Why facial expressions matter?

We live in a most visually conscious age. Young musicians in the 21st century could be forgiven for assuming that image is everything. Instagram, TikTok, ‘my story,’ and YouTube …

All provide instantaneous imagery, giving the immediate communicative impact that, for certain ‘influencers,’ can extend to a global scale. Concerts and competitions are live-streamed, meaning that virtual audiences can come and go as they please.

In 2022 it is not enough to initially attract an online viewer- the challenge is to sustain interest so that the number count on the live listening display increases healthily through a recital or concerto. Quick clicks and flicks on our smartphones, iPads and laptops are all too easy… audiences are fickle, mercurially moving from one thrilling spectacle to the next.

So, what sustains a listener’s interest? There is no doubt that our socially media-obsessed, instantaneous era places a huge value on deportment, confidence, and gesture. Is there a gap between the non-musical general public and the cognoscenti?

Is there a populist demand that 21st-century performers show expression physically just as much through their facial involvement as through the sounds they produce?

To an extent, this may sadly be the case, and understandably so if listeners are using poor-quality phones to watch as much as listen to streamed performances. If the sound quality is not state–of–the–art on a mobile device with intermittent/poor Wi-Fi, it is understandable that visual stimulation becomes much more significant.

Though we should never lose the fact of the obvious- that music is about sound- it is fascinating to consider facial expressions, even grimaces from performers and ask what, if anything, they add to an interpretation. Are they harmful? Why do some artists indulge in more than others?

Why are some people irritated or even offended by particular facial approaches when others are perceived as sensitive, in keeping with the spirit of an interpretive approach, or simply not noticed?

In many respects, these questions bring up a generational divide. In lessons, my old teacher Peter Katin was fond of quoting to me from his colleague, the great violinist Ida Haendel, who once said to him, ‘Musicians should be heard and not seen!’

But that was in the last century before social media existed. Sure, there has always been an excellent need for performers to have ‘presence,’ confidence, deportment and authority in their body language and delivery, Haendel was a past master in this respect- but I cannot help thinking that there is something of a generational divide when it comes to ‘emoting’ visually via facial display during concerts.

Think of how Rubinstein presented himself in performance: Perfectly straight back, relaxed demure, authority… and a straightforward, honestly concentrated facial expression that gave little away. Here he is in Saint-Saëns’s G minor Concerto, letting the music speak simply: His playing unfolds without any extraneous gestures. What we get instead is regal conviction: Truth, power, and supreme authority.

Perhaps nothing could contrast more strongly in visual terms to this than Lang Lang’s filmed rendering below (given early in his career) of the cadenza from Rachmaninov’s third concerto. Listen without watching, and you will undoubtedly be swept along, bowled over, by the extraordinary excitement and communicative urgency he imparts to literally every phrase.

But if you watch as well as listen, you cannot fail to be struck by the remarkable physicality on display. The body language and the facial changes are certainly more strongly projected and imparted than many seasoned concertgoers are used to. Does this make the playing less ‘great’ than if Lang Lang had taken a more contained approach?

Just how gesture affects interpretive approaches is a fascinating, contentious, and possibly mysterious phenomenon. Years ago, I conducted a series of recorded experiments with a cameraman and an acting tutor to see what differences could be established via more ‘extrovert’ projection of phrasing and more reserved physicality.

We used Rachmaninov’s second concerto and quickly came to the conclusion that, in musical gesture, the eyes truly are the window of the soul. Any actor or singer will know instantly what I mean: When you want to focus and get ‘in character’ for a particular line, set of words or mood, you can channel your resources most effectively by allowing your eyes to project the sadness, excitement, expectation, unhappiness, longing, joy… and everything else.

Facial expressions that have conviction and authenticity are usually triggered from the eyes. I think it was Michael Caine who once commented on false smiles from non-winning Oscar nominees on awards night: It is hard to cover up feelings of disappointment for the cameras if you smile without engaging your eyes in an apparent display of happiness.

But it’s not quite as simple as the sincerity of approach when it comes to serious recreative music-making at the highest level. In performance, musical phrasing, structure, control of the line… and intensity in keeping with that line are everything. Music is the art of moving forward to a point and then moving back again.

The organic line, the inner thread, the continuous intensity that drives masterpieces forward… These are the crucial aspects of interpretation. Audiences may not all be trained musicians, but they can sense when a performer is powering with concentration, and all cylinders are burning towards the music’s essence. Audiences know when they hear authenticity.

Performers have a duty to enthral- but the wonder and excitement indeed have to come from within the musical argument, the dynamic movement forward that empowers excellent works of art.

If gestures enforce, compliment, enhance and empower the melodic line, then they will emerge as authentic and convincing. If facial expressions and mannerisms are cosmetically added-on as extra decorative extras that do not necessarily have anything directly to do with the musical shape, then they are distractions.

They will appear irritating, inconsequential… even comically inappropriate and clumsy. On the one hand, we have performers like Leonard Bernstein, who may be OTT at times in terms of physical demonstrativeness but constantly channelling animalistic resources as a service to the music.

On the other, we have inexperienced entertainers who may compensate for not feeling the shape of a piece by indulging in a gesture for gesture’s sake, who may try to emulate other great artists by attempting to ‘copy’ gestures and mannerisms, and who will ultimately fail to exude any absolute truth, no matter how superficially ‘impressive’ they may well be.

Let’s conclude with a performance from the 1970s of Beethoven’s last sonata from the great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter. Though Richter was not renowned for facial expressions, far from it, in this remarkable film, his body movements are far from still. It is as though he is subtly enhancing the characterisation by emphasising the phrase structure, and the line of the music, via physical involvement.

Nothing is exaggerated, but there is unquestionably real unity between heart, mind, body, and spirit in this performance: I would urge all young musicians to constantly value and search for the line in their performances and to bring intensity, power of expression, and physical projection from this direction rather than any other one:

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