Robert Estrin - piano expert

Talent VS. Musical Intelligence

An interesting discussion for students of any instrument

In this video, Robert talks about how much musical skill comes from talent and how much comes from musical intelligence.

Released on June 30, 2021

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Welcome to I'm Robert Estrin. Today the subject is talent versus musical intelligence. So, I'm defining different aspects of aptitude for the piano and this goes for all instruments really. As a teacher, you get to see the vast range of both capabilities and weaknesses in students. It's amazing because piano playing in particular encompasses so many different aspects of physiology and mental acuity, that you see drastically different levels of abilities in the various aspects of playing music. There's rhythm. There's pitch. There's also how much hand coordination somebody has. There's how well somebody can translate what they're seeing on the page down on the piano. There's long-term memory and short-term memory. There's so many things involved. Now, some of them I would say are involved in talent, just sheer talent for the instrument but a lot of it comes down to musical intelligence.

Now, what do I mean and why am I making this distinction? Well, on the most raw sense of talent when I think of talent, I think of somebody who has a natural ability to evoke emotions in their music to create a unique musical statement on the highest level. That's what talent is. Because there are so many gifted performers, why should you listen to performer X when there's performer A through Z? What separates one accomplished performer from another one? And to me that comes down to talent. Somebody who really has a gift for expressing something unique, have something to say with their music that you haven't heard before. That's raw talent. But somebody might have that gift and not have a whole lot of musical intelligence. How does that manifest itself?

I've seen pianists for example, who are really gifted and they have fire in their playing and tenderness and beauty, but they get lost in the performance. They can't hold it together mentally. It's very sad because while they have the gift, the raw talent for music, they might not have the intelligence to be able to really pull it off in performance consistently. Now on the flip side, sometimes there are people who are unbelievably intelligent with music and they can learn and learn and learn music and play it on a high level but there's nothing there. It's really bland and ordinary. They play like everyone else.

Interestingly, those people can be spoonfed interpretive ideas. You can actually work with such a person who has intelligence, but really they don't have the real gift of originality necessarily. But by working with them, you can impart the nuances of phrasing and structure and explain to them. It's unbelievable how these people can perform on such a high level that it's hard to even have the distinction. Are they talented or not? And you can't tell. And you know, there are contests-winning performers who are nurtured with absolutely world-class pianists and can reach that level of perfection and musicality and originality they're playing, that maybe they don't even possess naturally. Now the hope is that they can develop that.

There's a certain amount that can be developed, but you know what? There's a certain amount that's just inborn and you could always improve and raise that level of inventiveness and originality by working with students to get them to let go and to experiment and find their own true voice. But somebody who has that natural ability can reach heights that other people will never reach no matter how much training and practice they have. Now this isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, there are those people who enjoy listening to performances that are very straightforward and faithful to the score and are just what you expect them to be.

You know, sometimes I hear a performance that's so refined. It's like if I didn't know the piece, I could take a pencil and paper and take a dictation and end up with the exact score that the composer wrote. There is nothing wrong with that. So there are all types of performances that are valid, from the super talented original thinkers who emote so much in their playing, to the ones who are articulate and accurate to a great extent. There's room for all of this. We all have elements of both in our playing. There's no absolutes in this world of somebody who has everything. So feel good about what you do bring to the table with your capabilities of talent as well as musical intelligence.

Thanks so much for joining me. I'm Robert Estrin at You know the drill. If you haven't subscribed already, go for it and ring that bell, thumbs up, all the good stuff. We'll see you next time. Bye-bye.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

JulieAnn Smith on June 30, 2021 @9:59 am PST
Have you read any of Gardner's work?
Robert - host, on July 1, 2021 @6:41 am PST
I don't believe so. If you would like to refer something, that would be fine.
William Strickler * VSM MEMBER * on June 30, 2021 @9:27 am PST
I really enjoy your videos, Robert! Your use of body language is amazing! It is unrepeatable if you gave the exact same speech again. That translates into music as well. That makes playing the same music again and again a lot of fun. Each time I play a song, it is new and different. Never the same. I will emphasize different notes and phases differently. The place I play, how I feel, who is listening and a million other variables affect how I play. The song may be exactly the same, but the feelings vary and each time I play is a newly made never before played like that master piece. I look forward to the next time I play that same song on a different day and place as to how it will come out this time.
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