Chia-Jung Tsay is a pianist herself with significant performing experience so it is surprising that she, in my view, misinterprets the evidence. Yes, sure, of course appearance is a big factor: that is precisely why young performers building careers put so much emphasis on it. I have talked about that here and here. But, "musical differences between two top performers are often slight"? Where did this astonishing misapprehension come from? I can understand that an average concert-goer certainly being more swayed by the artist's garb or demeanor than by the strength of his or her interpretation: that is, after all, exactly why agents, managers and marketing advisors recommend what they recommend. But musicians? Chia-Jung Tsay seems to be saying that even musicians are oblivious to the actual musical content of the performance. But what is probably actually happening is that even in competitions judged by musicians, the visual aspect is given a lot of weight. I think this is simply because of the corruption of musical quality that has invaded even the classical musical world. Judges, perhaps even against their better judgment are saying to themselves, "oh yes, she has an excellent chance of a career because she plays pretty well and looks really great--audiences like that."“What I found was that people had a lower chance of identifying the eventual winner if they only listened to the sound,” Tsay said. “People who just had the video — even without the sound — had surprisingly high rates of selecting the actual winner. Even with professional musicians, who are trained to use sound, and who have both expertise and experience, it appeared that the visual information was overriding the sound.”Because musical differences between two top performers are often slight, viewers can more easily pick up on visual cues they associate with high-quality performance, Tsay believes. Factors such as a performer’s engagement, passion, and energy resonate.
Want to know the truth? Despite the supposed "findings" of studies like these, musical differences between "top" performers are not "slight", but often enormous. There are gorgeous looking pianists that have wooden phrasing, and empty interpretations. There are very ordinary, or even off-putting in appearance, pianists that are as profound as anyone could wish for. A significant number of the posts on this blog are about distinguishing things like this, so just have a look around. There are so-called Bach specialists that play Bach really badly. There are string quartets with no feeling for Beethoven. And these are famous artists with big careers.
I think the real implication of the study I linked to at the top is that after decades of the unrelenting denial of aesthetic quality and difference, even people who should know better are giving in.
But vive la différence!
Now I'm going to put up two performances of a Chopin ballade. For the first artist there are NO clips on YouTube that do not feature a video of her playing, so to perform the experiment you will have to start the clip playing and NOT watch it.
Here is another clip of the same piece played by a different artist: