As the pianist releases the final notes of the piece, the audience bursts into enthusiastic applause. The player stands and takes a bow. It’s a code of conduct that we tend to take for granted, but one that should be taught and practised as part of performance preparation.
I try to cultivate a friendly, non-competitive, informal atmosphere at my student concerts, but it’s still important to teach new performers the importance of more formal “stagecraft”, etiquette, and the essential place of taking a bow to receive and acknowledge audience applause.
I often give students a “mock performance” experience in their lesson, including teaching them how to bow. Here is a quick summary that supports that practice.
Why Take a Bow?
One question that might crop up with students is this – “Why do we bow? It seems very formal – even a little bit pretentious…”
It’s an easy question to answer, and here’s how I tend to respond:
When you finish your performance, the audience clap as their way of saying, “Thank you for playing to us”.
The performer needs to take a bow in order to reply, “Thank you for listening and showing your appreciation.”
So it is a bit rude to just walk away without taking a bow!
The fact that bowing is rather “formal” does not make it inappropriate in less formal settings. Bowing is the correct response whenever an audience clap – even in your own home when playing to others!
And because many of us feel rather self-conscious about bowing, it is a good thing to practice and cultivate privately, not only in public.
When to Bow
Here again there is a simple answer: You should always bow when the audience clap. Bowing is, simply, the correct response to applause.
In some situations, audiences applaud when the performer walks on, in which case a simple bow is required. In my own student concerts, the audience tends not to clap before each performance because I verbally introduce each performer and welcome them to the stage.
What about if the performance doesn’t go so well?
The same answer applies: if the audience clap (and trust me – they will!) you need to bow. Audiences often reserve their most enthusiastic applause for the performer who recovers from a mistake and continues to give a complete and enjoyable performance.
Always remember that audiences do understand about nerves – often our friends and family in the audience are more nervous that we performers are!
How to Bow
If you watch several concert pianists taking a bow, you will perhaps be struck by the differences between each of them as much as by their similarities. For most players, the important thing is simply to bow with as little silliness as possible! Your bow should be natural and honest, and not just part of the act.
If you have been using sheet music for your performance, you may prefer to leave it on the piano while you bow, or if you have a page turner they will take care of it for you.
There are of course many “ways” to bow, and ultimately it is important to feel comfortable within our own skin! But for those new to performing, or who haven’t been expected to bow before, here’s a very simple set of instructions:
- Stand “tall” and smile at the audience.
- Lean forward, look at your toes, and cup your hands around your knees.
- Pause briefly, then repeat step 1: stand tall and smile again.
This is a basic, unpretentious bow. If you have performed a lengthy recital, or if the applause is extended, you can repeat this bow several times.
This advice may seem risibly basic, but it is surprising how many people find it helpful to consciously follow the three-step bow outlined above when they first perform. Teachers will hopefully also find this advice helpful for teaching their pupils.
Stagecraft: a few more tips
Before concluding, here are a few other very basic tips for students performing in a concert, all relating to presentation:
- When selecting your outfit, choose something which is smart enough for the occasion, but comfortable to wear. Be sure to wear clothes that don’t restrict or obstruct your movement, and shoes that are suitable for pedalling.
- Walk on and off the stage with poise. Try not to be distracted by the audience – focus on where you are walking.
- If you are introducing your piece, speak clearly and loudly enough to be heard at the back of the room.
- Take a few moments to get comfortable at the piano. Adjust the stool to a comfortable height.
- If you have a page turner, make eye contact before starting.
- If turning your own pages, check the position on the music book stand.
- Take a couple of deep breaths before you begin.
- Be extra careful with tempo – a raised heart rate (due to adrenaline) can distort our perception of the pulse, so it is important not to start a piece too fast.
If we cultivate confident stagecraft, it can only help us be more confident performers.
Bowing has a special place in the performer’s life, because within the concert experience it provides a powerful moment of affirmation, bringing a vivid and vital sense of connection with the audience. Ultimately, receiving praise and acknowledging it in this way is a great confidence builder, and a tremendous boost to our general self-esteem.
Don’t miss this great opportunity. Take a Bow!
Andrew’s essential handbook of practising tips:
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