A&HHE Special Issue August 2016AHHELogo-300x300

Improving the performance of classical musicians through interdisciplinary exercises

Helene Gjerris and Bent Nørgaard

Danish National Academy of Music


Convinced about the importance of physical and imaginative tools of expression as valuable means of establishing a relation between the performing artist and the audience, this workshop project investigates and describes different techniques and exercises to facilitate and enhance the creativity, imagination and physical awareness of performing classical musicians. The project aims at developing methods of practising expressivity and performance awareness alongside the ongoing work on improving technical virtuosity for classical musicians. The workshops have been conducted with a throughout interdisciplinary approach by three teachers coming from three different disciplines in the performing arts – dance, classical singing and theater. The paper describes the working methods and the results of the workshops and discusses the question of producing hard evidence of the effects of the work and the challenge of integrating the methods and ideas in the curriculum at the Danish National Academy of Music.


Embodiment of the music, stage awareness of musicians,, Expression and imagination, Interdisciplinary approaches to performing classical music , Physical awareness while performing classical music, Performance skills, Communicating with the audience, Performing classical music with a deliberate emotional awareness



The Danish National Academy of Music has more than 20 years of experience in working with interdisciplinary approaches to conceptualising and producing concerts. An important recognition to come from this was that traditional ways of regarding classical music as pure sound, rather dissociated from the body as a whole, needed to be challenged. This has led to a master program ”The musician as performer” being established in 1992, primarily aiming to strengthen individual musicians’ stage performance – but also to develop new forms of classical concerts and reach audiences in a contemporary society.[i]

Teaching in this master program, the two authors of this paper have been working together on a number of interdisciplinary concert projects collaborating for example with dancers, painters, stage directors, video artists and light designers. At the same time, while working on these concerts the students have repeatedly asked for feedback on their individual performance of the music, and for help to express themselves more efficiently. This has provided the motivation to look for ways of helping the students to give stronger, more personal and more convincing performances of their music in any situation, quite apart from the particular context of a multi-disciplinary concert. This coincided with a period where the institution wanted to re-design curriculum elements relating to stage performance and concert project development.[ii] It was therefore decided to initiate practical research to focus on developing methods to support students in improving their individual performance[iii].

The project investigates different ways to facilitate and enhance the creativity, imagination and physical awareness of performing musicians, and to establish ways in which these approaches actually make a difference to artistic expression both from the musician’s own point of view and equally from audiences’ perspectives. Ultimately it is hoped that these methods can be documented in ways that make them accessible to a wider range of teachers and students.

To date, workshops have addressed different themes:

  • Visual imagination – making an inner film, narrative or poetic, to the music;
  • Emotional awareness based upon an individual analysis of the music – can you “wake up” a certain appropiate emotion in yourself and will it influence the interpretation?
  • Embodiment of the music – physical awareness, gestures, facial expression, eyes;
  • General body awareness – feeling comfortable on stage, awareness of general physical habits;
  • Breathing the music – deliberate use of inhalation before and exhalation during a phrase.



The approaches in these workshops have introduced fundamental techniques from an art form outside music and explored them with musicians:

  • voice (prof. Helene Gjerris);
  • dance (Tine Damborg);
  • theatre (Bent Nørgaard).

None of the approaches go directly into the detailed interpretation of musical repertoire itself or the instrumental technique that is required to play it. Rather, the various approaches aim to give the musicians greater freedom and means to express and perform the ideas that they already have, and with the technical skills they have acquired.

Workshops based on techniques used in vocal training

The method here draws on aspects of voice teaching, and a continuous screening of overall impressions of the students provides the basis for deciding which exercises to choose at any point.

A session starts with explaining the structure of the session to the student. The student is then asked to play the piece they have prepared while the teacher listens and observes, for example focusing on:

  • Body language
  • Phrasing
  • Sound
  • Attention to changes in the music?
  • Are they breathing?
  • Are they feeling comfortable?
  • Are they having fun?
  • Facial expression
  • Attention to the audience?

