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The Motions of Your Emotions

An Acting Experience

When I was a dramatic teenager...I acted! I played a goofy monkey in "Seussical the Musical," a confused romantic in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," a gambler in "Guys and Dolls," and more. Each character differed greatly, but my technique did not: I let my emotions guide my motions. (Just for fun: I'm on the right for most of this video.)

The Theory

Emotions naturally affect body language. Music is naturally emotional. If both of these statements are true, then music should naturally affect a performer's body language. When a performer allows music to affect their body language, their performance becomes as unique as their own personality and experiences. Their musical interpretation is also amplified, as the sonic choices they make are highlighted by corresponding physical movements.

Chia-Jung Tsay proved that body language greatly impacts perceived quality of a performance. To briefly summarize his research article, Tsay split his study participants into three groups. Each group guessed the winners of a past competition, but one group was given audio only, one group was given video only, and one group was given video with audio. The group with video only guessed most accurately.

You can see the full article here:


Famous Actors...erm...I mean, Pianists

Let's see how body language contributes to these pianists' performances.

1. Martha Argerich, Scarlatti Sonata K. 141

Picture the fighting sport, fencing. In this piece, Argerich plays such a character; proper, with moments of arrogance, playfulness, mocking, and aggression. Throughout the piece, subtlety and stillness in the body language demonstrates the proper, arrogant character, as if to say "look what I can do, without even trying."

Specific Examples

0'10" Arrogant: Throws the towel and plays immediately after sitting, before the clapping ends.

0'17" Playful: Wiggles on a scale passage, as if it is a stealthy maneuver. This happens often.

0'19" Mocking: Raises an eyebrow with a new high note. Like saying "Ungar...touché."

0'41" Mocking: Tilts head to side, raises eyebrows, and shrugs. Accent in higher voice.

0'43" Aggressive: Juts head forward, slight eyebrow scrunch. Accent is in lower voice.

0'55" Arrogant: Large motions of arms and body, firm facial expressions. Like flexing muscles. She chose to do this during the only moment with big, rolled chords.

1'32" Mocking: Loosens posture, momentarily. Adds rubato, pedal, and soft dynamics.

2'23" Aggressive: Throws her body towards a high note. Comes off as a final "that's enough!"

2'51" Playful: Head goofily wobbles back and forth, with the exposed bass notes.

3'13" Aggressive/arrogant: Leans far inwards with trill for a one-hit knock-out!

2. Evgeny Kissin, Rachmaninoff Prelude Op. 3, No. 2 in C Sharp Minor

Kissin's interpretation of this is a very dark one. After the performance, he doesn't even look happy about performing the piece, as if he put an emotional burden on himself. Feelings of pain, exhaustion, insecurity, anxiety, anger, and sadness pervade in his performance.

Specific Examples

0'18" Pain: Head trembles after each large arm drop, like each chord was a blow to the soul.

0'28" Exhaustion: Slowly drags hands to next position, barely letting notes be heard.

0'30" Insecurity: Hunched over and closed off, arms kept close to body.

1'00" Exhaustion: Pushes away on the strongest note of the phrase. Like saying "too much!"

2'02" Anxiety: Forehead wrinkles, and body rocks back and forth, as phrases swell quickly.

2'10" Sadness: Frowns and nods head, at the end of phrase rubato, as a temporary "I give up."

2'11" Insecurity: Glances upward for help. Gains a confidence boost, leading into the accelerando.

2'48" Anger: Puffs up chest, flexes elbows outward, lifts hands high up, and jolts head.

3'53" Exhaustion: Body sinks in with the chord. Very subtle, but meaningful.

4'34" Sadness: Slowly leans into final chord, frowns, closes eyes, and sits in a prolonged silence, as if trying to hide himself from the world.

3. Valentina Lisitsa, Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody

Likely influenced by "Tom and Jerry," Lisitsa treats this piece cartoonishly, with exaggerated gestures. She wanders through grand, sensual, sneaky, playful, and goofy characters, using unnecessarily large movements of her forearms, body, legs, and face to add to the overly "in-your-face" dynamics, rubato, and articulation.

Specific Examples

0'10" Grand: Starts with tall steady posture, and large, welcoming arm motions.

0'49" Sensual: Slides a lot on the keys, like she is petting them.

1'22" Playful: Nods her head and smirks at end of fancy passage.

2'10" Playful: Gestures into a section of bouncy, jagged music and movement.

2'29" Sneaky: Dynamics quiet down, she hunches over and often “slithers and bites” the keys.

5'06" Sensual: Glides hands across black keys to the chilling higher notes.

5'53" Playful: A big smile creeps onto her face while approaching the major section.

6'00" Goofy: Excessively large movements of the fore-arms, with a wonky tuba-like bass line.

6'45" Playful: Like a little kid, smiling big, dancing in her spot. Even her legs are fidgeting.

7'30" Goofy: head bobs to the beat and with off-beat accents, meanwhile always smirking.

9'04" Grand/goofy: Like a t-rex, keeps arms aligned with body, and uses large motions.

9'32" Goofy: Lets her arms flop down and wobble around after the piece ends.


Teaching Exercises

Here are a few fun ways to work on emotional body language.

Change the Meaning

Choose a phrase, and explore the many ways to say it. For example say "I love you,"

1. Like you're trying to prove it's true.

2. As if it were the first time you were saying it.

3. Like you want the whole world to know.

4. As a lame plea for forgiveness, because you didn't take out the trash.

5. To your bro.

6. On your way out the door, going to work.

7. Like your sweetheart just did something cute.

8. Like your sweetheart just did something disgusting, but you still love it.

9. When it has to be a secret.

10. Any other way! I could think of a few other ways, can you?

Change the Meaning: Music Edition

Experiment with different emotional ways of "saying" (performing) a musical "sentence" (phrase).

Practice Self-Awareness

Emotions are a part of life! Throughout each day, pay attention to the relationship between emotion and body language. Keep a journal, perhaps. Be proactive; write down emotions, and describe them later, when experienced.

Listening Activities

Just like practicing right hand and left hand separately, before putting them together, students can practice emotions and playing separately. Listening to recordings allows students to focus solely on their emotional reactions, without the distraction of physical demands.

Movie Scoring

Pick a scene, remove the audio, and re-assign a music track to it. In this exercise, emotion becomes the cause, rather than the effect.

Acting Scoring

Write a silent play, and let students perform it while another student provides the backing track.

Analyze Their Idols

Just like I did in this article, analyze YouTube videos, taking notes on body language as it relates to the music. Feel free to go more into detail; I kept my comments short for easier reading.

Emotional Pedagogical Repertoire

Have your students play repertoire like my "Emoji Etudes" (Available for purchase here), which connect common emotions to common musical sounds.



Be yourself

As a final bit of advice, I must emphasize that the title of this blog reads "The Motions of Your Emotions." Remember that your motions will be unique, because your emotions are too. Different personal experiences causes different reactions to similar things. Let your emotions guide your motions, and you will enjoy performing and creating truly unique interpretations.


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