Piano Gestures

Updated: Nov 10, 2020

Maya Plisetskaya, the controversial Soviet Union ballerina, was recorded saying, "I am convinced that it was not the word that came first but gesture. A gesture is understood by everyone... you need nothing else, no words".

Ms. Plisetskaya was renowned for an intense, virtuosic, deep and fully immersive dancing style and technique. She performed in a provocative and innovative manner, especially in consideration of the environment in which she flourished, namely, the politically repressed, Soviet Union.

An article by Times of Israel discusses the great immensity of Plisetskaya’s legacy as a pioneer in artistic freedoms within performance. Pertinent to this discussion on gesture, was their inclusion of her commentary on the controversy that surrounded her performance of Carmen by Alberto Alonso; "where every gesture, every movement had meaning, was different from all other ballets... the Soviet Union was not ready for this sort of choreography" (AFP. 2015).


What is a gesture? Oxford living dictionary defines it as a movement of part of the body, especially a hand or the head, to express an idea or meaning (Oxford. 2018). It is apparent from the aforementioned quote by Plisetskaya, that meaning and movement could ascertain deep-seated emotion. Galayda comments on Plisetskaya first experience of dance in response to music, "the music enchanted her so much she began twirling in the middle of the street, oblivious to everything around her" (Galayda. A. 2015). Musical sound led to a consequent movement innate to her metaphysical self. It was natural, instinctual and transcendent in its quality to her and her observers. It was a subjective experience similar to that of a Buddhist monk achieving nirvana or a Pentecostal experiencing glossolalia in response to the fire of the Holy Ghost. It was as if the music itself triggered a force of life in her that she never knew until she heard those celestial harmonies and melodic contours.

What is the purpose in exploring this ballet dancers experience? It's purpose is to be found in three key areas:

1) To encourage a form of gesture external to auditory perception.

2) To encourage greater and enhanced freedom in artistic expression.

3) To know ones temperament in order to utilise it for the sake of originality in performance. These three themes I will endeavour to expound and evaluate in a practical manner below to enable you to further explore and experiment with the duality of gesture involved within performance practice.

The External Gesture

In any given composition, you will find specific musical signatures or trademarks related to a specific composer or style of music. One such example may be the symmetry found in classical works by Mozart, where you will hear a melody in one shape and then hear it again with the same notes inverted or embellished. Wagner, perhaps a more anecdotal example; His music is typically heavy, full orchestra, booming baritone with oodles of vibrato and edgy, fast-paced rhythms played by the string section. These examples are internal gestures and they completely rely on the writing of the composer and the effectiveness of the performer to recognise such subtleties in order to highlight them during a performance by means of technical accuracy and mechanical effectiveness. The performer can only achieve this by a detailed study of the musical score and intensified, background research.

External gesture relies heavily upon the limbic system, the emotional focal centre of one's brain. In a non-scientific manner, I refer you back to Plisetskaya, who danced in direct response to how the music affected her. Ask yourself a few questions about your current musical repertoire... how does it make you feel? If you could dance or move to it, what would it look like? Does the music make you want to scream in ecstasy? Cry in a corner? ...Or sing in unison with the beautifully carved architecture of the composer’s musical handiwork? Whatever your physical response may be, consider how that may be applied to your performance without causing detriment to your instruments appropriate technique. If you play the piano, you must remain on the stool. I have seen a number of pianists suddenly jump out of their seats during a moving crescendo in a Rachmaninoff piano concerto. This is terrible as it reduces the dynamic expression and tone quality being produced audibly. This means that the pianist must find ways to use their faces, arms and head to demonstrate their internal emotive reactions during a performance.


I must confess, however, that this area of physical movement in performance is rather foreign to me, as I have always focussed on internal musicality rather than the external escapades of the performer. Munoz, from the royal conservatoire of Madrid, Spain, has remarked, "in all live performances, two sensorial dimensions exist- the aural and the visual- in which musicians and audience are involved together, performing and perceiving respectively" (Munoz. E. 2007). One of the realities we must remember as musicians is that performance is a communal activity, for this reason, I have to strongly disagree with Schumann, who said, "when you play, never mind who listens to you" (Schumann. R. 1860*). It is fair to conjecture to consider this as Schumann’s encouragement to amateurs who suffer from nerves when performing to an audience, however, it is imperative for the fear of public exposure to be confronted for the benefit of ones development and adaptability to reality and to ones ability to perform in such a way that the hearers of your music are moved in the same direction of musical adoration as you are, thus we must take Munoz advice and learn to perform on an auditory and visual level. Munoz expounds stating, "two kinds of gesture exist in performance: technical and expressive. The first is necessary to produce sound, overcoming mechanical challenges. The second one is not essential to produce sound but complementary to the combinations of sound qualities in order to feel or communicate expression" (Munoz. E. 2007). In other words, we can enhance the quality of our performance to an audience by attending to their visual stimuli too.


"The qualities that influence the performing activity are temperament, character, intelligence; these constituent elements, manifested in various quantities and qualitative indicators form the personality of a musician" (Barenboim. 1969)*. It is fair to say, we are those who display ourselves, quite literally, naked, before an audience. When we stand on a stage and sing or dance, we are expressing our creative intellect, persona and desires. Indeed, our audible and visual presence is that which we carry in our day to day lives amplified through the medium of a musical composition and an instrument which acts as an additional tool to expose ones life and heart in an act of artistic freedom and entertainment for the world to behold.

What this will look like on a concert platform is never going to be the same... There is only one you! There is only one Mark Dowling. There is only one Lang Lang. There is only one Arthur Rubinstein. There is only one Pavarotti. There is only one Lady Gaga.

For true artistic freedom, one must accept ones temperament and personality in order to be truly free whilst performing so that we may produce authenticity, art, philosophy and excitement for a world in need of emotive freedom.

Learn now all about body gestures on the piano, and musical gesture.

#pianolessonsLondon #adultpianolessons #pianolessonsforbeginners #markdowling #pianoteachers

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