In a Facebook clarinet group, one of the members posed the following question:
Can someone explain to me the tendency of many younger clarinetists to dance around so much when they play? If you look at videos of some of the greats, Benny Goodman, Stanley Drucker, David Shifrin, Anthony McGill, they move a little bit, but for the most part they stand still and play. Where did all this moving come from?
I come from a tradition of internalizing feel and avoiding emoting with the body, as a good deal of bodily movement is unnecessary, and some movement can even inhibit proper technique. However, I also work in show biz. Here is my response:
With a lot of younger, developing musicians, the tendency to emote with the body is very prevalent. 24 years ago when I was in graduate school, I was a regular offender. Fortunately for me, I had a teacher who worked to break me of that habit. In my situation, my elbows were the biggest culprit. At times, it looked as if I were about to take flight. To cure myself of this affliction, I went to the extremes of strapping my elbows down with a belt whenever I practiced in order to fight the urge. But the key part of that was having a teacher who wouldn’t let me get away with it. I believe that part of the problem lies with teachers who let their students get away with emoting with the body rather than internalizing.
But I think a bigger part of the problem is the way the general public perceives the Arts. I think Herb Alpert put it best when he said that when MTV came around, people started listening with their eyes. Take for example the annual Super Bowl halftime show: Madonna, Lady Gaga, Janet Jackson, etc. all put on shows which are visually stunning, to the accolades of the masses. But have Paul McCartney or Bruce Springsteen come up and just play music, and the public labels them as boring.
Think about how singing the Star-Spangled Banner has evolved over the past 30 years at sporting events: it is no longer about leading those in attendance in a sing-along of the US National Anthem, but rather showboating for the personal glory of the performer.
Look at the state of the film industry: how many films today are all about mind-blowing action and special effects yet are severely devoid of quality storylines?
As Arts programs have been cut at the elementary level, our youth receive less and less exposure to complex art forms. As a result, when they reach maturity, many choose to consume forms of entertainment which simply stimulate them rather than causing them to think.
30 years ago in high school, I learned that I could get a crowd to go nuts if I danced around while playing a simple blues solo. Sadly, the content of my solo was irrelevant; what mattered more to the audience was the visual of me gyrating my hips to the music.
The fact of the matter is that movement while playing an instrument is visually stimulating to the general public. If an audience hasn’t learned how to listen to music, they are going to be entertained by what they see. Personally, I would prefer to stay still and just make music, but I also know that there are times when I need to go out and work the crowd. The masses view music not as art, but rather as entertainment. And if an artist entertains their audience, they are more likely to do repeat business.
Let’s face it: our society has unfortunately become one of immediate gratification. The general public has a very short attention span, and if a performer is unable to stimulate an audience in under 10 seconds, a lot of that audience will choose to move on to something else that will stimulate them. If that audience member is a millennial, they will likely pull out their phone and be stimulated by that instead.
I know that’s probably a lot more than you bargained for! There’s a lot of pent-up frustration on my part, apparently! My best recommendation is that if you have the opportunity to work with a younger student, encourage them to minimize their movements in the manner of the masters of days gone by.