The Lost Art of Comportment

Amy Sue Dombach | November 2015

    I confess. I scroll through Facebook just as much as my students, cramming in a glimpse between lessons and rehearsal breaks. For six weeks this past spring, the deluge of obligatory student-with-teacher post-recital Insta-grams and YouTube videos inundated my newsfeed. Every peek revealed selfies of exhausted students and proud teachers. How did I know that the students were exhausted and that the teachers were proud?  
Teachers stood proudly with shoulders back and down, heads held high, eyes focused, simultaneously leaning in and sitting back on their heels, and smiling. Students stood apologetic, a bit uncomfortable in their formal attire, shoulders raised, chests concave, smiles dubious, and heads drooped with doe-eyed stares.
    This media stream exposed an epidemic of a universal casualness with which instrumental students in particular present themselves before, during, and after a performance. It revealed a lack of attention to stage presence. In this age of over sharing, musicians must be in control of their public image – what is posted, forwarded, shared, Instagrammed, Vimeoed, Tweeted, Vined, and YouTubed. The first key to oversight of that persona begins with comportment and presence.
Technical instruction often sidelines the teaching of comportment and presence, with cursory advice haphazardly doled out as an afterthought during dress rehearsals. Students require a safe space in which to study professional stage presence, to make mistakes, and to learn from them without fear of consequence. Whether it is an integral part of studio class and private lessons (which it should be) or a series of departmental masterclasses, instrumental teachers should nurture these skills in young musicians.
    Of course the learning of these arts can be complicated, especially for high school students and young undergraduates who are developing self-esteem and confidence, both personally and with their craft, and who are becoming comfortable with their bodies. Performance anxiety, stage fright, and other psychological issues can exacerbate the process of learning stage presence. It is an especially prickly topic to navigate as students learn that judgment of a musical performance is not a judgment of one’s worth as a person.
    Students can learn the rudiments of stage presence and comportment, even if some aspects take years to hone. The key is to remember that they are learnable skills, which can be broken down into digestible steps. Stage presence must be practiced to develop habits just like playing techniques. Remember that mistakes and failures are par for the course.

Rudiments of Stage Presence and Comportment 
    The senior recital bears an inordinate amount of academic weight. Teachers should help students set reasonable goals and adjust performance expectations. It seems that every recording is flawless; false, that is just good sound engineering. Yet, students expect to sound like a recording right out of the gate, using this as a yardstick of success. Experience classical music outside of the insular university setting. Students can practice performing in religious institutions, nursing homes, senior centers, libraries, homeless shelters, and studio classes. Practice room hermitage lends itself to only practicing how to “get it right,” and neglects practicing performing. Practice performances help to give perspective to expectations. They also give a sense of familiar comfort that comes from performing a work more than once – bolstering confidence, solidifying intent, and creating greater ease on stage. 

    Intention is the purpose or message to be conveyed in a recital. It is the architecture of program design, the need for ebbs and flows in audience and performer attention, and fluctuations of intensity and emotional response. Coding each piece with a purpose and psychological intent gives one the confidence to commit to an interpretation, and thus ultimately bolster confidence. You can only control your intention and delivery of it; the audience will hopefully be open to receiving it, which is out of your control. Consider intention to be what you are doing to the audience with the piece. The music itself is a way to connect directly to each person sharing the performance with you. Play with and for them, not at them.2 

    In large part, confidence comes from a clear intent, knowing the music (and that of collaborators), and being resolute in the interpretation. This allows the performer to be present in the moment and be able to connect to the audience in a more relaxed manner. This is when you discover a confidence, not arrogance, in your playing that permeates your entire being. Every action involved with performing is a communication to the audience. Make choices and commit to them. Without conviction in your choices, the audience becomes unsettled and the value and quality of the performance becomes suspect. Building confidence takes time. Professional comportment should always reflect confidence. 

Audience Communication 
    With venue sizes shrinking, the old trick of stare over their heads at the back wall no longer applies. Today’s audiences expect greater communication between the performers and the audience. Speaking to an audience makes a performance interactive; it makes them feel like conspirators in what is about to transpire on stage. Addressing them during a recital is essential. The performer should be instructing them about what to expect, how to feel, and what to think; they are looking for those cues. Tell them your intent. Opportunities to communicate with the audience occur when entering and exiting, speaking about the program, in between compositions, bows, and after the concert. Smile and make eye contact with audience members as you enter and exit. As you gain confidence, sharing a quick glance or wink during the performance includes them and mitigates some of classical music’s perceived stuffiness and inaccessibility.
    Speaking is a musical form governed by vocal inflection. Prepare and practice what you will say (video recording is immensely instructive in this process). Make sure that the intent and message are clear, that you are easily understood, and listen for and eliminate space fillers (ums, ers, uhs). A second of silence is far more illustrative of confidence than a string of monosyllables. You should assess your speaking volume to determine if you should use a mic and adjust accordingly. 

