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Stage presence vs. stage deportment

By Jonathan Brahms

From a FLUTE listserv posting - with permission of the author

I don't mean to split hairs, but I don't think we are discussing stage presence, we are discussing stage deportment.

I don't think that stage presence can be taught and I am not sure it really exists except in the eyes of the beholders who are expecting it.

I think that stage presence may be the result or the goal of good stage deportment.

I do think that it is EXTREMELY important to prepare entrances, exits, bows and acknowledgement of colleages and will rehearse these myself and ask the people that I coach or teach to do the same for me when they get to that stage. This is simply professionalism and must be prepared and practiced as much as the steps to the altar - as opposed to the ceremony itself. That is, those steps are part of the ceremony and cannot be expected to take care of themselves.

Animals sniff to determine the confidence level of another animal - we humans are visual beings when in the audience, we look for visual cues to determine the confidence level of the one who dares to demand the attention of the many for an hour and a half on an empty, open stage, where every tic is visible.

The goal of good stage deportment - walking out briskly and confidently, making eye contact with the audience when acknowledging the greeting applause, smiling, "filling" the stage with good posture, looking out occasionally while playing, moving freely while playing - is to put ourselves and our audience at ease and "prime the pump" for communication.

These cues demonstrate that the performer is confident and wants to be there. They set the stage, so to speak, for communication to take place during the performance. It is quite possible that these devices are for those of us who are not great and need all the help we can get to enhance communication with the audience.

On the other hand, stage presence is also to a great extent in the eye of the beholder. To an outsider, the unselfconscious way a piano tuner walks out to a concert grand at the intermission of a solo piano recital may not be any different from the way Horowitz walked out - curtly, all business, no charm - to open a recital. To those of us expecting miracles, we sense all the difference in the world, but let's face it - they are both pro's, going out there to do their job who don't bother with any enhancements.

The truly great concert artists do not seem to need or use these devices. Some are charming but others are all business. All of their communication is in the playing, not their mannerisms before, during and after the fact. Those that employ stage mannerisms may be acting the role of the concert artist, rather than being the music - out of weakness. I saw Rampal perform many times from close up. I don't remember any smiles. But there was only one Rampal. Those of us who are not a Rampal need every enhancement we can to make our case and there is nothing wrong with that.

I recently witnessed the finals of a flute competition where three prizes were awarded. I heard the six semifinalists and for the first time in my life, placed the three winners exactly as the judges did before I knew the results.

The playing of the first prize winner was without debate superior to the other two winners. That player was simply in the zone and made few concessions to the presence of an audience. All communication was in the sound.

I was not terribly impressed with the second place winner whose stage presence was rather wooden but played impeccably, if not expressively.

However, the difference between the third place winner and the one who did not place but was closest to placing - I felt was all about deportment.

The third place winner dressed in snazzily, walked out all smiles, bowed low, played perfectly from memory and mugged shamelessly, eyes closed in ecstasy whenever he was not actually playing. He made it quite clear that he was in love with himself and his playing and that we ought to be as well and were crazy if we weren't. He had a rather weak low register, but that didn't seem to phase the judges. He did a fine job, but his performance was all mannerisms, more about himself than the music, which he did play very well. But I was almost disgusted by his show-buz phoniness.

The person who I felt was totally interchangeable with the third place winner in strictly musical and instrumental values played a more difficult piece - the same one as the second prize winner - beautifully - but his stage deportment was that of an orchestral flutist. He shambled to his station with an "aw shucks" look on his face, and did absolutely nothing to project himself at the audience or act the role of a soloist.

The two other semifinalists were clearly ill at ease on stage. One had a cloud on her face. She played well enough, but projected her unhappiness with great success.

Jonathan Brahms

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