To Move or Not to Move?

To move or not to move (when playing), that is the question. Should one be physically demonstrative when playing or not? Is the question one of philosophy or is it perhaps one of physiology?

Some of my DePauw students, my son and his girlfriend, and I went to the Indianapolis Symphony on Friday night. An all-American first half was followed after intermission by the Dvorak Concerto with Harrell as soloist.

Harrell is one of the most amazing cellists of all time, of course. His technical control and huge sound are almost without peer. He has an enormous range of sound colors, including the ability to create melodic pianos and pianissimos that project powerfully.

I had heard him play the Haydn D Major concerto with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood in August, just a week after hearing Yo-Yo Ma play the Barber concerto. They are such different players! Yo-Yo moves a lot, of course, and embodies the music in a whole-person manner as no one else. Perhaps Leonard Berstein was the last classical performer to so totally become the music. Yo-Yo’s technical command is amazing as well, and he plays on this level without ever (or “hardly ever”) looking at the fingerboard. Harrell, on the other hand, moves very little, looks at his left hand quite a bit, and yet is as deeply expressive as Yo-Yo.

Were Yo-Yo to try to move as little as Harrell, or were Harrell to try to move as much as Yo-Yo, I imagine neither would play as well. Some of us are movers, some of us aren’t. It is important when making music to surrender yourself to the process of making music and to honor your own personality and way of physically responding to music.

At the same time, I couldn’t help wondering if full-time soloists who had a significant early career as an orchestral player tend to move a lot less. When you spend a good chunk of time in an orchestra, as did Harrell, you are trained not to be physically demonstrative. Orchestra culture is not kind to people who move a lot when they play. Janos Starker, who prides himself on the emotion being in the sound and not in his physical presence, also had a distinguished career as an orchestral player. Perhaps the two most physically extroverted cellosts of the 20th century were Jacqueline duPre and Yo-Yo Ma. Each a solo career from their teenage years, and neither had to fit themselves into an orchestral culture.

Would Harrell and Starker move more if they had never been full-time orchestral players? We’ll never know. I don’t know if I even care. But it is an interesting coincidence to notice.

I tend to move a lot when I play, at least on some occasions. I certainly don’t do it when I am playing in an orchestra, and I try to minimize it when paying chamber music. It is natural for me, and I often find I play better when I let my body be free. I feel music very strongly in my body. I love moving to music, and if I could live my life over, I might chose to become a dancer. (Oy! If there is a harder path to follow and make a living than classical music, it’s dancing.)

Classical musicians can debate and argue forever about whether one should or shouldn’t move and physically emote. Philosophies are articulated, camps form and, in the great tradition of classical music, denigrate each other. A friend to me she once played in a master class for Starker, who after seeing her physical involvement in the music made the curt and to her hurtful comment, “I was put on this earth to eradicate cellists like you.” And I’ve been at master classes where other teachers shamed players for not moving.

A high degree of theatricality can be used to try and compensate for a lack of technical skill. I’m not recommending that. Nor is it healthy to exaggerate one’s movements simply to draw attention to one’s self.

It seems pretty clear, though, that some people, when playing at their best and most authentic and most dedicated and surrendered to the music, move, and need to move to play their best. It is something deeply related to the way the player physiologically responds to music. Others don’t, and perhaps can’t move a lot even were they to want to.

It’s not a matter of right or wrong, it’s a matter of who one is.

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