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The “Talent” equation in piano playing/learning


Last Wednesday night, Indre Viskontas, opera singer and neuroscientist explored the many facets of Creativity in a City Arts “conversation.” And because a roving MIC didn’t quite reach my section of the San Francisco Nourse Auditorium during the Q and A, I managed to continue the discourse Online at Indre’s blog site.

It’s a no-brainer that talent is not enough to grow musical development. In fact from my end of the teaching spectrum, I don’t include the word in my vocabulary because it’s not relevant to my work with piano students.

What’s more fundamental is a pupil’s LOVE of the learning environment and a determination to take a deep-layered musical journey without short-cuts. This requires a commitment of time, energy, and loads of patience.

Viskontas pointed out that those who are especially “creative” and high-performing, practice obsessively on a daily basis and endure “failures” along the way.

I think she meant that experimentation is part of the creative process that includes trial and error efforts. The creative student, for example, may try a multitude of approaches, some which may work and others not, but he attaches no value judgment to weeding out what doesn’t work. In fact, it becomes satisfying to eliminate what was blocking a passage from smooth execution through an ongoing, self-charged feedback that includes analysis, correction, and refinement. (I add bio-feedback to the mix–or muscle memory)

Viskontas and I were certainly in harmony in this universe of exchange, and she particularly impressed me with her assessment of those who have been told from early childhood how “talented” they are. It seems research studies validate that these individuals have difficulty in the long-term at colleges and conservatories where there’s keen competition. Unfortunately, their eyes become focused on external feats of accomplishment, without having nourished an internal, self-satisfying joy of learning.

(That’s why it’s better to have had parents who rewarded children for their enduring work invested in any creative undertaking, rather than having relentlessly exposed them to WINNING as the ONLY end result)

Beating kids down for making mistakes or telling them they have a pre-destined path of success based on their “talents” will more than likely have the opposite effect than intended.


On some other points of discussion, Indre and I did not completely concur. She talked about “empathy” in music appreciation and included the word “narrative” in her discussion of musical performance.

Here are her comments following mine, as published at her blog site.

“Indre, as a performing pianist and teacher, I have some issues with your having used the word “empathy” as an ingredient of musical appreciation. Seems to be a modern day catchword. I’ve never used it in my teaching Bach, Mozart, Chopin, et al. but phrasing, structure, mood, nuance, sequence, the unexpected, harmonic rhythm, changes, etc. are my particular explorations. (I refer also to Leonard Meyers, Emotion and Meaning in Music)

“Narrative” was another word that did not resonate with me, insofar as every performance has to “tell a story.” When I listen to Perahia or Sokolov play a Bach Partita, the narrative if STRETCHED in meaning refers to the performer’s understanding and communication of form, structure, and emotion. Yes, emotion but not necessarily tied to a story-or trying to be overly SUBJECTIVE. Your comments however on talent and creativity were those to which I shook my head affirmatively.”

More elaboration from my perspective–un-published

Mood, affect, emotion and their communication are intrinsic to beautiful music-making, and perhaps with teacher prompts like “rolling” or “floating” motion (triplets) or a minor-mode shift reminder evoking a particular affective response, these become their own “narrative.” But imposing an artificial story line on a piece of music, not including, of course, an opera score that has its own libretto, plot, etc. doesn’t sit well with me, especially when playing Mozart Sonatas, Bach Inventions, from the Classical and Baroque eras.

As for “Empathy,” again when stretched in meaning I can empathize with its usage. But bringing concepts down to earth, I think attentive listening goes a long way in the music appreciation universe side-by-side with an understanding of form, harmonic rhythm, phrasing, sequences, and what is unexpected.


Hi Shirley –

“Thanks for coming to City Arts and for checking out my blog!

“I appreciate your discomfort with the overuse of buzz words like empathy and narrative. But I also have to say that I stand by my comments. Now there’s no need explicitly to use the word empathy when working with your students, but I would argue that what you are training them to do is all about eliciting empathy in their audiences. Empathy, after all, is about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes – figuring out what they are feeling. Isn’t that exactly the point of musical expression? to communicate feelings and ideas? if so, then we’re talking about empathy.

“Now narrative, in my view, means that there is an arc to the piece – it goes somewhere. There’s a beginning, middle and an end. That’s the first element of musicality, in my opinion, and the element that is most often missing in ‘cold’ performances. Teaching your students phrasing and nuance ultimately reaches the same goal, but they might find it easier to understand and to implement if you couch it in the form of a story. I’d love to have you try it and see if it’s effective for your students! It certainly is for mine and for all the chamber groups that I’ve worked with, not to mention, of course, every piece of vocal music I’ve ever heard or sung. If the emotion is presented on its own, with no where to go, the sound often gets stuck and the performance becomes less musical.”

For more about Indre Viskontas and her work, visit her official website:

OTHER: Taking Piano Lessons: Skimming the Surface or Getting Deeply Involved

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