Robert Estrin - piano expert

The Two Brains in Music

How to balance intellect with emotions

In this video, Robert talks about the the "intellectual" and "emotional" sides of the brain. They can actually be considered like two different brains, and you can leverage that to improve your music playing to the next level.

Released on December 25, 2019

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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

Hi, this is Robert Estrin at, and today's subject is The Two Brains in Music. Now, I've talked about this before, in a different way. I've talked about the part of you that's playing, almost on autopilot, and the part of you watching down to make sure you don't take a wrong turn. That's kind of, almost, like two brains, but they're both up here. Today I'm talking about something entirely different. You know, we are just biological creatures, and everything we have, it comes from a rich history going back millennia, and further, with a fight or flight response. Really, how does that work? We have our intellect, but we also have our emotions, the gut. There's something down here, and you know this, because sometimes you react to something even before you know what's going on. You just get a feeling about something before your brain even understands what what is happening, and yet it gives you vital, important, real information about your surroundings, about life.

So, indeed there is an aspect of intelligence, if you want to call it that, in your emotions. In music, it's a balancing between your intellect and your emotions, as it is in life, by the way. So, this transcends just musical performance. But how does this come to be? I studied with Constance Keene at the Manhattan School of Music, and she was an absolutely spectacular teacher. I learned a tremendous amount from her, and one of the things that she said was that, and musical performance is not experiencing the emotion. It's the memory of that emotion, and recreating it. 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 the pianists from the golden era ... listen to Cortot, or Schnabel, and Horowitz. Horowitz never played the same pieces twice, so it was a more of a spontaneous ...

Of course, you can't just go with your emotion, because you can completely flop. You might get way too fast, and just fly away. You have to have that intelligence, balanced with your emotion. But, our performance that's completely devoid of emotion, it doesn't matter how technically proficient it is, it's not going to draw you in. You have to have a balance between 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, because if you're taking a piece, and you're in a public performance, and something occurs to you in a line that you never did before, you have a decision. You can either listen to your brain, I better play it the way I've always played it before, I don't want to take a chance now. Or, you can say, "Wait a minute, let's explore this." Going with that emotion. Then, of course, you're going to react to whatever you did, and it becomes a cycle of emotions to emotions, and that's when you capture your audience.

If you can hold onto that experience, and not let it get too far afield, because you have to be incredibly well prepared in order to do this, and I would not recommend venturing to do this in an important public performance if you are not really, really solid. The secret is being so prepared in your practice that you try things faster, slower, louder, softer. More rubato, less rubato. Straight, lot of pedal, little pedal. You practice on this piano, on that piano. You practice with the piano open, you practice 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, it's almost like having a bag of tricks, but it's way more than that. Which is to say, that you could 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 pianists play differently. Ruth Slenczynska, who ... I also had the great experience of studying with her. Her whole thing was was refinement to such an extent that her performances were just so polished, like jewels. Much like Lhevinne, Josef Lhevinne from years ago, or Josef Hoffman, with that jewel like perfection. Funny thing, one time, we had one of our classes with all our students, and Jerry said, "Oh, Madam Slenczynska, can you play the Chopin G Minor Ballade for us?" Of course, she performed this piece many times. Said 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, because that's the kind of pianist she was. My father, on the other hand, if somebody were to say, "Hey, can you play the G Minor Ballade?" He would just sit down ...

I almost feel like playing the whole Ballade for you right now, but I want to continue saying what I'm saying to you, because it's so important. My father would play any piece that was in his repertoire, and he had an immense repertoire, and he'd just go for it the best he could. He wouldn't make any concessions to the music, even though the technique, obviously, if it's a piece that didn't have, currently in his repertoire, it wouldn't be a polished performance that you'd want to save for posterity on recording. But, he would do the emotion, and have, certainly, a plausible, satisfying performance. That's the way his mind worked. It's not a right or wrong, it's how much you depend upon this part, this brain, and how much you depend upon this brain. It's the balance you find that is genuine for you that's important.

I hope this has been enlightening for you. Would love to get a discussion going about this, and remember, if you haven't subscribed, subscribe to our channel. Hit the bell so you get all our latest videos. There's lots more to come for you. Thanks so much for joining us here at, your online piano store.
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