The teacher tags elements of the performance where questions arise. After they have played the students are asked what they experience themselves and what they would like to develop. They are then given feedback on the audio and visual experience that the teacher/audience has had. Subsequently exercises are chosen amongst the following approaches:

  • Awareness of structure and form – when does a phrase begin and stop? What do you want with the next phrase? When does a new character or atmosphere begin? How do you motivate this change? What are you actually thinking about before a phrase starts? This type of exercise can be extended with awareness of breath as an impulse to expressing an idea.
  • Landscapes/spaces/atmospheres and emotions – this is less connected to the specific musical details but opens up imaginative layers that generate an inner narrative going through different spaces, different emotions. The important issue is that students open up towards their own imagination and the possibility of finding answers in themselves.
  • Physical decisions – for example when you have to smile, do you do this with your entire face or only with your eyes? There is a choice to be made. You have to make a decision about your posture, your legs and your tempo entering the stage, and you have to make decisions about the directions you look in.


  • Audience awareness – thinking carefully about what exactly you want the audience to hear before every new phrase.

One interesting outcome in undertaking these workshops as a teacher outside of the immediate vocal discipline has been to realize how much easier it is to work this way with instrumentalists than it is to be focused on voice students, where there is always the immediate temptation to go directly into the “technique-has-to-be-perfect-first trap”. This in undoubtedly something to reflect on further as a teacher, and to be aware of when struggling to make this kind of approach understood by colleagues who are the instrumental specialists.

Workshops based upon acting technique

In relation to live concerts of classical music, Kagel has suggested that every podium where a musician is performing their music can theoretically be regarded as theatre. [i] Kagel foregrounds the visual aspect of concerts, acknowledging that there is a performer behind every performance and a body behind every instrument, and that these need to be taken into account.

In this particular kind of workshop, the focus is on musicians’ body language: how does the body we are observing seem –  dead or alive? Is the body and its movement aligned with the structure of the music? Is the body supporting the musician’s presence on stage?

As an exercise the students performs a prepared piece, and then repeats the performance exaggerating their body expression, inspired by the musical structure. If the music is fast and aggressive they are asked to express this aggression in their body language. If it is filled with joy they are asked to express the joy with their body. The teacher must stress that in this part of the exercise the student’s focus should not be on technical perfection, but on the body and how it can express the music. The aim being having the physicality support the interpretation and encouraging the playfulness of the performer. The student is then asked to play the piece once again in any way they would like, but still remembering and drawing on what the body was doing before when exaggerating the movements. This exercise can be a useful tool for a teacher wishing to enable a student to play with more expression being more dynamic and free.

Workshops based upon techniques used in dance training

Tine is a dancer and choreographer who has been working with the authors on several occasions, bringing her experiences of choreography to the medium of concerts. She starts by asking the students to play giving her a possibility to form an impression of:

  • Physical tensions – shoulders, pelvis, knees, are they grounded? Are they hyper or hypo – tense? Do they have physical habits that work well or are disturbing them?
  • What kind of people they are – are they sensitive? Will they respond well to direct instructions? Do they need systems?
  • How they are feeling in this situation, with her, on the stage, in their body? How is the contact with the instrument? What are they wearing?

Tine then decides on two or three exercises, bearing in mind that different instruments require different control of muscles, for example in the arms or hands, and that it is important to avoid exhausting particular groups of muscles. Instruments are frequently put aside while executing the exercises. With a physically shy violinist Tine has worked with exercises making very long walking steps around a big space for a long time, then sitting on the stage bending forward and rolling the upper body and spine back into an upright position on long inhalations and exhalations. These then developed into quite demanding balance exercises, standing on one leg and stretching the spine and the arms as if an aeroplane, and finally waving arms vigorously and shaking lower arms and fingers. With an introvert cellist Tine went into more playful exercises, teasing the student, asking him to push her around and discover funny walks through the space. In each case, she is careful not to overwhelm the students with different exercises but to work with just a few, perhaps over 15 minutes, and then to let them play again. Observing them for a second time, she is then able to choose more exercises.


