How much of me does the music really need?

It was the sort of revelation that will probably be denied to musicians of the post YouTube generation, because when you grow up in a world where a permanent visual record of just about everyone and everything is available instantaneously online, the shock of seeing something or someone significant for the first time will almost always be watered down. But for me, the first time I saw the Berlin Philharmonic was a revelation.

It was in the early 1990’s. My piano trio had been invited to do a short residency at the Lucerne Festival, coaching with our inspiring mentor Henry Meyer, and giving a concert in a breathtaking converted mansion overlooking the lake. During the days, we rehearsed, practiced and worked with Henry. In the evenings, we had passes to all the events of the festival, and what a lineup it was. We saw the Alban Berg Quartet, heard a magnificent recital by Anne-Sophie Mutter, heard Pollini play Schumann, Schönberg and Stravinsky, and we got to hear many of the world’s greatest orchestras. The Cleveland Orchestra played a stunning Dvorak 9 with Dohnanyi, the Concertgebouw rocked Mahler 1 with the then-young Chailly and another great American orchestra played what remains the worst, or at least most upsetting, concert I’ve ever heard. Everything was free, except for the final concert of the Festival- Mahler 9 with Abbado (this was before the founding of new Lucerne Festival Orchestra) and his Berlin Philharmonic. Our kind contact in the office tried hard to get me in for cheap or free, but 2 minutes before the concert started, she told me there was only one seat left and it was an amount equivalent to half a month’s rent for student Ken. Well, I thought, my hands trembling, this is what an emergency credit card is for. I’ve never regretted spending the money- it was an incredible concert.

The music making was unreal and has stayed with me ever since, but the other revelation was to see how the orchestra moved as they played. Growing up in the Midwest we were lucky to be able to go see the Chicago Symphony and later Cleveland, Cincinnati and Minnesota on their home turf, but American orchestra musicians back then really didn’t move. In fact, moving was beaten out of us in conservatory- it was seen as distracting, narcissistic and counterproductive. As my wife’s violin teacher has said-“Why move? It’s harder to hit a moving target.” And we’ve all had to sit next to, or worse yet, behind a real showboater- there is nothing more irritating or distracting.

Then there was Belin, making the greatest sound I’d ever heard, and everyone in the orchestra was moving a lot, and it seemed anything but counterproductive.  I realised that night that there was a flaw in the logic I’d grown up with, but it took me many years to figure out exactly what the lesson of that evening should be.

It’s not just the pre-YouTube-ness of seeing the Berlin Philharmonic work for the first time in an actual concert that seems quaint. It’s the fact that someone working on their doctorate degree at the time could be fairly surprised to see professional musicians moving onstage so demonstrably.  My how times have changed.

(Heifetz and Reiner- not exactly a feast for the eyes, but for the ears?)

For much of the 20th C. the generally accepted view of classical musicians, including soloists and even conductors, was that they should be appreciated by the ears rather than the eyes. Horowitz may have played like a demon, but he dressed and moved more like an accountant. Heifetz was the embodiment of economy of motion- the eyes, when open, said much, but the facial muscles said nothing, and the feet never moved. Young Leonard Bernstein, of course, raised many eyebrows with a conducting style miles away from that of his stoic teacher, Fritz “the evil Rhinoceros”  Reiner, and Georg Solti’s acrobatic and muscular approach was also controversial, but the key to understanding the world in which they worked was the very shock with which their performances were sometimes received.

Today, moving is the norm. In fact, classical music has, in the course of just a generation, become a largely visual medium. Our biggest stars are our biggest movers, from Lang Lang and Gustavo Dudamel right through the ranks. That’s not a criticism of them- merely a statement of fact. Today, more and more musicians and concert planners are making sure that our audience has plenty to look at.  Looks have always mattered in this business, as this historic photo of Abbado and Matha Argerich oozing glamour reminds us.


