Presentation Part I: Attire
Presentation might not be everything, but it isn’t nothing, either. Whether we like it or not, every element of a performance contributes to the experience our audience has. Depending on the precise situation, it will be desirable to adapt each element, to some extent. There is a difference between a recital hall, a nightclub, and a rowdy bar, and we would would do well to take this into consideration. In particular, it is important to be aware of attire, speech, and body language. In the coming weeks, I will address speech and body language. Here are my thoughts on attire:
The act of performing is more than simply playing an instrument or singing in front of people, and visual presentation is like silent rhetoric. Your attire serves to convince your audience of something. If you are dressed appropriately for the situation, you will convince the audience that your music should be taken seriously, and that you know what you are doing. As a general rule, I believe that it is better to be over-dressed than under-dressed, within reason. If you are playing with a jazz trio at a swanky hotel lounge, you don’t want to be dressed like a 90s grunge act, but a white tie and tails will probably be nearly as out of place. Somewhere in the middle lies the appropriate attire for that situation. Hammer pants and bluegrass music are pretty oil-and-water if you ask me. I would say that this is common sense, but if that were the case, I would feel no need to be writing about this stuff.
Always consider what other musicians on the gig will be wearing. If no uniform is specified, then be sure to wear something that conforms to the overall style of your band mates. If you are in a quartet, and everyone else has on a sport jacket, you should be wearing one, too. (If you are the leader, I suppose you can tell the other three to take off their jackets.) If the situation calls for dress shoes, make sure yours have been polished recently. People notice a lack of attention to detail, and scuffed shoes are a clear example of that. A Casio G-Shock bulging out from the cuff of a dress shirt is another. If you dress perfectly for the stage of the moment, your attire should largely go unnoticed. If the crowd is staring at your outfit for reasons good or bad, then they are being distracted from your music. Presentation, including attire, should be geared to maximize the impact of the music, not dilute it. Of course, it is wise to consider one’s “brand” and the possibility of using some distinctive visual cues to represent it onstage. Some thought might be given to the lasting impact of visual presentation in a musical setting and its potential to serve as advertising.
Let’s say you are performing as a guest soloist with an ensemble of some sort. There might be a wide range of acceptable attire for this situation. My approach is to start by asking the conductor what to wear. If he or she gives me some freedom, I generally prefer to dress at a similar level of formality to the ensemble, but with contrasting colors or striking (but not distracting) accents, such as a bright pocket square and/or necktie. Just as the musical parts should be complementary, so should the sartorial choices. Some high-profile soloists dress in extreme contrast to the ensemble. I think that this is probably good business, but I tend to prefer performers who are less flashy in their getup.
In the end, you can dress however you’d like, but if you don’t dress for the situation, then, to paraphrase Dave Chappelle, “You might not be a schmuck, but you are wearing a schmuck’s uniform.”
As always, I welcome your questions and comments below. Thanks for reading!