THE SIGHT VS. SOUND PERFORMANCE THEORY – WHAT YOU SEE IS NOT NECESSARILY WHAT YOU GET
“Believe half of what you see, son, and none of what you hear.” – “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong
In the course of the last 40 years or so, I’ve attended perhaps 5,000 musical performances of every genre and circumstance imaginable; from audiences of six to those of 60,000; from solo performers to large orchestras. In almost every one of them, I’ve been somewhat appalled by the reactions and impressions taken away by many of the audience members as to the relative value of the performances. Far too many times, I’ve found, the general public has little to no idea as to the quality of the songs or musicianship, but are way more impressed by their visual acumen. I’m not talking about staging or lights or smoke machines, but rather how the confidence exuded by the performers, their appearance and stage presence, trumped even the most obvious less-than-stellar renditions of the artists’ material.
My consternation led me to formulate my Sight/Sound Performance Ratio to which I’ve assigned a somewhat arbitrary 90%/10% (if only for the shock value of the statement), which means I believe that an audience rates a performance based on 90% of what they see vs. 10% of what they hear, whether they realize it or not. This is not meant as an assault on the intelligence of the concert-going public. It is a well-documented natural tendency of humans to evaluate (and believe) what they see long before surmising what they hear, as evidenced by the Norman Whitfield/Barrett Strong lyric above.
Until recently, I have not seriously avowed my audio/visual theory, as I’ve had no real backup for my statistic; it’s based on nothing but my own experience. But then I came upon two published studies which supported it, if only obliquely. The first is from Malcolm Gladwell’s widely read 2005 book Blink, and the second from a Harvard doctoral thesis on classical piano competitions, neither of which is nearly as boring as it sounds. Read on; you’ll be glad you did.
The first notion I had that this phenomenon had some legs was from Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. In the Conclusion section of the book, somewhat as an afterthought or stinger, he recounts a recent movement by American classical music orchestras that have begun to stage their auditions with the musicians identified only by a number and performed from behind a screen.
The idea behind the anonymity was for the audition panel to listen to the playing and not be swayed by what they might see, which could prejudice their judgment of the quality of the musical performance. For as one unidentified veteran of many auditions told Gladwell (and I quote here without permission): “Some people look like they sound better than they actually sound, because they look confident and have good posture. Other people look awful when they play but sound great. Other people have the ‘belabored’ look when they play, but you can’t hear it in the sound. There is always this dissonance between what you hear and what you see.” (Note: another benefit of these revamped auditions was that there are now more women in the first chairs of this historically male-dominated occupation.)
The inference here is of great importance to the performing musician in any field of play: If you look like you know what you’re doing, if you look belabored or emotionally wrought, you can apparently fool most of the people most of the time.
But I had to put the Gladwell dissertation aside as only tangentially related to my “Audio/Visual” theorem until I read about Julliard-trained pianist (and former Miss Long Island!) Chia-Jung Tsay. According to the article in the venerable LA Times, Ms. Tsay, “… often noticed that she was more likely to win (classical piano competitions) when she was onstage and audiences could make a visual connection with her.” So for her Harvard doctoral thesis, she ran seven controlled experiments with 1,164 novice listeners and experienced musicians who were asked to watch videos of a classical music piano competition. Unlike Mr. Gladwell’s tale, there were no numbers or screens.
The most amazing result of the experiments was that both groups could most accurately identify the eventual winners by watching videos of the performances with the sound off! The opinions of the original actual judges, it would appear then, were tainted by the competitor’s appearance and stage presence over the musical performances. I’m not too sure how to accurately interpret these findings, the silent part and all, but it does go a long way to support my 90%/10% theory, you must admit. But don’t take my word for it, here’s the link: http://lat.ms/1wgdGpS
All of this brings me around to what the performing musician can take away from these studies. Even if you don’t buy my 90%/10% position, at least you have to rethink the idea that PERHAPS IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT THE MUSIC, at least in the live performance arena. Here are some suggestions:
1) Back off trying to perfect your “sound” and start working on your stage presence and “look” instead. Hire an stylist and an experienced stage presence consultant (DISCLAIMER: EMAIL OR CALL ME), at least for some objective opinions. Do not take any advice from your mother, significant other, or superfan. Or worst of all, yourself. Only from an arms-length professional.
2) Practice your stage entry – an audience sizes up a performer in the first ten seconds of stage time, before that first note is played. Lose your current nervous mannerisms and replace your pointless between-song “How’re all doin’?” patter with some entertaining stories. Rehearse those stories the same way you rehearse your songs – constantly – until they’re second nature and don’t appear to be rehearsed at all. It’s all about stage presence and confidence.
3) Know the power of You Tube. It’s all about the visual. Once you have your look and body language down pat, record all your songs either live or lip-synched and put them up on the service before they start charging for it. However, if you don’t have your mojo ready yet, only do lyric videos. Don’t do the live thing until you’re ready.
4) The key is to look genuine and be believable on stage. Once you learn how to fake that, you’re in.
5) Get some professional help. If you don’t know any, email me: (firstname.lastname@example.org)
“It’s not whether you win or lose, but rather how good you look when it’s over.” – David Lee Roth