Body Language and Stage Presence

The following blog post is in reference to a performance seminar with professional musician Sally Whitwell. The seminar included student performances along with advice on performance strategies.

Body language and stage presence are incredibly underrated studies in music training and performance. The musician in training needs to be able to explore the role performance strategies play in their learning as its key to attaching personal expression. A study on emotional expression in music performance published in 1999 clearly highlights this importance:

“To attain expressive performance should be a goal for all performing artists, not lease in music. Musicians, whether instrumentalists or singers, differ very much in this respect. Those who are able to find a genuine and personal expression usually receive most attention and appreciation by the audience. High technical skill is certainly important but not enough. The musician must have an adequate representation of the music in question, an understanding of what the music is about, its structure and meaning, and know how to make this evident in the performance.” (Gabrielsson 1999, p.47)

There are many factors that can influence the musician’s ability to perform and a key issue is performance anxiety. Performance anxiety stems from the audiences expectations that induce pressure, and the inescapable force of perfectionism.

To demonstrate how performance anxiety can affect the musician I will assess two differing performers, the classical and the contemporary.

A UNSW music student Eva Stokes majoring in classical piano states that “there absolutely is an element of perfectionism with classical piano music” and when I asked her if her teacher had ever made her feel pressured to be perfect, she replied with an “absolutely”. Stokes then went on to state why; “there’s a longer history with classical music, and since the ‘nuances’ are written, it’s much clearer as to how to play them … and there are certain connotations that come with the written stuff.”

(E Stokes 2016, pers. comm. 7 October)

In this case the pressure to be perfect comes from the teacher, which therefore means that there should be a change in the way expression is taught. This should begin from the amateur stages as it builds a solid, healthy self-esteem. The study earlier pinpointed the common teaching method; “interpretive originality comes second relative to technical perfection and conformity to standard performance.” (Gabrielsson 1999, p.47) However this has proven to be a weakness in a students ability to perform, which ultimately effects their body language and stage presence. It is easy for an audience with no musical knowledge to know when a musician is self-conscious as there are common bodily movements; shaky hands, heavy breathing, facial expressions, etc. However the method of teaching classical music is a very respected and honoured tradition and is therefore a hard thing to disagree with especially as its produced some of the greatest works. However, there is also the issue of ‘one size fits all’ and even though many methods of teaching are fantastic in the early ages of developing, especially the ‘fake it till you make it’ approach, these should maybe be looked at as stepping stones, not immortal conditions of performing. It is excellent when one gets tips on how to perform, for example, in the performance on clarinet by a student in the seminar with Sally Whitwell, Whitwell suggested that instead of looking down at the end of the piece, take a big breathe and look up. After learning the commonalities the teacher should be supportive and let the student express themselves for the piece to be genuine, as this will then give them the kind of confidence an audience can appreciate.

The contemporary performer receives scrutiny for various reasons that contribute to emotional and physical stress. One example in live pop music demonstrates how the audience expects to much out of the performers body movements and stage presence. Here it is completely opposite to that of classical training where the emphasis is placed on the drama rather then the actual music itself.

At the 2013 MTV Movie Awards Selena Gomez performed her piece ‘Come and Get it’ however she did not just sing standing in one spot, she had dancers, she was dancing and there was fire blowing to emphasise the dynamic shifts between the verse and the chorus. There are negative comments that describe Gomez as breathy however when I asked someone from the millennial generation if she lost respect for Gomez, she replied with “it’s understandable”. (I Arnone 2016, pers. comm. 7 October) It is understandable, just performing standing or sitting in one spot is physically exhausting at times and to add dancing on top of that only increases that exhaustion. However why then do we expect our contemporary singers to perform so dramatically? Is it because we have high expectations of them, or is it because they put pressure on themselves? Or the most depressing question to ask; is it because we’ve lost what’s important in music ? The somewhat contemporary piece performed by a singer in the Whitwell seminar was musically challenging and by not over dramatising the performance the audience were able to appreciate the singer’s technique and expression.

Therefore it is important as the performer to understand their limits, what’s a priority in the performance and how they want to express their ideas. It is incredibly important to be able to have control over your performance through stage presence and body movements, however that can only come with a supporting teacher and a solid self-esteem.


Arnone, I 2016, Text messaging 7 October.

Gabrielsson, A 1999, ‘Studying Emotional Expression in Music Performance’, Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, no. 141, pp. 47-53.

Selena Gomez – Come & Get It LIVE at MTV Movie Awards 2013, online video, accessed 7 October 2016 <>

Stokes, E 2016, Facebook messaging 7 October.


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