps.

October 13, 2018 at 08:38 PM · Whether we like it or not, we are in business. When the audience is applauding, we owe it to them to smile, not scowl like somebody just strangled our puppy!

October 13, 2018 at 09:06 PM · it shouldn’t matter we attend concerts to listen to good music someone making an ugly face doesn’t matter. has heifetz ever a single facial expression when playing?

October 14, 2018 at 02:06 AM · Lets not be too tough on hard working orchestra musicians. They play a whole evening and the applause goes to the soloist and the conductor with a tiny little bit leftt for the concert master (and for one or the other wind player who had a solo if the conductor feels generous that night). Everybody else just has to stand up and sit down a few times.

If they don't sit on their chairs like a sack of potatoes (I have seen it but very rarely) I am happy with their job performance so long as the playing itself is good enough to be happy about.

October 14, 2018 at 01:13 PM · I agree with Albrecht. Also, I never thought of this an an issue. Franky, in all the orchestras I've seen over the years, the members conduct themselves with a quiet dignity. The work they do up on those stages amazes me.

October 14, 2018 at 02:18 PM · "has heifetz ever a single facial expression when playing?"

I'm not sure Heifetz should be a model for all behavior.

October 14, 2018 at 03:24 PM · As Michael Kennedy says, "I never thought of this as an issue." Maybe I enjoy the luck of geography, in that the 3 orchestras I regularly attend are the Yale Philharmonia, the Yale Symphony and the New Haven Symphony. Probably about 20 orchestral performances a year, plus local operas but the pit musicians are less observable.

The musicians seem to always comport themselves in a dignified and focused manner, even if playing through long pieces like Mahler symphonies. I am glad they dress formally, with the women in black dresses and the men in tuxedos, the conductor having black jacket with long tail and the soloist in something more individualist in color.

October 14, 2018 at 04:42 PM · At Vienna Phil. New Year's day concerts, the orchestra looks great in their grey pants and straight ties. The second violins and violas do not look bored doing their easy off-beat parts for all those Strauss pieces.

October 15, 2018 at 02:36 AM · I would be satisfied if the orchestra would acknowledge that (1) there is an audience (not necessarily wave at us, but at least look out into seats to see if anyone actually showed up) and (2) they are sharing something that means more than a paycheck. Orchestra members who walk to their seats, don't look up to see if there's a conductor, then appear listless throughout the concert kill the excitement of a live performance. I could have had the same experience listening to a CD, with better sound from my Bose earbuds.

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