The Two Brains in Music

Piano Lessons / music theory / The Two Brains in Music

I’m Robert Estrin with Today’s topic is, “The Two Brains in Music.” I’ve talked before about the part of you that’s playing, almost on autopilot, and the part of you watching over to make sure you don’t take a wrong turn. Today I’m talking about something entirely different.

We have our intellect, but we also have our emotions, the gut. You know this because sometimes you react to something even before you are cognizant of what’s going on. You just get a feeling about something before your brain even understands what is happening. And yet it gives you vital information about your surroundings.

There is an aspect of intelligence in your emotions.

In music, there is a balance between your intellect and your emotions. This transcends just musical performance. But how does this come to be? I studied with Constance Keene at the Manhattan School of Music. She was a spectacular pianist and teacher, and I learned a tremendous amount from her. One of the things that she said was that musical performance is not experiencing the emotion, but recreating memories of the emotions. That’s an interesting thought, and that’s a very cerebral way of playing the piano. Do all pianists play like that? Not necessarily. Particularly, a lot of pianists from the Golden Era early in the 20th century, such as Cortot, Schnabel, or Horowitz. Horowitz never played the same pieces twice the same way, so he offered spontaneous performances every time!

Balance emotions and intelligence in performance.

You can’t play the piano solely with your emotion because you will completely flop. You might play too fast, loud, slow, or quiet. You have to have intelligence balanced with emotion to stay in control of the performance. A performance completely devoid of emotion, no matter how technically proficient it is, is not going to draw you in. You have to have the emotion that lets the music go where it wants to go, even if you haven’t gone there before. It’s a little bit scary. If you’re playing a piece in a public performance, and something occurs to you that you never tried before., you have to make a decision. You can either listen to your brain and play it the way you’ve always played it before. Or, you can think, “Wait a minute, let’s explore this.” going with that emotion. Then you can react to whatever you did, and it becomes a cycle of emotions. That’s when you can really capture your audience!

You have to be incredibly well prepared in order to do this.

I would not recommend you do this in an important public performance unless you are really solid with your repertoire. The secret is being so well prepared in your practice that you try things faster, slower, louder, softer. You practice on different pianos, with the piano open, with the piano closed. You play for small groups, large groups. You record yourself. That way, when you finally get out to an important performance, you can choose a little of this, a little of that, and mold a unique performance based upon what you feel at that moment. That can be one of the most compelling types of performances possible, if you’ve got the inclination for it.

Other performers rely more on refinement.

Ruth Slenczynska is another pianist I had the pleasure of studying with. Her whole thing was refinement to such an extent that her performances were masterfully polished. Much like Josef Lhévinne or Josef Hoffman, with jewel-like perfection. Once, she was teaching a class with all her students, and a student asked her to play the Chopin G Minor Ballade for us. Even though she had performed this piece many times, she said, “Oh no, I haven’t been practicing it. I’d have to play it slower.” Well, he kept begging her and finally she said, “Okay, I’ll play it for you.” And indeed, she played it slower so it could be totally under her control! That’s the kind of pianist she was.

My father, Morton Estrin, on the other hand, if somebody were to ask him to play the G Minor Ballade he would just go for it the best he could. He wouldn’t make any concessions to the music. He would play the emotion and have a satisfying performance, even if it wasn’t perfect. That’s the way his mind worked. It’s not a right or wrong proposition, but it’s how much you depend upon intelligence or refinement vs. how much you depend upon emotion. Every musician needs to find a balance they are comfortable with.

I hope this has been enlightening for you. I would love to get a discussion going about this.
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