How pianists move and why it matters

If you go to a live piano performance, you might see any number of things. The pianist could be sitting bolt upright and moving in the most precise, sparing ways, or they might be throwing their hands in the air, swaying from side to side and looking to the ceiling for divine inspiration. 

There are different schools of thought on this. Many people argue it doesn’t matter how a pianist moves as long as they sound good. Some listeners find a lot of movement distracting or off-putting, while others feel it adds to the performance. 

If you ask me, movement at the piano matters for two reasons. 

Reason #1: Movement affects the sound 

Surprisingly, this often goes unaddressed over many years of piano training. Young students are encouraged to be expressive in whatever ways come naturally to them, and that can include a lot of movement beyond what is useful for playing the piano. Regardless of whether the “expressive” movements result in better playing, the habits become ingrained over time. 

Physical freedom and expression at the piano are good things of course, but I think we should strive for an objective awareness of the sound coming out of the instrument. 

When I was a university student, there were many times when my teacher told me to move less and I immediately sounded better. I could create more resonance with less effort, control dynamic levels with greater subtlety and overcome technical challenges quicker. It makes sense when you think about it. Your brain is better able to manage complex movements of the hands and arms when its point of reference is not constantly moving in space. 

It took a while to unlearn my counterproductive habits of shifting to one side, crouching over the keyboard and moving my arms in overzealous ways, but the more I learned to stay physically centred, the better I sounded. 

My experience as a teacher continues to reinforce this insight. Here is a scenario that has played out many times in lessons: 

  • Student is struggling with some part of their piece. 
  • I suggest they try playing it without moving their head. 
  • Student is shocked by how much better it goes.  
  • Two minutes later student resumes head wobbling, I let out a sigh and patiently remind them again… 

It’s OK, it took me a while to get it too. 

Some pianists rein it in as they get older and others manage to play well despite the extraneous movement. In the world of professional pianists there are both kinds. 

Does that mean it’s all good? Not necessarily. 

Reason #2: Movement affects what the audience perceives

In a live performance, people listen with their eyes as well as their ears. It’s why we go to concerts in the first place – to witness in person the act of playing music. 

If we watch someone give a speech, we are aware of the entire person including their posture, facial expressions and hand gestures. It’s quite a different experience from listening to a voice in audio format. Musical performance works much the same way.

The important thing in either a speech or a performance is that movements and facial expressions support the communication taking place, or at the very least don’t interfere with it. 

What does it look like when a pianist’s movement doesn’t support, or interferes with the musical communication?

Here is one example. A pianist plays a concert of many pieces by different composers, all the while tracing a clockwise or counterclockwise circular pattern in the air with their torso. No matter whether the music is joyful or sad, they roll around on the piano bench like a bowling pin knocked slightly off centre. I can’t help picturing a person wobbling around in circles on their feet while talking to an audience… 

You see this pattern mostly in students. By the time pianists reach the professional level, most have realized how counterproductive it is (see reason #1). 

When it does happen, a perceptive listener will notice an incongruity between the movement and the message, and the communication becomes less believable. A less experienced listener probably won’t notice a problem consciously, but I think their opportunity to feel the music is compromised. On a subconscious level they are thrown off by the mixed messages and the pianist’s apparent detachment from what is being communicated.    

More common among professional pianists and international competitors is the habit of making intense facial expressions while playing. Most of the time they seem to project on their face something like, “This is so beautiful!” 

I scoured the world’s largest piano performance library (a.k.a. Youtube) for a good example.

So he’s really into the music and likes to show it on his face. What exactly is the problem? Assuming Lang Lang’s emotional responses are sincere, which I believe they are, it still might not be the best way to approach a performance. 

The message I get from Lang Lang’s physical demeanour is not “I’m here to give you something.” It’s more like “I’m feeling the music deeply.” The emphasis is on him feeling it, which strikes me as kind of self-centred. It’s like I’m on the outside watching someone have a musical experience instead of having one myself.

Maybe he and I could both feel it at the same time. Maybe watching him be emotional could even help me to feel it. I could see an argument for both of those points, but my impression is when a performer prioritizes their own emotional experience, less of it reaches me as a listener. It could be partly due to the style of playing that tends to correlate with this kind of stage presence, but the visual display is definitely a factor.  

I found another performance of the same Chopin etude where the pianist appears to maintain some distance from the emotions, and as a result the music reaches me in a more powerful way.  

There are no gestures or facial expressions capable of conveying the depth of what Chopin composed. It seems to me the best a performer can do is enable the music to speak to listeners as directly as possible, and that’s exactly what I get from this performance. The music is the star, not the pianist.

Of course there are many differences between these two interpretations, but maybe that’s the important truth behind all this. As a performer, your attitude toward music and performance comes across in your body language and it also comes across in your playing. 

Great music can be appreciated on many levels. It can also feel very different from one day to another, or one year to another, depending on what the individual listener brings to the table. Music interacts with each person’s unique life story when given the chance. To me, the best kind of performance is one where this interaction can unfold freely without distraction or interference. For this to happen, the pianist might need to get out of the way.