Musicians On Stage Are Never Invisible

By Barry Kempton

Several times in recent months, I have been reminded of the challenge musicians face when they are on stage, in full view of an audience yet uninvolved in a particular piece or movement of a piece or even just a section of a movement. Maybe I am especially aware of this because of my early days as a trombone player. Trombonists and tuba players (and let’s not forget the contrabassoonist) in orchestras sit for long periods of time waiting for their next entry. If the piece you’re playing is not so well known, you tend to stare at the music, count the bars rest, making sure you don’t lose your place (at least I did anyway). If you’ve played the piece many times before and know exactly what’s coming next, then the immediate concern of not losing your place is lessened. I remember sitting on a stage of 80-90 orchestra musicians with the assumption that because I was not playing anything, no audience member was looking at me, and that as long as I didn’t do anything to draw attention to myself, then I was acting appropriately. Indeed, I was certain that the most appropriate thing to do in such a situation was to sit still and pretend I was invisible.

Maybe for symphony orchestra musicians, sitting perfectly still is a viable tactic, maybe even the right tactic; after all there is plenty of action in other sections of the orchestra from which you don’t want to distract attention. But when the ensemble on stage is smaller than a symphony orchestra, I believe there’s a responsibility for every musician who is on the stage to be engaged in the music-making whether they are performing or not. The tactic of sitting perfectly still and pretending to be invisible just doesn’t work. It can appear to the audience as disinterest, and if a musician on stage appears disinterested, then that appearance itself can be a distraction from the performance. If not disinterest, it can certainly appear awkward, as if the musician would rather not be sitting there under the stage lights.

As I said at the opening, I have experienced concerts where the failure of the “invisibility cloak” has distracted me from the music-making. I don’t really blame any particular musician, but I have wondered what might happen differently on stage to avoid this kind of distraction. An inactive musician could occasionally leave the stage – though this only works if there’s a clear break in the performance flow for them to rejoin the ensemble. Maybe it could work for the musician to remove him or herself from the immediate ensemble and retire to a less exposed seat at the side of the stage – or maybe a subtle change of lighting can shift the audience’s attention to those musicians who are making the music.

However, those kinds of fixes act to mask the core issue rather than solve it. For me, the issue is that in live performance, I want to see the engagement of all musicians in all of the music all of the time. Ideally all musicians would be on stage throughout a concert. Whether playing/singing or not, there would be visible communication between all of them throughout the performance; it would be clear to the audience that every musician on stage was experiencing in the moment whatever emotions or soundscapes the music holds. In short, they would be leading us (the audience) by example. This for me is one of the fundamental advantages of attending a live performance over listening to a superlative recording at home. Maybe it’s an ideal that will never quite be fully achieved, but I think it is certainly one that all ensembles should strive for – and there are many wonderful ensembles which do.