Friday, June 1, 2012

What (not) to wear, for the cello lady

I was mucking through some draft posts that I wrote for this blog and found this one, which is apropos as I once again prepare for a solo turn in front of an orchestra.


Portrait of Guilhermina Suggia by Augustus John

In an ideal world, music would transcend fashion. In actuality, what a performer wears affects how the audience responds.

Women have a harder time than men figuring out what to wear on stage. Men can wear a suit or a tuxedo (including nice comfortable shoes!), and as long as they don't wear white socks, they are okay.

Women have a much wider choice. We can do the modest and comfortable outfit, highlighting face and hands, or leave much less to the imagination. You can guess which end of the scale I've tended to (though there was the sleeveless harem pants jumpsuit I wore a few times in my 20s, but better not to dwell on that).

There are several requirements for female cello-playing garb that are not always easy to find in a store:
  • wide skirt (or pants), for obvious reasons
  • sleeves that are not too long or too wide (they get in the way)
  • plenty of room in the shoulders (for those big shifts and long bows)
  • no hard buttons or trim on the front of the garment or sleeve cuffs (they scratch the cello)
And then, most evening wear poses problems, hence my pet peeves, or things to avoid:
  • sleeveless or strapless or "strappy" tops (let's just say that I need a certain amount of coverage to avoid embarassment)
  • tight and uncomfortable garments
  • high heels (anything higher than about 2 inches throws my playing posture off completely, not to mention makes it difficult to walk out on stage carrying a cello)
I need all that, plus I want the garment to be flattering. It's not easy. I went through a phase when I made gowns for myself; looking back on it, they were not that bad, and it was a lot more fun and inexpensive than shopping for what I needed. These days, I end up tearing my hair out trying to find something nice to wear. I often end up fishing the basic black out of the closet.

Speaking of hair, this is another thing that no one ever mentions. The ideal cello posture is to sit with the neck of the cello close to your neck, so that the cello is as vertical as possible. This is because the left-hand fingers should be at close to a right angle to the strings for the best hand position and most secure intonation. It's impossible to sit this way if you're trying to manage a head full of long, flowing hair -- looks great, but whenever I try that, a little piece of hair always gets caught under my fingers just as I'm executing a shift, or my hair gets caught in the pegs when I'm making a tasteful gesture with my head.

This is why when I play a solo I have to brush all of my hair away from my face and stick it in a ponytail or a bun. I'd just cut it short, but years of hairdressers shaking their heads when I ask them if it would look good on me have scared me off of that.

After an experience with a teacher telling me I "looked like heck all the time," I became a little paranoid about my appearance and for a time put quite a bit of effort into it. I wore contact lenses, styled my hair, wore mascara, and teetered to my concerts in high heels. I played at Carnegie Hall once with a chamber group, in the small recital hall, and of course dragged all my primping accessories along (curling iron, make-up, pantyhose, etc.). One of the guys in the group seemed to find my preparations hilarious -- so irritating. Did he think I liked doing all that? Men reading this, here's the scoop: we would prefer being able to fling ourselves out into the world without artificial enhancements, but we are treated less positively without them.

I still like making an effort to look nice, but I've given up most of what my colleague found so amusing. I wear my glasses, just a touch of make-up, and the most comfortable shoes I can get away with. But it's hard to feel good about it all. The standards are so impossibly high, and the acquisition of all the necessary fashion accoutrements takes so much time and energy, and this all really has nothing to do with how the music is going to sound -- other than the dash of self-confidence that such things can add.


CarolineB said...

Great post! It's true, outfit that's as close to jammies or yoga garb is best. And NO stiletto heels - we can't have the cellist face-planting into her instrument. Brava!

CarolineB said...

PS I like to put my hair up in a pineapple or updo. Super easy and no chance of taking your tendrils into 5th position :-)

Harriet said...

Caroline, I gather you are a cellist!

Aurora Sippola said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

My mom thinks I should wear these uncomfortable, extremely high high-heels to my concert, and begging her to get me a small pair of short, wide-peg heels for my concert. she shakes her head and yells at me. I'm so freaking mad at her >:(

she says 'i'll look better than in those stupid heels'