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Stage Deportment I: Why We Bow

Stage Deportment I: Why We Bow

Sometimes my students chafe at the customs we observe when on stage. They are not sure about the dress code, the whole bowing thing, about how to talk with audiences, about what to do with scores and music stands, about how to handle being on stage with others. Maybe they think this entire business is a relic from a prior age, and in fact, they'd be right. But that doesn't make our onstage behavior wrong.

Take bowing. The onstage bow is part of a carefully modulated and culturally-defined mode of communication: it is an element of a critical dialogue the performer conducts with the audience. When we walk on stage the audience says "hi, nice of you to come"--they clap. We say "thanks, good to be here"--we bow. After the piece, they say "hey that was great"--they clap. We say, "wow, thanks a lot!"--we bow. And so on. Without the clapping, and the resultant bowing, it'd be pretty lonely up there performing! 

Now consider removing the bowing. The audience welcomes you with a round of applause. You ignore them or, at most, smile at them. They are slightly put off. Then when your piece finishes, they clap again. You ignore them and start another piece. When that piece ends, there is much less clapping, or, maybe, none. You've dampened the audience's participation by failing to respond in the way they understand. Some in the audience may regard you as disinterested in them, and so they lose interest in you. If you regard it as a simple conversation, it is easy to see how important holding up your end is.

How to bow? The bow is performed simply: facing straight towards to back of the room, place your feet together and bend forward from the waist, keeping your back straight. Look down as you bow, never up at the audience. Bowing is a means of showing respect and, to a certain extent, deference; making eye contact during bowing can seem disrespectful and even oddly aggressive. (Bowing on stage to an audience is not the same as bowing to your karate sparring opponent in a dojo. There, look at your partner as you bow; here, look down)

Many students struggle with the question of what to do with their guitars as they bow. I once saw a student hold the instrument by the neck, vertically, and bow down low, cracking his guitar hard and loudly on the stage floor! I've also seen individuals hold their instruments in an artificial, practiced way for the bow, such as perfectly horizontally with the right hand under the base of the body, an oddly stylized effect. I prefer a natural and casual hold with the right hand, allowing the instrument to follow the contour of my torso as I bend forward. Whatever you do with the instrument, your bow should not call attention to it.

How much to bow? It is useful to understand how to use different types of bows for different circumstances. In general, the more effusive the audience response, the deeper and longer-held the bow. A small crowd may produce a smaller applause. In this case it is best to bow less fully; that is, to bend forward only partially. If you stand for a bow after a shorter piece, the applause may be less: the same rule applies. In these circumstances, it is often plenty to look briefly down at your shoes, using a simple head-bow. In both cases, the partial bow will be quite short. It is always fine to smile and gently nod your head in thanks as well as to mouth the words "thank you." I once watched a student give a (vocal) performance of a single song after which he bowed deeply, swept his arms to the sides and up towards the audience, then blew kisses to the crowd. Everyone laughed (it was kind of sad). It was clearly the wrong way to bow for the circumstance. Be alert to the situation and bow accordingly. If there is a long sustained applause, it is best to bow low and hold the position for several counts, and possibly to repeat it. It is just as bad to bow too quickly and leave the stage too soon when the audience is enthusiastically effusive as it is to hold a long deep bow past the moment when the audience has stopped clapping. It is critical to pay attention to these cues.

Bowing is a concert-stage tradition. It does not necessarily apply in cafes, bars, churches or other non-standard venues. And remember: it is a response to clapping. Bowing in silence is odd and betrays a lack of understanding on the part of the performer. It would be like saying "you're welcome" to someone who has not said thank you.

So, we need to bow, and we need to bow well and with sensitivity to the specific circumstance. In many pedagogical approaches (Suzuki, for instance), children are taught bowing before they learn to play their instruments. Most of us, though, came to the guitar through other paths and bowing may well not have been addressed. And unlike in some Asian countries, like Japan, there is no surviving tradition in the U.S. or in Europe of social bowing (at least without irony). So it needs to be learned and practiced. Fortunately, every time we perform, we get an opportunity to refine our use of the bow.

Remember, bowing is part of a polite conversation between you (the performer) and the audience. Treating it with understanding and respect will get you everywhere!

Here are the second and third installments in this series.

Stage Deportment II: Clothes

Rebecca Klein's Junior Recital

Rebecca Klein's Junior Recital

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