Practicing with Emotion

Question: What about feelings taking over you by what you listen to before you produce the idea on the piano? Until what point can a pianist deal with passion evoked through the music he/she is listening to in the head before reproducing it? I am talking about the difference between the listener and the player… 100 percent predictable, or 100 percent unpredictable? Probably 50/50, right?

– Grace (Rotterdam, Netherlands)

Albert’s reply: The question of emotion and music is a very complex one that touches on many aspects of learning and performing piano music. In performing, there is indeed a delicate balance between maintaining “objective” control and losing oneself in one’s emotions. The latter involves risk-taking, which differs for each performer and can change with performing experience.

It’s impossible to give a definitive answer such as 50 percent control and 50 percent emotional risk, though performers will surely agree that some measure of control is desirable and always necessary. It ultimately depends on a performer’s temperament, comfort level and experience.

Personally, I feel that playing it too safe often deprives the audience (and myself) of the emotional experience we seek by going to a concert in the first place. “No risk, no reward” holds for performing music as much as it does for the stock market!

Your question also relates to a common myth amongst amateur musicians regarding [piano practice](“First the notes, then the music.” The assumption is that it’s possible to learn the notes and “apply” feeling to them afterwards, but this is a major fallacy for two reasons:): “First the notes, then the music.” The assumption is that it’s possible to learn the notes and “apply” feeling to them afterwards, but this is a major fallacy for two reasons:

The first is that, by definition, we reproduce what we learn. If we learn a piece in an unemotional way, we’ll play it unemotionally.

The second is that the brain learns much faster when stimulated by emotion. The more intense the emotion (whether positive or negative), the faster the information or experience becomes fixed in our nervous system. (Hopefully learning music will be a peak experience rather than a traumatic one!)

Playing music is a psychophysical act – a performative act that is as such dependent on the nervous system and hence kinesthetic memory, as well as commands that extend beyond the mere muscular, properly integrating the aural feedback loop. The system is far more complex than just pressing the keys.

The implication is that emotional expression in music isn’t something that should be “tacked on” to previously assimilated movements, they should properly be integrated into the learning process itself. Practicing with emotion, integrating emotions into our muscular movements (by this I do not mean hystrionic gestures of any sort), is thus necessary to professional musicianship.

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