Karajan reputedly forced bald members of the Berlin Philharmonic to wear hair-pieces when the orchestra was filmed, and Leonard Bernstein had a life-long love affair with the camera. On the other hand, look at vintage footage of Bernstein’s NYPO and you’ll see what you see in most historic orchestral footage- bad hair, bad glasses, ill-fitting tuxes, frumpy dresses and old-fashioned shoes.

(Even Lenny looks bad in this, but does it bother you? Probably not…. until they murder the coda. But till then- WOW!!!!)

I write today not to decry the visual in music. After all, I was once the young conductor whose entire concept of orchestral playing was shaped by seeing how the Berliner’s moved. Instead, I write to question our motivations for creating visual stimuli in the concert hall.

Of course, not everything visual in a concert is motivated. Some people just are very good looking, and I’m fine with that. Being able to appreciate visual beauty is one of the great compensations afforded by the human condition.

And some performers can’t help but move. Jimi Hendrix is my hero- he could be as flamboyant as anyone who ever lived, although in his greatest performance, he hardly moved at all.

(Jimi plants his feet and reaches to the edge of the Cosmos)

These days, the classical music world is full of dazzlingly good-looking people who can play anything perfectly while doing anything else. One might regret that there would surely be no place in today’s musical universe for a Horowitz or Heifetz (and even less room for their female analogues), but times have changed.


(What would the music world do with Myra Hess today?)

We live in an age of instant gratification- even the world of TV seems laid back and cosy compared to the sensory overload of the online universe. In the era of music for YouTube, perhaps we must simply accept that this is now a visual medium and work accordingly? Being a “great communicator” has become synonymous with “looking cool and sexy onstage/on video,” a metric by which someone like Rostropovich, to say nothing of Heifetz or Milstein, must have stank to high heaven as a communicator. After all, there is no shortage of classical musicians who can play The Last Rose of Summer naked while reciting Ibsen in four different languages and tap dancing the Communist Manifesto in Morse code. Everyone is racing to put together the next million click YouTube video. Classical music can no longer count on the kind of engagement and broad popular interest that sustained it through the Horowitz and Heifetz era. It seems that if we want to attract a modern audience, it is no longer enough to stand still and play. We have to dazzle, titillate and entertain.

I fear we’ve missed something? What if that great audience of the mid 20th C existed not in spite of performers like Horowitz and Heifetz, but, in part, because of them? Technically, standards are higher than ever, but what if there was more to music than playing without making mistakes? Oh- you mean there is?

I remember a teacher who had a great trick for teaching students to play things like Flight of the Bumblebee and Paganini’s Moto Perpetuo. He said you should put the metronome on slowing and work it up while reading a magazine. It worked. “When it’s in your fingers, it’s easy- you can be doing anything else.” Such an approach is fine for mastering technique, but doesn’t work for communicating the essence of great music.

My belief is that we only really reach our audience when we’re giving everything of ourselves to the music. Not to the eye or to the camera. You don’t get to touch people’s souls while posing  and thinking about the crossword. With enough practice, you can play the notes and multitask, but nobody can play the music while thinking of ten other things, least of all their own vanity. Solti’s manic energy was a perfect manifestation of an unselfconscious, total focus on the music, as I’ve written about before. I feel the same about much of Bernstein’s work, though others disagree with me. I think the power of the Berlin experience back at Lucerne all those years ago was not that they “were moving” but that they’d given up “trying not to move” which is a form of posing in and of itself. If you move because of the music, or for the music- fine. If you move for the camera or the audience, well…..

I believe we expect most performers and composers to be unrealistically “normal” these days. Everyone is expected to like pop music, be a good cook, tell jokes, dress fashionably and charm people. We used to accept that many artists were eccentric, socially awkward, monomaniacal or neurotic. We certainly didn’t expect them all to buy into the corn syrup phoniness of most pop culture, or be able to jump start a car. Nobody ever accused Horowitz of being normal. Perhaps, to really reach the parts, to really stop listeners in their tracks, to give people a reason to trek across suburbia and look for a parking space before a concert, we need to play music with the kind of all-consuming intensity that means we need to accept the odd un-choreographed moment,  bad haircut, personality disorder, ill-fitting suit or pair of odd socks. If we make music for YouTube, then we must expect to find our audiences there and not in the concert hall.

