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Stage Presence and Bowing

Phyllis Avidan Louke | December 2008

    Editor’s Note: While this article addresses teaching younger students, even older students may have gaps in their knowledge. I remember quite clearly the first college student who I prepared for a Senior Recital. I was a new, inexperienced teacher in my early 20s. The student’s name was Polly McKay, and as she walked onto the stage, I realized in horror that I had never discussed stage deportment with her. I don’t think I took a breath through the entire first piece. I learned an important teaching lesson that night. Soon after that recital Polly became the editor of Flute Talk, married a few years later, and is known today as Polly McKay Hansen.

    Stage presence, particularly bowing and acknowledging the accompanist, is an important part of performing. While applause is an audience’s way of showing appreciation, bowing is our way of accepting the compliment.
    I have seen many performers, including a surprising number of seasoned professionals, look uncomfortable while bowing. While they have obviously spent many hours in the practice room perfecting their musical art, they have spent little time on stage skills.
    I strive to make bowing feel comfortable and natural to my students by making it part of their performance preparation for studio recitals and the school Solo and Ensemble Festival. There is comfort in the familiar, and routines help players relax so they can play their best. When students are proficient on their solos, they incorporate walking on stage, bowing to an imaginary audience, acknowledging the accompanist, and leaving the stage when they are done.

Recital Conversations
    Students usually have many questions before their first recital. Discussing specifics helps them reduce their anxiety and gives me the opportunity to teach stage deportment. I explain that audiences often claps when the performer walks on stage and again at the end of each piece.
    We discuss how good it feels to bow, because it stretches the back and neck muscles, which increases the blood flow to the head. Performers feel invigorated and ready to perform, or relaxed and relieved that the performance is over. We also talk about appropriate recital attire. I recommend either dressy or business-like outfits with skirts at knee length or longer.

How to Bow
    I have found that a little silliness helps students relax. We have fun with the first bowing lesson; it is hard not to laugh when I demonstrate bows to avoid. It is my hope that students will remember this light-hearted introduction to bowing when they start to feel nervous at the performance.
    I teach students a three-second bow:  bend at the waist, look at your shoes, and count to three before straightening up. If students prefer, they can think, “I tie my shoes,” or a word like hippopotamus instead of counting to three. I suggest they hold the flute by the barrel, allowing it to hang at their side during the bow. After they finish the bow, they should look at the audience and smile.
    Encourage students to bend at the waist and neck, tucking the chin toward the chest, so that the back of the head faces the audience during the bow. Don’t leave the head sticking up during the bow. I also remind students to take a large step to the side of the music stand before starting the bow to avoid bumping their head on it.

Bows to Avoid
    Over the years, students have unintentionally come up with amusing variations, which I have filed away and perform for current students. They usually produce a lot of laughter. A few of my favorites are:

    •    Ballerina Bow: Bow with flat back, sticking your bottom out, looking directly at the audience.

    •    Ski Jump Bow: Lift the flute perpendicular to your body as you bow, just as ski jumpers hold their ski poles when they sail through the air    during a jump.

    •    Sneak-a-Peak Bow: During the bow, sneak a peak at the audience.

    •    Premature Bow: Start bending and looking at the floor while walking onto the stage; it saves time.

    •    Tripod bow: Bow with feet shoulder-width apart.

Acting the Part
    Students often ask what they should do if they make a mistake during their performance. I encourage them to keep going, no matter what happens, and to pretend that no mistake was made. Part of performing is acting the part of a performer, as if the recital were a drama production. Stopping, making a face, or groaning communicates the mistake to the audience, most of whom were unaware of it in the first place.

After the Recital
    Performers receive compliments from family and friends after recitals.  While it is human nature to discount these compliments with laundry lists of all of the mistakes that were made, my students are taught to just say, “Thank you.” If they want to add something beyond that, only positive comments are acceptable, including “I’m glad you enjoyed it,” “I had a lot of fun playing,” and “I enjoyed learning this piece.”
    When students practice these skills before taking the stage, they will feel and look more comfortable during the performance. This leads to successful experiences that boost their confidence.

Phyllis Avidan Louke graduated from the University of California at Santa Barbara, where she studied flute with Burnett Atkinson. She maintains a large private flute studio and is a sought after clinician. She is principal flute with the Oregon Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra.