Just how important is eye contact between musicians? And what does it signal?

Eye contact can be an incredibly important form of musical communication – yet some conductors barely look at the orchestra. So just how valuable is it exactly in practice? Ariane Todes investigates

Published: May 27, 2022 at 1:22 pm
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Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread, Our eyes upon one double string.’ In The Ecstasy John Donne is describing the way that lovers’ eyes lock together, but we sometimes see something similar in concerts. Conductor and section principal eyeball each other, or quartet leader and cellist share an intense glance. Online you can watch Leonard Bernstein conducting a Haydn symphony, hands by his side, with nothing but his eyes and a grin; or Herbert von Karajan directing the musicians with his eyes clamped shut. So, what does eye contact actually achieve in music, and how important is it?

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How important is eye contact in the orchestra?

For an orchestra, eye contact serves different functions. Conductor Leonard Slatkin explains: ‘Firstly, conductors make eye contact because we want the attention of an individual or a section. We may look at the trumpets when they’ve got a climactic entry or at the second violins if they have a difficult part where they need help. Our choice of where we look is a major part of our armouries. Secondly, we have to convey all the emotions in the music, so there’s an emotional quality to the way we use our eyes – the colour, the brilliance, perhaps a smile. There are the physical gestures of our arms, hands and body language, but the face is probably most important, and the most expressive tool we have is our eyes.’

Eyes work where words fail, he says: ‘When I was starting, my teacher kept saying, “Use your head and eyes to communicate rather than your mouth.” Basically, a conductor only has six things to tell the orchestra: it’s either faster or slower, longer or shorter, or louder or softer, and everything else is based on that. The eyes and face are what communicates all the other things.’

It’s no different to talking to someone, conductor Sian Edwards explains: ‘It’s like any conversation with another person – you use your eyes. I can just look at you, or I can look at you with the kind of energy I want you to transmit to the musical phrase. That involves the body as well, but as human beings we’re used to extremely precise, directional eye contact, and we use that in music all the time. It enhances what we’re doing with our ears, which is first and foremost.’

From the players’ side, Rebecca Jones, principal viola of BBC National Orchestra of Wales, explains how eye contact helps the performance: ‘If a particular viola part is exposed and the conductor wants you to play more, they look at you to give you confidence. Some eye contact is friendlier than others – some conductors convey warmth with their eyes and that helps you play better; some glare and you feel they’re not happy with you – but generally, it is positive. You feel confident that they are aware of what’s going on in the music and are in the piece with you. If there isn’t any eye contact, it feels like it’s just them with their score.’

Rachel Gough, principal bassoon of the London Symphony Orchestra, has played the opening solo of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring countless times and is also wary of the glare: ‘The times I feel most comfortable are when the conductor looks at me beforehand with an open gesture, as if to say, “Now over to you”. I will start and then close my eyes because I prefer not to engage with anything other than the sound, the time and the music. I have performed with meticulous conductors who have insisted on beating every turn and pause, with a large amount of eye contact, and it can be quite uncomfortable. People are often surprised by how little it seems that orchestral players actually look at the conductor. They imagine we will be eyeballing the conductor at crucial points, but a lot is done using peripheral vision.’

Contact with other players is just as important, she says: ‘I rely on having sightlines to the leader, the principal double bass and principal cello, and if we have something to do together there is a little visual acknowledgement.’ It’s the same for Rebecca Jones: ‘I can play much better with other sections if I have eye contact with them. If the violas and cellos have something together, it’s good to have contact with the other principal. It’s a signal that we’ve all got our ears open. If there is a barrier, it feels very lonely.’

Over the last two years, players and conductors have had to get used to various barriers, and conductor Paul McCreesh says that masks have presented a challenge: ‘Our faces give away so much information. Even if conductors use their faces in hysterical ways sometimes, there is a tremendous sense of energy in that communication. The eyes are the windows of the soul and that’s the most important thing. I need to see that smile – or scowl – otherwise I feel I’m not communicating.’ That’s why, like many conductors, he won’t wear spectacles: ‘I would never dream of conducting in glasses, because the expressivity of my face, and my eyes in particular, gives so much more information.’

Another key relationship is between the conductor and concertmaster (leader). ‘For a concertmaster, who has their violin under their chin and their arms going,’ explains Leonard Slatkin, ‘the only point of contact they have with the conductor is their eyes, which tell you, “Yes, I agree with what you’re doing” or “We need to stop and tell the orchestra what’s going on.” All these things are conveyed.’

Aside from the principal, Slatkin mainly glances towards the back, he says: ‘I rarely look at the players right in front of me. I try to look to the people sitting in the back desks, because that way I have the feeling that I’m leading the whole orchestra and not just communicating with the eight people in the front.’

In concertos, he barely looks at the soloist, either: ‘Eye contact is used mostly to coordinate entrances and make sure that specific spots are together, so I don’t look at the soloist much – it’s a case where listening is more important.’

A lack of eye contact can sometimes indicate that something has gone wrong, though, as McCreesh explains: ‘I have seen films where conductors have seriously over-stepped the line and they get the eyes-down treatment. The refusal to look is ultimately the most damning weapon an orchestra can ever use – one never wants to go there.’

Despite its importance, eye contact is rarely taught in specific terms. ‘We tend to talk more about the physical process of moving one’s arms and the way we use our body, but not how communication comes from the face,’ says McCreesh. ‘That’s partly because it’s so personal, and if it isn’t instinctive, it’s difficult to teach. You can’t just say, “Flash a brilliant look at the oboe in bar four.” It has to be organic or it doesn’t work.’

Edwards offers her students some tricks, though: ‘If they’re working with an orchestra that’s seated differently to what they’re used to, I tell them to put stickies all over their room, where the second flute or first violins are, and to practise looking over in good time. When you watch the wonderful conductors, they look up early at players, but not too early. It’s important to practise.’

Eye contact and choirs

In professional choirs, the singers tend to have their heads up, looking at the conductor, but the response they get might depend on the size of the group, according to McCreesh: ‘If there are 400 people in the choir, I’m not sure that whatever I do with my eyes is going to have an impact on the bass in the back row, but with an a cappella choir you’re up close and your gestures should be more delicate. Breathing is particularly important with choirs, and with this size of ensemble eye contact becomes more important.’

The string quartet

What is the dynamic in string quartets? For Guarneri Quartet first violinist Arnold Steinhardt, eye contact doesn’t necessarily help ensemble: ‘Our mentor, Alexander Schneider of the Budapest Quartet, used to say that to play together you have to “eat fingers”. He meant don’t look at the others – look at their fingers. Sometimes people would say, “You play so well together, but you don’t look at one another”. It was true, because I was “eating fingers”, watching Michael Tree move up the fingerboard so I could move up my fingerboard together with him. When we looked at one another, it was usually because somebody had made a mistake or done something unusual.’

Christian Elliott is cellist of the Zehetmair Quartet, which performs by memory. You might think that not having music would encourage eye contact, but it would seem not. ‘We do look at each other,’ he says, ‘although not necessarily directly into each other’s eyes, but at each other’s faces and body language – those can be the most helpful clues. With some players, you know something’s going to happen just by seeing their eyebrows go up – it can signal some kind of intensity coming. Actual eye contact is pretty minimal. Sometimes it can almost be too intense and intimate to prolong.’

Paradoxically, it can be more useful with strangers than with regular colleagues, he suggests: ‘It’s a great way to get the chamber music relationship off the ground, to quicken the friendship in the process of playing and develop trust. It’s usually something very fleeting to say that we’re there for each other. Sometimes that’s all that’s necessary in chamber music. We pick up on aural signals because we’ve made that initial contact with the eyes.’

For Steinhardt, too, eye contact is about creating a bond: ‘When I play duets or Bach’s Double Violin Concerto, eye contact becomes more important. I might not know a colleague and afterwards we might walk away and never see one another again, but when we’re playing, we’re the closest of friends. Looking at one another is an affirmation of that.’

That energy helps the audience, too, he says: ‘If we’re playing and looking at one another and enjoying it, that conveys to the audience: “Look, they’re fantastic players, what great music these duos are, and not only that, they’re having a ball.”’

One memory lives in his mind – playing the Mendelssohn D minor Piano Trio with Jacqueline du Pré and Thomas Schippers at the 1965 Spoleto Festival: ‘There is a place in the last movement where the music builds up to the joyous outburst of melody. There was a look of rapture on Jackie’s face that raised the music to a level of exuberance and joy – a feeling of the miracle of music and of Mendelssohn’s genius. The way she played that phrase and looked up at me, glowing, created a completely different dimension to the music – that’s why I remember the way she looked at me so many years later. I think of that as one of the greatest musical moments of my life.’

And maybe that’s it. Eye contact between musicians isn’t a necessary condition for great music. Conductors have other means to convey their intentions and instrumentalists find the information they need by watching technical cues. Sometimes it can be downright embarrassing to be eyeballed by someone you know very well, and if a conductor sustains a glance too long it might seem critical. But occasionally there are fleeting moments where something passes wordlessly – friendship, encouragement, solidarity, shared endeavour, perhaps even love – and maybe that makes eye contact the very essence of music.

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ILLUSTRATION: STEVE RAWLINGS/DEBUT ART

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