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When watching piano concerts or competitions, do you ever notice that pianists tend to do things you and I wouldn’t do, like moving their mouths or swaying around?
Pianists only need to move their arms and fingers to play the piano, so why would they need to do all of these seemingly unnecessary actions? Does doing them help pianists play better?
Continue reading to find out the 7 most common things pianists do while performing, understand why they do them and if you should do them yourselves.
Why do pianists move their mouths?
A lot of pianists tend to move their mouths as they’re playing the piano. For example, skip to the 0:42 mark in the video. It’s as if the pianist is singing along, just not audibly.
In fact, pianists move their mouths to sing along to the piece in their head. They do this unconsciously and this helps them understand the piece more deeply to create the most compelling performance. It also makes it easier for the pianists to memorize their pieces.
When asked, many pianists reported that they don’t even realize that their mouths were moving during performances. This is because they are so focused on playing the piece beautifully that they don’t notice what is going on around them, as they are lost deep within the music.
A pianist reciting the piece in their head also helps with memorization and reduces the risk of memory slips – where a pianist’s mind goes blank and they suddenly forget which notes to play next.
This is because by lip-syncing along, the pianist can imagine what the keys they are pressing sound like in their head and it makes the piano piece stick better in their head. It’s similar to how you’ll memorize a piece of information better if you read it aloud.
Interestingly, some pianists notice this habit that they do and try to fix it by biting their lips while performing. This is because they think that moving their mouths looks odd and they prefer to keep a blank face as it can be seen as being more professional.
Should you move your mouth when playing the piano?
Now some people debate that moving their mouths is a bad habit because it’s a sign of tension. This tension can then spread and tense your body up, which is the worst thing that can happen to a pianist as they need quick and nimble hands to play.
In my opinion, if you notice that you’re moving your mouth while playing, don’t worry about it too much as plenty of accomplished pianists also move their mouths while performing their pieces. It’s also a sign that you’re enjoying playing the piece, which is the most important reason for learning the piano.
Why do pianists make weird faces?
Here’s a compilation video of some weird and funny faces that pianists make during performances. Some of these faces make it seem like the pianist need to go to the washroom!
All jokes aside, why would pianists make these faces while performing? Couldn’t they just hold a straight face throughout the performances?
Pianists make weird faces during performances because they can’t help it. They are so engrossed in the notes that they unconsciously make faces as a way to express their emotions. Music stirs up emotions within the pianist and their faces simply reflect those emotions.
Fortunately, making faces doesn’t affect how well the pianist is playing. It can actually do more harm if the pianist has to actively force themselves to keep a straight face as it diverts their attention from what matters – the piano piece. Thus, it’s better for a pianist to relax and let their emotions show on their faces.
Furthermore, the audience may enjoy the performance better if they see the pianist express their emotions on their faces.
When attending a piano performance, you aren’t there to just listen to the piece but to also watch the pianist performs their art as well. I and many other people feel more connected to the performance when we see emotions showing on a pianist’s face, it makes for a more powerful and memorable performance.
Should you also make faces when playing the piano?
With that said, don’t feel like you have to force yourself to make faces to win points from the audience either. If it feels more natural to play the piano with a straight face, so be it. The most important thing on your mind should be how to execute the piece musically with minimal mistakes, not what kind of faces you should make.
Moreover, the audience’s opinion on the matter of piano faces will always be split. Some people prefer emotions to freely flow on a pianist’s face and would find it inappropriate if a pianist doesn’t show any emotions when playing intense pieces that evoke feelings of sadness or rage.
On the other hand, other people prefer the pianist to keep a straight face since extreme facial expressions distract them from the piano performance. They may also consider facial expressions to be insincere and that the pianist is only doing so to be seen as some kind of genius.
Thus, it doesn’t matter whether you keep a straight face or make weird faces when playing. Just do what feels natural to you.
Why do pianists sweat so much?
We all know that sitting on a bench playing the piano isn’t nearly as physical as running around playing basketball or football. Yet, some pianists like Daniil Trifonov sweat a lot when performing. By the end of the video, his hair and face are soaked with sweat:
Pianists sweat because they need to move their whole bodies to play the piano, not to mention the stress from having to play the piece perfectly. Also, playing in a 1-hour long concert in blazers under the heat of stage lights would make any pianist sweat.
Surprisingly, playing the piano is hard work that requires the use of the entire body and not just your arms and fingers: pianists have to play extremely fast pieces with tricky fingerings perfectly, while also paying attention to dynamics as some passages need to be played loudly and others softly.