Maybe as long as we try to reach listeners through their eyes, they’ll continue to look elsewhere.


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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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9 comments on “How much of me does the music really need?”

  1. Michael Haas

    What in many ways you describe is the legacy of two world wars that left the Romantic 19th century discredited, with a view that music not only should not ‘move’ the listener (let alone the performer) but was innately incapable of doing so. To employ music to express anything not empirically objective was to abuse art and manipulate the listener. If Solti’s hacking gestures were electrifying it was because he saw rhythm as the basis of all musical architecture and used downbeats as much for cutting off the narrative of the previous bar as for starting a new one. At his most manic, one had the feeling that each downbeat came a microsecond sooner than the previous. It made for electrifying playing and engaging theatre, but is that really what the composer meant to communicate? When the so-called ‘perfection’ of the recording studio was added to the philosophical poison that music was the bedrock needed to create a more noble society that ‘thought’ rather than ‘felt’, we headed for a perfect storm that produced decades of blandness and neurotic performers. Thank God, the cataclysms now shaking the music and recording industries are forcing us to look at alternative ways of communicating what we perform. Now, all we need is an army of composers and promoters with the ability to offer something musicians wish to perform and audiences appreciate and profit from hearing. It would be a welcome development to experience a piano or violin or cello concerto entering the repertoire that wasn’t composed 50 years (or more) ago.

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Fascinating thoughts, Michael. It’s an age of many silver linings alongside the clouds. The good news is that there is music being written over the last generation that has the balance of substance and generosity of spirit that it takes to create real and lasting audience engagement. The bad news is that this is the kind of music it seems to be hardest to find funding to support.

  3. Eugene via FB

    Great read. I myself just recently came to the conclusion that if I’m being honest with myself and I really listen carefully, the results of my conducting are better when I don’t move too much. On the other hand, I have often enjoyed orchestras that move organically together. I find that it is often the case that orchestras that move together play together. They also are less visually oriented and have the capacity to play late to the conductor’s beat which is most useful and in fact desirable in the German repertoire.

  4. Lada via FB

    I often wondered how would Myra Hess, Clara Haskill, Tatyana Nikolayeva, or Maria Yudina,at the night of their mastery, fit into this visual classical music model. They probably wouldn’t and we would have never heard of them. Unless they were “picked young”, and marketed. But we might then not get their mature mastery… In any case, grateful that it was different times, and I can hear their recordings. Thank you for your post.

  5. Parmella via FB

    Nice one! I remember having movement taught out of me at IU (specifically for orchestral playing) only to have my teacher in Switzerland videotape me and point out that my “energy” was blocked because I was so still. But we also talked about the difference between natural movement and gratuitous movement … and I find the latter very distracting.
    (I’m still paranoid about moving when playing in orchestra – which might contribute to my dislike of orchestral playing)

  6. Teresa via FB

    Always insightful. Come to think of it, Horowitz DID dress and move like an accountant!

  7. Galen via FB

    An early great orchestral experience for me was 1979, Markevitch conducting the London Symphony in the Rite of Spring. They didn’t move much, and neither did he, but seeing his spare, alert and graceful motions unleash pandemonium from the orchestra? Also about that time, Kubelik and the Bavarians, Dvorak 6, stupendous: more animated, but visually austere by today’s standard.

  8. Frances via FB

    Great post Ken. Since I’m usually in the back row of the stalls at the Wigmore, I rarely get a decent of view of the performer and that suits me fine, as I attend concerts primarily to hear, rather than see, the performer. I’m interested in how the music is communicated, how it engages and absorbs, rather than the height of the pianist’s stilettos

  9. Gracie Avinado

    I heard from a great artist that moving and playing music at the same time is difficult. But as an audience. I am more fascinated to musicians/artist that moves. It looks cool and more pleasing to the eyes.

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