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On the Stage

It’s recital season. If you’re a teacher or a student, it’s a busy time of the year. I try to watch all of my former Body Mapping students’ junior or senior recitals, which added up to be 14 during a two-week period this semester. My own students are playing on spring recitals, and I am performing on a concert in a week as well. As a movement teacher, I can’t help but notice how people carry themselves while on stage, before and after they are playing. Too often, this scenario happens: students perform beautifully; they look and sound great, they are actively developing into fantastic young musicians. Then they finish playing, bow and make their way off the stage, and I’m thinking “Yep, there’s the inexperienced musician.” It’s almost like watching a different person leave the stage. A few years ago, one of my college students shared a comment with me that is relevant. Her mom was watching her performance on a studio recital via livestream, and she said to her daughter, “You looked great until you walked off the stage.” This particular student is a classical guitarist and had a lot of other stuff to carry. How we take and leave the stage has become something that we talk about in my class. As teachers, are we teaching these skills? We are definitely teaching the musical skills, but what about the “how to you carry yourself on stage skills?” These are most definitely skills and students don’t know what they don’t know. It’s up to us, as teachers, to make sure they are learning these skills as well. 


Do you discuss how to bow at the beginning and end of a performance with your students? Do you watch them actually do it? There’s no one right way to bow. Here’s what I teach: Step to the side of the music stand, feet together, hands on flute, bend over and look at your feet (not your family in the audience) and think the word “Hippopotamus” on the way down, come back up, look at the audience and smile. I find that my middle school students are uncomfortable with the applause and we talk about what it means to accept the applause. The audience is showing you that they appreciate and value the music that you just shared with them. We practice this at the end of full run throughs of the piece for weeks before the actual performance. Lots of teachers and students practice the bowing part.

Here’s what isn’t addressed often enough. How are you, as the performer, going to walk onto and off of the stage? With my college students, we talk about the fact that the audience has already started to form an opinion about what you’re going to sound like before you even get to the front of the stage. Is this fair? Probably not, but it’s a reality. 

Taking the stage

~ Do you walk confidently with head up and your face towards the audience or are you shuffling out with eyes on your feet? It’s called “taking the stage.” You are the soloist—it’s your area! You are inviting the audience into YOUR space, not stepping into THEIR space.

~ When you arrive, do you smile at the audience as you bow? 

~ Have you practiced how you’re going to bow with your pianist or other chamber musicians on stage with you? Who is going to lead the bow?

~ Who handles the music? Is the stage manager doing that? If you’re carrying it, when do you put it on the stand? If you’re using an iPad and a foot pedal, how are you carrying all of that? I don’t think there are rules here, but there needs to be a plan. For my students, they put the music on the stand quickly, then bow, then go back to open up to the right page.

~ Do you take a few extra breaths to make sure you’re ready or do you rush to get started? The audience will wait for you to start, take your time!

Making the music

~ Do you make eye contact with other musicians before starting? With all of my students, I find myself constantly reinforcing the idea that they must look at me, when I’m accompanying for them, before they start and before each movement. We practice this a lot. I’ve been the accompanist trying to scramble to catch up when my students start and I’m not ready!

~ If there is more than one page of music, is it taped together? If you cannot make page turns and have photocopied/taped your music up to make this easier, is everything is place? Do you check before starting? I witnessed a “pages in the wrong order” of a chamber piece that temporarily went off the rails before successfully recovering on one of this weekend’s recitals.

Performance attire

~ Have you practiced in the recital clothing? If it’s a floor-length gown and you’re used to being in leggings and a hoodie, this is going to be different.

~ Have you practiced in the recital shoes? Walking and standing in high heels is different than being barefoot.

~ Have you considered how to bow if you have a low-cut dress? If you need to have an arm up on the top of the dress as you bow, where is the instrument going to go (thinking of string players who have both an instrument and a bow to hold)?

Leaving the stage

This is the area that I feel is most neglected as far as teaching stage presence skills.

~ Do you smile and accept the applause? Even if you’re not happy with your performance, do you stand there and accept the applause? It is absolutely ok to be unsatisfied with what you played, but the audience doesn’t need to know that. It should not show on your face, it’s a performance after all.  This could easily be a separate article, but expecting perfection is an unreasonable fantasy goal and it’s never going to happen for anyone.

~ If you’re playing with a chamber group, have you decided who is leading the bow and who is going to go first as you leave the stage?

~ Do you exit the stage confidently or do you finish the last note and run off as fast as you can? Do you move as if you’re apologizing as your make your way off the stage? Take the applause, you’ve earned it!

Too often, I see chamber groups play so well, and then they look like they don’t know what they’re doing after they finish the last note. This is still part of the overall performance and needs to be practiced.

Here’s my pet peeve – and it goes back to my 10 years of being a band director. Do not fuss with the music when the audience is clapping! Stand there and look out at the audience. The Cleveland Orchestra does not fuss with their music during applause and you shouldn’t either! 

An Idea to Try

Consider having your students video themselves entering and exiting the stage. My college students are required to video themselves and watch it for various assignments during the semester. Hopefully, this is a practice tool that they can easily use with the cameras on their phones. They are more likely to record audio only and need to be encouraged to add the video piece as well. When they do video, they tend to include just the music making. Seeing yourself on video can be a huge impetus for change!

We, as teachers, have a responsibility to teach stage presence skills with the same attention to detail we employ with teaching students to play in tune and with rhythmic accuracy. Teaching these skills doesn’t have to take a lot of time, but it’s vitally important to make sure that all aspects of the performance are polished. I advocated for routine practicing of these performance skills with younger students because they don’t yet have much experience as performers.  We have our students practice practicing, but we don’t generally have them practice “performing.” These are two different things and both require attention to detail. 

  1. These points and tips are excellent! However, what brought me here (with an Internet search) as an audience member at a flute recital, is wondering how performers should be positioned. I’m watching flutists and clarinet players facing the audience directly, with a music stand blocking the entire instrument. It’s not much fun to watch. Yes, I can see most of their faces at least, but it’s not much different from hearing an audio recording. I wonder why the teacher doesn’t find a better angle, but is this just normal?

    • Kelly Mollnow Wilson

      Hi Diane, I encourage my students to have the music stand wherever they need it to be in order to see the music clearly. Ideally, the stand isn’t so high that it hides them from the audience.

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