Thursday, July 16, 2015

Does Attire Really Matter?

This blog is devoted to all things related to music. So why in the world would I address the topic of attire in this week's post? Isn't it true that my performance is the only method of communication with which I should be concerned? We would like to think so, but the reality is that our wardrobe speaks to our audience long before the first note has sounded. If our clothing communicates negatively with the listener, it can be a very difficult task to regain their trust.

Discussions about clothing can be hot button topics. "How dare you comment on my wardrobe when it is my sound that you are judging!" I've repeatedly heard this cry of frustration during recital hours and jury exams at schools around the country. Before going any further, let me be very candid. I am not a fashionista by any stretch of the imagination. When given the option, I much prefer casual and comfortable. I have been guilty of making questionable choices related to wardrobe in performance. Having learned from my personal mistakes, it is my aim to help young musicians avoid some of the awkwardness I've experienced first hand. In that spirit, here are some practical tips related to performance attire.

1.  Recognize the power of the initial appearance on stage. When stepping on stage, it is important to exude confidence and professionalism. While our posture and countenance help to convey these attitudes, clothes can either enhance or detract from our message. The more professional your appearance, the more confidence the audience has in your abilities. This allows them to relax and creates a better performing environment for you.

2.  Every performance should be viewed as a potential job interview. You never know who is in your audience and what opportunities they may have available for you. If two singers perform with equal skill, the ultimate choice of who to hire for a gig may be entirely subjective. Appropriate attire can be the tipping point in such situations....so never allow your clothing to become a detriment.

Whether it's fair or not, my experiences suggest that vocalists tend to be held to a higher standard than other musicians in relation to performance attire. This can be especially difficult for performers in academic settings. My suggestion is to elevate your clothing options any time you are performing for your studio in the middle of a busy day of classes by wearing at least what qualifies as business casual attire. This clothing sends the message that you understand the importance of your performance while allowing you to maintain a level of comfort for the rest of the day's activities. Departmental recitals, juries and master classes should be treated more formally, similar to an early evening recital. In other words, semi-formal attire is appropriate, meaning that men should probably wear a coat and tie. The performance is formal, but we have not reached the elegance of a black tie event. Tuxedos and evening gowns are reserved for large ensemble performances and important solo recitals.

3.  Never be under-dressed! Just as you would not attend a funeral wearing a Hawaiian shirt and Bermuda shorts, you never want to walk on stage dressed worse than the members of the audience. Since you will be in the spotlight as a performer, you want to be one of the best dressed people in the room. While in school, information about appropriate attire for various performances often becomes clear as you get to know the situation better and follow the example of upperclassmen; if you are in doubt about appropriate attire, dress semi-formally. You will never be penalized for looking too nice on stage.

Speaking of knowing the expectations of a specific circumstance's appropriate attire, it is also important to realize that the dress code for any event can be adjusted over time. Just because the event was business casual last year does not mean it will always be that way. As standards change, the message will be communicated by those in authority and may include gentle comments about appropriate attire. If your attire has been addressed by a conductor, director, or faculty member in a past performance situation (whether you agree with the statements or not) and you return to a similar situation without making a significant modification, do not be surprised when you are called on it! (Additionally, it would not be out of the range of possibility to earn lower marks or pay as a result of your attire.)

4.  Fit matters! It is also imperative that your carefully selected clothing fits well. Clothes that are too tight are uncomfortable and will distract you during the performance. On the flip side, overly baggy attire presents a frumpy and disheveled appearance, generating ideas that you failed to thoroughly prepare in the audience's minds.

It is generally advisable to do some rehearsal in full concert attire. There are several questions the artist wants to consider prior to the recital. Does the jacket inhibit my range of motion? How does the jewelry I've selected (especially watches and bracelets) respond to the bowing patterns? Ladies should carefully consider the effects of high heels on their balance and breath support. While it can be fun to select new outfits for special performances, it is never a good idea to see how the garments respond for the first time in the heat of the public performance!

The concert stage and the performance is greatly served as we err on the side of modesty in apparel selections. Thought should be given to the effects of stage lighting on the selected fabric. The audience's proximity to the stage (both distance and angle) can influence choices of hem line and neck line when selecting a dress or evening gown. Modesty and adherence to traditional wardrobe selections on the concert stage should not be viewed as an attempt to stifle personal expression; rather, it is an effort to avoid potentially uncomfortable situations for the artist as well as the audience.

What aspects of clothing do you take into account when selecting concert attire? Have you had a wardrobe malfunction during a performance that resulted from poor planning? Add your voice to the discussion in the comments below.

(N.B. I'm enjoying a vacation with my family next week, so I won't be blogging. I plan to return to Collaborations on July 30.)