BBC Young Musician

26th April 2014 | Concerts, Musings, Teaching | 2 comments

Here it is again, the heart-warming parade of talented young musicians competing to be BBC Young Musician of the Year. With every passing year it seems more remarkable that there is such a wellspring of young talent directed at classical music. It’s tremendously motivating to see it in action.

And here again are all those remarks from listeners – judges, presenters, the general public – about the ones who ‘look as though they’re really enjoying themselves’. The ability to look as if you’re enjoying yourself is also highly prized by people tweeting about the competition. In many people’s minds it seems that the more enjoyment you can show, the ‘better’ you are.

Why does that annoy me? I suppose because I know that preparing for such a competition is actually a very serious matter. It requires hard work and dedication over a long period. The pieces themselves are emotionally complex, and often extremely difficult from a technical point of view. It’s a matter of wonder to me that so many teenagers have attained such a high technical level, a level that seems in fact to rise from year to year. But I know that in their long hours of solitary practice, how they look is a very minor ingredient if it’s an ingredient at all. If you were able to spy on them during their practice hours, I doubt whether you’d see much smiling or gyrating.

So when I see them on the platform, I’d expect them to look absorbed, focused, and involved. I’d expect to see concentration, determination, and perhaps nerves or insecurity. I’d hope to see (and I often do see) grace and stylishness of manner. I’d expect to see body language – even awkward, ungainly body language – which expresses their commitment to music, or their love of the pieces they’re performing. But ‘looking as if they’re enjoying themselves’ is, for me, neither here nor there. They might be feeling all sorts of emotions on the platform, and witnessing those emotions can contribute to my feeling that they’re authentic and interesting. If they are actually enjoying the performing experience, then great! That’s fun to see. But I don’t want them to be encouraged to ‘act enjoyment’ for its own sake, and I don’t want them to think that failure to smile and bounce around makes them any less compelling as musicians.


  1. Ruth

    I remember being at several concerts in the Edinburgh festival a few years ago when the Vienna String Sextet were playing. After the first one the reviewer in the Scotsman commented on the demeaner of the players rather than the music. He had wanted them to look more upbeat and show their enjoyment in the music. It was heartening that at the second concert many of the audience were talking about the review and were astonished that he hadn’t mentioned the sublime music-making. A serious face does not indicate lack of feeling!

  2. Pinakin

    It’s an interesting topic. I once saw an all-Bach recital by a violinist at the Wigmore Hall a few years ago and she had barely any facial or physical expression throughout the performance and I came away curiously unmoved by the playing and wondered if a robot could not have performed just as well. Even though I knew it was all about the music and the expression in the playing I couldn’t shake off that feeling.


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