Facing the music

Posted Saturday, Jun. 01, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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What’s in a face?

A great deal, judging by the contorted countenances we routinely see floating above the keyboard at the Cliburn, which are brought into sharp focus for us by the frequent close-ups flashed on the video screen above the pianist in Bass Hall and on the competition’s live webcast being beamed around the world.

Some squint, some scowl, some seem to be singing. But nearly all of them let their musical feelings reflect in their faces and upper bodies to some degree or another.

There is nothing new in this. The first caveman to hit a rock with a stick probably made a face when he did it. In more recent times, certain pianists ( Glenn Gould in the past and Lang Lang in the present) have become poster boys for exaggerated facial gymnastics while playing.

At the Cliburn, there are no shortage of expressive players. But one of the most animated performers is Alessandro Deljavan of Italy, who gives his first semifinal performance Sunday afternoon. He becomes so obviously involved in his music that one of his teachers, William Nabore, fears that his style is unfairly regarded as “eccentric.”

“Alessandro started playing piano before he could talk. He started playing at the age of 18 months old. So, in a way, the piano is his language,” Nabore said. “When he came to [study with] me, we talked about the facial expressions and we started a regimen trying to get him to calm down. And then the music stopped. He was hampered by trying to stay calm.”

Nabore says most of the great pianists (he cited Alfred Brendel and Keith Jarrett, among others) complement their performances with facial and body expressions.

“It’s not that he is doing this as a performance. When he’s in a lesson, that’s how he plays,” Nabore said about Deljavan, who also competed in the 2009 Cliburn. “He reacts to the music in a very physical way. That’s who he is. It’s like watching a volcano erupt. And who isn’t fascinated by a volcano?”

There is actually a body of academic research related to why musicians make funny faces when they play. But a definitive answer to the question “Why?” seems elusive.

One study and paper in development by three scholars from the U.S., Israel and England is titled The Embodied Effect of Facial Expressions on Pianists’ Performance Interpretation. In its abstract, the authors say, “The notion that body gestures and facial expressions could influence thinking and emotions has gained consistent empirical and theoretical support.”

Another study, done by Australian researcher Jane W. Davidson and published in the journal Psychology of Music last year, looked at issues such as whether facial expressions help musicians remember their scores and concluded, “Musical performance skills involve the biomechanical aspects of playing the music fluently, but coexist with expressive intentions manifested through bodily movements and facial expressions that permit the communication of musical intention (clarifying musical structural features), or meaning (narrative designated such as the Liszt piano work).”

Whether the pianists are doing it completely unconsciously or as part of the whole complicated device of memorizing and performing a complex piece of music, it is part of the show at the Cliburn.

— Punch Shaw, special to the Star-Telegram

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