They also need to use their feet to step on the pedals and sway their bodies around to reach for the further keys on the keyboard. Not to mention the stress from having to play the piece without mistakes under the gazes of potentially hundreds of people.
Thus, it is easy to see how sweat would start dripping down their faces and forming inside the stuffy blazers they have to wear.
Why do pianists sway back and forth?
We have all seen videos of pianists swaying back and forth, sometimes so close to the piano that their noses would almost touch the keys, other times rocking their bodies backwards so much that it looks like they’re about the fall off the bench.
Most of the time, pianists rock back and forth for showmanship purposes. However, pianists also sway to reach for further keys on the keyboard and to find more comfortable fingerings positions if they have thick fingers.
Swaying around is another way for a pianist to express their emotions aside from their face and has no effect on their performance. When there’s an intense passage coming, a pianist may sway close to the piano to show how focused they are and after the climax, they would sway outwards to relax.
It could also be that swaying comes naturally to a pianist and it’s their way to avoid tensing and locking up their body while performing.
Should you sway back and forth when playing the piano?
Only sways around if it feels natural for you to do so. If you have to force yourself to sway to the melodies, stop swaying because it’ll divert your attention from playing the piece. Moreover, the audience will be able to notice how fake it looks right away.
For example, a lot of people criticize the famous Chinese pianist Lang Lang for moving around too much during his performances. For them, the swaying looks ridiculous and unnecessary, distracting them from the performance.
Why do pianists lift their fingers so high up?
Pianists lift their hands to add a dramatic effect to their piano playing and to express emotions while having no impact on the sounds. They also lift their hands to produce a louder sound or to release tension in the wrists and fingers, making them nimble again.
I wrote an article going into more detail about the reasons why pianists lift their fingers and discussing if you should do the same as well: Should You Lift Your Fingers Before Hitting Piano Keys?
Why do pianists hum to themselves?
While there are pianists that lip-sync while playing their pieces, there are others that would audibly hum the tune. For example, the pianist Glenn Gould – who was famous for his playing of Bach’s Goldberg Variations – had a habit of humming along as he played:
What benefits could humming along give to a pianist? Similar to pianists that lip-sync, humming along helps memorize and connect with the piece better, creating a more compelling performance. Pianists who hum along does so unconsciously.
However, humming along is bad because unlike lip-syncing, humming creates sounds that interfere with sounds coming from the piano, messing up the performance.
Unlike lip-syncing where you can just close your eyes and ignore the pianist moving their mouth, there’s no way for a person to separate the humming sounds from the piano sounds.
For this reason, you should never make a habit of humming along audibly when playing the piano.
As you watch the video of Glenn Gould’s playing, you may find it annoying that the melodies from the piano are messed up by Glenn’s humming. While some people find him humming to be endearing, I dislike it because it’s very distracting.
Glenn even admitted to this habit of his but in the end, he never fixed it because he said that if he had to force himself to stop humming, it would hinder his performance.
Why do pianists close their eyes?
When watching piano performances, you may notice that some pianists like Lang Lang tend to close their eyes while performing.
If you play the piano, you would know how hard it is to play without looking at the keyboard, since it’s hard to know the position of every key on the keyboard. Yet, why would these pianists make the job harder for themselves?
Pianists close their eyes to immerse themselves in the piece they’re performing. By closing their eyes, they can’t see anything, meaning they can entirely focus on the sounds coming from the piano and the feel of the keys on their fingers. This will help create the most compelling performance.
Furthermore, it’s easy for a pianist to play while closing their eyes because they’ve been honing their crafts for many years and they have memorized the position of every key on the keyboard. They may need to look at the keyboard if they have to make large jumps in the notes or if the piece is complex and requires their full attention.
This could explain why Lang Lang closed his eyes for this performance because Fur Elise isn’t difficult technically for someone at his level.
Should you close your eyes when playing the piano?
Although some people argue that pianists close their eyes for showmanship purposes and to win points from the audience, I disagree. Playing the piano with your eyes closed is a magical experience that every piano player should try doing.
Try it for yourself, take a piece that you know very well and play it with your eyes closed. You’ll find that you’re more immersed in the notes and you’ll appreciate the beauty of the piece more than before. This is what I do for every piece that I learned and I enjoy the experience very much.
Playing the piano with your eyes closed also trains you to rely more on your ears to guide your fingers across the keyboard instead of looking at the keys all the time. This helps prevent memory slips where you suddenly forget which notes to play next.
Playing while looking at the keys is a habit that most piano players get. You may have heard that it’s bad to look at the keys all the time when playing. Check out this article, where I discuss whether it’s ok for piano players to do so.