The Making of Charisma

A couple of years ago, I saw Vadim Repin play Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D twice – in rehearsal and the next day in concert.

Vadim Repin

Vadim Repin

It’s a concerto I love and know well, one I studied in Japan with Suzuki – with mixed success I might add, but that’s another story. Repin, born in Siberia, knew it so infallibly well he was able to chat away, in Russian of course, with conductor Vladimir Verbitsky whilst playing at the rehearsal.

During both performances I experienced spine-tingling sensations from his charismatic tone and interpretation. I found it hard to sleep that night as the sound of his playing rolled around in my head like the swell of great ocean waves. It set me thinking again about the nature of charisma. I’d previously heard Tchaikovsky’s concerto played in this same hall by other world class violinists on several occasions, without this electrifying effect.

What is Charisma?

What is this magical mysterious quality that attracts us with such a powerful magnetic force? Is it possible to teach and learn charisma? Musical pundits describe it as a pure, mystifying gift – unobtainable unless you’ve somehow always had it. However they are perhaps better at talking about what it is not, agreeing that it cannot be created by mere virtuosity and flawless technique. However, the question remains: as performers, is our charismatic appeal automatically created – or constrained – by some intangible force of nature arising at the time of our birth?

I don’t think anyone has completely unravelled the mystery, but my teaching experiences have shown me that many of the contributing factors can be taught and learned, giving rise to real charismatic performances. Some of the factors are surprisingly simple. Before I talk about each one, let me tell you about a very special solo I saw in Japan.

A Memorable Solo

At the Suzuki summer schools in Matsumoto, one evening is set aside for a Gala Concert. It features some of the best young players from around Japan, from the very young – like the four year old boy we saw play Vivaldi’s concerto in A minor – to mature teenagers’ renditions of Sarasate showpieces. One performance by a young teenage girl stands out in my mind more than any other. It became the inspiration for how I teach stage presence – or charisma, if you like – for soloists.

From the moment she stepped on to stage, everyone in the hall recognised that the performance would be something special. It began with her striking appearance: a tasteful red dress, long black boots, her long black hair and quick friendly smile. Striding onto stage with unselfconscious confidence, the sound of her boots echoes around the hall from the wooden stage. At centre stage, she smiles to the audience, pausing for a moment before an unhurried bow. When she bows, her hair cascades down in front, almost touching the floor. Rising, she tosses it back and lifts her violin into a dramatic stance. A little unhurried glance over to the accompanist and she is ready. We are all holding our breaths. Before a note is played, the whole audience is in her hands. We all know it will be good – and it is! Black boots

In my mind’s eye I can still see this solo when I teach stage presence. Beyond the music, she had learned and practised the art of performance until it became spontaneous and natural. It led me to ask: can we teach young players to perform with charisma? Now I truly believe so. For genuine charisma to emerge, important skills must be learned and practised in addition to the music. In other words, the right ingredients must be there first.

Prepare the way

Interviewed in her film, Portrait, Anne-Sophie Mutter recalls von Karajan’s response to her audition to play (at 13) with the Berlin Philharmonic as, “come back in a year” or words to that effect.  For professional musicians, the first obvious step is to make sure the piece is relatively perfect – confidently accurate at the right tempo and securely memorized. For this reason we choose solo pieces that the student has been playing well for some time; at least 6 months. A year is better. Then I ask the student to play the piece for me and some of the other teachers, in the presence of the parent. If we all agree the student is ready, we conduct a series of mini masterclasses with them, working mainly on musicality and expression.

Moving and Shaking

Times have changed. Almost any body movement when playing was once considered excessive and showy, but music is not just sound, it is also visual. It comes from living musicians who move and breathe with the music. But there is also a cultural factor – take a look at the contrast between the way Yehudi Menuhin and Janine Jansen move in the Mendelssohn Concerto in E Minor. We teach students to move with the music from the beginning. Even 3 year olds love to move. Over time it becomes a natural part of expression, amplifying emotions such as drama, energy, calm, pathos and humour in the music.

Janine Jansen

Janine Jansen, photo: Kasskara

Dressed to thrill

Because charisma has such a strong visual component, wearing the right clothes helps to spark it off. I ask parents to take time selecting clothes to suit the performance. It’s no accident that the most charismatic performers dress well. On the other hand, many professional musicians turn up on stage poorly dressed – too conservative or with wrong shapes and colours, exaggerating the body in an odd way. The remedy? Ask a French person – or at least someone who dresses well. Don’t choose your own clothes.

Staging the Walk

I tell my students that their solo begins whilst they are still off stage. Walking on to stage you are already communicating with the audience. If you step confidently with a welcoming demeanor, the audience will be with you – even before your bow touches the string. Practising the walk on to stage also minimizes and eliminates nerves. A senior student recently said to me after his solo, ‘I played well, but felt a touch of nerves, because I didn’t practise coming on to stage enough.’

Taking a Bow

The friendly unrushed bow on centre stage is the musician’s opportunity to greet the audience with genuine appreciation for their presence. It is more natural to look towards the feet when bowing. We teach our students to hold for a count of three, before arising quickly with a smile.  Try it.

 Posturing

Too many performances are tainted by poor and unusual posture. Drooping violins, strained necks, open mouths are ingrained habits practised unknowingly and can be an unwelcome distraction to an otherwise good performance. There’s little point in trying to fix them up on stage. Attractive playing posture is an integral part of studies. Play in front of a mirror sometimes.

 Projection

The ability to project well into a large space takes practice. Musicians know that making a larger sound is not achieved simply pressing harder or moving the bow more quickly, it means practising for more tone resonance. Professional soloists work  hard to produce a big and beautiful tone, one that has the power to reach the far corners of any auditorium. They can then adjust their projection to suit the space.

 This leads me to related point. Rehearsing in the actual performance space is good professional practice, because the hall or room space forms part of your violin’s voice, with a large influence on your sound and confidence.

Finishing

A good finish is as important as a good beginning. Is the ending dramatic, graceful, or fading into silence? The ending of Schumann’s Two Grenadiers is enhanced by lifting the final bow off the string in a dramatic gesture of triumph. By contrast the last note of Dvorak’s Humoresque finishes before the music ends – after several seconds of silent stillness.

These ‘charisma skills’ are not learned overnight. As with every consciously acquired ability, they are achieved by mindful and guided practice, one skill at a time. Stars are made, not born. (Just ask their parents.) We are born with our personality, our view on life, our take on the world, to colour our star in our own unique way, illuminating our music with our own distinctive light.

 Thanks for your interest. Me a comment below, I’d love to hear your thoughts on charisma.

Stay tuned! Coming up in a couple of weeks is an interview with British violinist, Tasmin Little.

Cheers, John

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