It isn't about beauty (except for when it is)
"To perform is to place my body onstage. And to place my body onstage is to insist I have something worth being seen and heard" (from Poems in Practice Rooms)
As performing musicians, we practice as if we are judged purely by our sound. However, most of our venues position the audience to stare at us while we play.
For an industry built around the production of sound, we care tremendously about our appearance. We're expected to have amazing headshots, as well as to look polished and professional for our performances.
For women, this means treading a fine line between celebrating our beauty and drawing attention away from the music, sometimes in compliance with reductive standards of beauty.
Spring is recital season for the School of Music, which typically means a flurry of promotional posters featuring headshots of musicians. Due to the pandemic, though, all of our recitals have been cancelled.
While I could dwell on how disoriented I feel to have my performances and end-of-college events cancelled — and how fragile, even laughable, my dreams to support myself as a freelance musician have become — I'd rather not, when others have lost loved ones to this pandemic or are worrying about loved ones in the medical field.
So for now, I am continuing to practice and write about topics related to my field, among which the topic of beauty has struck me as particularly complex.
With my senior recital cancelled, my disappointment erupts from the beliefs expressed in my previous post about the power of live performance, how it brings people together, and from my excitement to share these pieces of music with my community.
But deep down, it's also the disappointment of not being seen. Beneath the hard work and the exquisite music, I wanted to be seen and celebrated by those around me.
As female classical musicians, we are no strangers to the pressure to spend a lot of time, energy, and money on how we look for our recitals. My flute professor has commented, half-jokingly, on how grateful he is that the standards for visual presentation are so much lower for him and other male classical musicians.
There's nothing wrong about a woman celebrating her own beauty. Ideally, however, this celebration doesn't distract from her musical performance — which is ultimately what she has dedicated her professional life to, not her appearance.
For this reason, some musicians prefer darker, underplayed attire for recital performances, much like how orchestras perform in black, so that the audience can focus on the music without being visually engaged (or distracted) by what the musician is wearing.
Personally, I like how this approach emphasizes that we perform music as a kind of service to society — whether by perpetuating or reinventing its cultural traditions, or simply by creating an engaging experience for our audience.
However, the service-like aspect of performance tends to fade against the aspect of how we look.
In promoting our performances, we strive to present an image that is professional while celebrating our beauty, but it can often lead to being preoccupied with where we stand in regards to beauty standards.
But as my junior recital taught me, the acts of promoting and performing are worlds apart.
Despite having run through my junior recital program in advance, the evening of my recital was unexpectedly rigorous on my body: the result of a nearly 1.5-hour-long program and the reality that, while my playing has improved greatly since then, some elements of my technique were unstable at the time, resulting in physical tension that only flared with intense nerves and fatigue.
Mid-recital, I realized I was putting myself though this strenuous program not for myself, but for the sake of my audience to experience and enjoy the music live. Even though everyone was looking at me, and I was all dressed up for the occasion, the essence of what I was doing could have been achieved if I had worn all-black and no makeup, or even if I had played behind a screen.
At its core, performing music is a way for us to serve our communities by bringing beauty, ideas, and new voices into the air.
Our craft is a gift, and promoting our image is simply a means to sharing that gift with more people.
So this is my take on appearance in classical music (overlooking a socioeconomic dimension that I won't dive into now.)
As for reductive standards for female beauty, particularly the idea that our beauty is only valuable insofar as it pleases the masculine gaze, there is a lot I could say about this.
But sometimes a picture says more than a thousand words, so instead, I'll end this post with one of my favorite headshots from a photoshoot a couple months ago (even though I chopped off my hair shortly afterwards, I intend to use these photos for a very, very long time).