Deducing hard evidence from the workshops working with a perception of expressivity and performance skills that reach beyond the limits of traditional musical criteria of measuring the impact of a performance is a considerable challenge.

There are different kinds of documentation of the workshops including:

  • Observations made at the workshops
  • Video material + feedback from students
  • Audio material + feedback from students
  • Immediate feedback at the workshops + feedback after using the approach from the workshops at e.g. exams or other assessment situations
  • Exam results

The teachers have observed some stunning results watching for example Tine’s work. Even after just two lots of 15 minutes away from the instrument and working with the body, students were able to play with much greater presence in their entire body and a considerably increased freedom of musical interpretation. The students participating in the project have also indicated anecdotally that the workshops have opened up new ways of approaching performance that they had never previously imagined. They find it easier to create a personal and spontaneous relationship to the repertoire they are playing and to the audience. From the video material it is clear that the students change their performance through a workshop, and it seems that they sound very different with their new physical and imaginative approaches.

There are workshops where the recorded documentation is audio only and it has been an interesting challenge to work with this without visual evidence to go with it. It can be hard to tell the difference between two examples of playing without being able to see the performer. Nevertheless, it is obvious from the recorded dialogue taking place at the workshop that everyone present in the room is convinced that the performance is developing a lot. This shows us that the perception of the audience is very much influenced by the expression of the body performing the music.

Students have stated that the music that they had been working with in the workshops has received particular positive attention from a jury in their exams, these performances standing out within a program for being performed in a particularly expressive way.

Thus it seems that these approaches from other disciplines have the potential to have a significant influence not only on stage presence but also on the interpretation of the music itself, and to help students communicate this interpretation more clearly. However, it is important to notice that when developing the project further in the future a firmer and more consistent structure concerning the gathering of documentation is necessary in order to enable the passing on of hard evidence and results of the working methods.

Challenges and future perspectives

Having piloted the workshop series in 2013, these interdisciplinary classes have been integrated within both Bachelor and Master program curricula for all the classical music students. With the transition into this work being mandatory for all students, no longer just a part of a specialist master program, some challenges have become clear.

The issue certainly requires further dialogue to help building up a common understanding of the value of this work within the management of the Academy and amongst the instrumental teacher colleagues where some resistance has occasionally occurred. As expressed by one teacher “…but if they cannot play an e-minor scale properly it makes no sense to work with expressiveness…”. This points to a fundamental difference in approach. The perspective that underpins the interdisciplinary workshops considers that it is absolutely necessary to explore and practise expressivity and performance awareness as an integrated part of musical development, alongside working on technical skill.

It seems important, therefore, that the results of the work with the students is made more visible to the instrumental/vocal teachers. Inviting the more traditional teachers to participate in the workshops and observe the working method might well help to clarify conceptions and create shared understanding of the potential of these approaches. Involving the instrumental and voice teachers in co-teaching the performance workshops, offering feedback for students playing instruments outside their own discipline, could also in turn provide part of a solution to overcoming the resistances that have been experienced to date. A long-term positive result of this approach could ultimately be greater integration of work on performance skills within core instrumental teaching.


[i] The initiator and organizer of this program, clarinetist and former associated professor at the Carl Nielsen Academy Jens Schou framed it in connection with his work in the LIN-ensemble: LINensemble sees the concert as an art form – dramaturgically creating a course in the concert program, which ends up being more than the sum of the individual works….The pieces must be given an unexpected importance, perhaps even a dramaturgical function by their deliberate placing in the timing and order of the concert program. Each work’s unique strength remains unchallenged. Equally, it becomes part of a larger work of art in the whole concert program.

[ii] The musician as performer master program was shut down in 2014 due to a rationalization process at The Danish National Academy of Music and the institution had a wish to retain and develop the valuable experience obtained since 1995

[iii] We received financial support from the Danish Ministry of Culture to run the research project over a period of three years ending in December 2015 with the purpose of finally integrating the working methods in the curriculum for all the classical students in The Danish National Academy of Music.

[iv] Numusfestival-program, 1979 p. 15