    Select something in which you are comfortable. Remember that something that looks amazing in the fitting room may not be performance comfortable. Test out attire prior to a recital and rectify problems before they affect the performance. Break in new shoes. Leave open-toed shoes in the closet and avoid high heels. Check skirt length whether sitting or standing, remembering that you are elevated on stage. Men often find that a tailored suit coat is uncomfortable when playing.
Entering/Exiting the Stage

    Enter the stage projecting intent; this provides integrity to each piece from before any sound through the final reverberations. Michel Debost teaches every student to enter and exit the stage (regardless of performance quality) as if they are the only one who knows how to play the flute. Hold your head high; keep your chest broad; open, and welcoming; and wear a smile that absorbs the entire face. Remember to walk with authority – not attitude. Make eye contact with a few people in the front row and throw a wide smile to those lurking in the back. It creates a frame for each piece when the performer enters and exits the stage. Exploring Feldenkrais and Alexander Techniques will help not only with this, but also with posture, physical carriage, and performance stance.

Stage Positioning
    While ensemble composition prescribes much of stage positioning (e.g. quintet arrangements), there are still some freedoms, such as standing in the crook of the piano, in front of it, or in line with it. The position and the space between performers illustrates for the audience who is in power.3 Be sure to position yourself so that you can not only see collaborators, but also visually and physically communicate with them. That position should lend itself to communication with the audience. This direct interaction, as well as those occurring onstage, will give them a sense of active inclusion in the performance. 

Indicators of Collaboration
    Soloists should acknowledge every collaborative artist on stage when they initially enter, and during bows. They were asked to work with you, not for you. Never scowl at a collaborative artist in an attempt to displace blame for your own error or flinch at anyone’s mistake. Visual communication and interaction between performers should signal to the audience that you are a team. A small smile shared on stage during a fun section goes a long way in connecting with an audience; it allows them to feel as though they are witnessing something intimate, personal, and special.

When You Are Not the Focus
    Having entered the stage with intent, carry it through the moments when you are not playing. Unless you have a debilitating instrument malfunction, direct your focus to fellow performers. A piano interlude is not the time to swab out, look bored, or adjust one’s outfit, and doing so signals the audience that what is occurring is not important. This devalues the music, the artists, and ultimately your own performance. Instead, you could temporarily, gently shift your stage position, stepping more into the piano crook, and face the person musically leading.  

    A bow is about showing gratitude for the audience. Every bow should express this. The old standby of “bend at the waist, stare at your toes, count 1-2-3, and pop back up like a whack-a-mole game” will not do. No matter the performance flaws, control your facial expressions and physical carriage to show the audience that the performance was wonderful. It should be friendly and welcoming, perhaps catching the eye of an audience member. Notice the scale of the space, and adjust the bow to fit it. A big stage should have a big bow; a small stage should get a small bow. Genuinely include all collaborators, who should stand side-by-side as your equals. Beforehand, be sure to coordinate who will lead the bow.

Manners Matter
    Be gracious in every interaction with stagehands, orchestra managers, and venue staff. The lighting designers, costumers, hair and makeup staff, and stage management team can affect whether you are asked to return for future performances. The arts world is small.  
    From arrival at the venue to the time that you are home, you should engage and project a professional self. This means leaving personal issues at home. If you require undisturbed time, stage managers are your greatest resource, especially for extraction from pre-concert receptions. In the post-concert receiving line, the response to a compliment is always a variant of “Thank you. You are too kind;” this is not the time for self-deprecation. The audience is still looking to you for cues relating to performance quality. Attentiveness and smiles make for endearing photos and impressions.
    You will be remembered by every adjudicator, teacher, and audience member encountered in every competition, audition, performance, festival, or application. Everyone with whom you interact is potentially your next employer. A colleague of mine applied for a professorial position just after receiving his PhD in Musicology. When he arrived for his on-campus interview, the first person to shake his hand said, “I’m so happy to see you again. I knew I would. I remember you from your grad school application seven years ago.”

You Are Your Brand
    Lindsay Leach-Sparks wrote, “The market is not just tough – it is brutal…. Full-time music jobs are unlikely, and expecting one after graduation is unrealistic…. It is still possible to survive as a professional musician, but the methods and paths are often quite different than they were in the past.”4 Those methods and paths are paved with entrepreneurial endeavors. In this age of media chronicling, you must always put your very best professional self forward, for that media stream will unsparingly reveal deficits. A seemingly inconsequential picture can, and will, speak volumes to potential donors when they Google you (and believe me they will) before writing that check.  
    Your best professional self is what you want to project and what they want to see. Some of the rudiments of comportment and stage presence are an easy fix, while others require a lifetime of cultivation. We all lack confidence at times, it is just that the more seasoned we become the easier it becomes to not broadcast it. With a little practice, you can always put forward your best professional self, even if you still have a little doubt inside.    

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This is one’s bearing, demeanor, and behavior. Essentially, how we carry ourselves. 

Stage Presence
This is the ability to command the attention of an audience through one’s skill, artistry, manner, and appearance.1

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End Notes
1 For further understanding of stage presence, see Deavere, A.S. (2006). Letters to a Young Artist: Straight-Up Advice on Making a Life in the Arts-For Actors, Performers, Writers, and Artists of Every Kind. New York: Anchor Books, Random House, Ch. 1 & 3. 

2 For further understanding of intent, see Bruder, M. et al. (1986). A Practical Handbook For the Actor. New York: Vintage, Random House.

3 See Bogart, A. and Landau, T. (2004). The Viewpoints Book: A Practical Guide to Viewpoints and Composition. New York: Theatre Communications Group for discussion of the use of space in performance and the Fine Arts.

4 Leach-Sparks, L. (2015) “How to make a Living with a Music Degree” by Lindsay Leach-Sparks. Flute Talk vol. 34 (9), May/June, pp. 26-29.