How to Fake an Oscar-Nominated Musical Performance

by @jessicahindman

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Image credit: Clem Onojeghuo (via Unsplash)

What makes an Oscar-worthy fake musical performance? This is a question that Academy Award nominee Mahershala Ali grappled with as he trained for his role in Green Book, which required him to imitate the virtuosic piano skills of Dr. Don Shirley. Ali compared the challenge of fake-playing the piano to an actor taking on the role of NBA legend Michael Jordan: “I don’t care how much you work out or practice. You’re not jumping from the free-throw line.” What is true for imitating basketball greatness is also true for performing Chopin.

While some Oscar-nominated films feature real musicians (Lady Gaga is unmistakably singing for real in A Star is Born), it’s difficult to cast a mortal human being who has both the acting chops of Meryl Streep and the violin skills of Itzhak Perlman. What to do if you’re an actor who doesn’t know the difference between a piano and a forte? As someone who spent years touring the world as a fake violinist, I have some tips for producing an Oscar-worthy fake musical performance.

It starts before a single fake note is ever played.

If an actor is imitating a performer on stage, as Meryl Streep does in the moment-of-triumph scene in Music of the Heart, the fake performance begins with the walk. Streep, in her Academy Award-nominated role of violin teacher Roberta Guaspari, enters stage left of Carnegie Hall by taking the small but deliberate steps of someone who doesn’t want to swing her hands too much — the exact walk of someone who is used to carrying an expensive, fragile violin. Streep also nails the eye contact and breathing patterns of a Suzuki teacher, as well as the diagonal, open body posture taught to young violinists everywhere.

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Holding the instrument properly is almost as important as being able to play it.

Russell Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey in Master and Commander.

Even Streep — Meryl Streep! — doesn’t quite hold the violin at the right angle. Her scroll is pointed toward the ceiling, as if she is wading into a pool and trying to keep her violin from getting wet. It seems as though even the best actors make the mistake of becoming so obsessed with the challenge of fake-playing that they forget to master something they could master for real: holding the instrument as a professional would.

Learn just enough notes for a two-second shot.

The Octopus Method.

Jason Flemyng as Frederick Pope in The Red Violin.

When all else fails, cut to the face.

Who does this best? The big screen is full of actors — like Flemying in The Red Violin — who masterfully imitate brutish climaxes of sweaty classical passion. But the best fake-performance of musical emotion that I’ve ever seen goes to an actress on a small-screen streaming show that was prematurely canceled: Lola Kirke of the late, great, Emmy-winning Mozart in the Jungle. In her role as Hailey Rutledge, an aspiring-to-the-big-leagues oboist, Kirke approaches the oboe as something at once personal and universal. Her music both belongs to her and belongs to us all. Her facial expressions as she wets her reed and tumbles full-heartedly into a faked riff of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade are a master class in understated, believable fake performance.

At the time she was cast, Kirke knew nothing of classical music, let alone how to play the world’s most notoriously difficult instrument. And yet, on my third viewing of the show (seriously, Amazon, why was it canceled?) her emotional connection with her instrument, conveyed by subtle shifts in her eyes while fake-playing, comes across as completely authentic. Her performance reminds me that music is, in its way, a sonic human face, expressing emotions in a way that no language can. Regardless of whether it comes from a live performance or an over-dubbed recording, there is nothing fake about that.

Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman has “performed” on PBS, QVC, and at concert halls worldwide. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, McSweeney’s, Brevity, and Hippocampus. She holds a BA in Middle Eastern studies and an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia University, and a PhD in English from the University of North Texas. She teaches creative writing at Northern Kentucky University and lives in Newport, Kentucky.

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Jessica Hindman’s debut memoir, Sounds Like Titanic, is available wherever books are sold.

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