An outstanding piano performance is one in which there is an emotional connection between the performer and the listener. When a pianist imbues his performance with emotional intensity, the audience will likewise feel the same. The result is an electrifying, energetic performance. There is scientific basis for this sharing of emotions. Scientific research over the last two decades has led to the discovery of mirror neurons. Mirror neurons enable us to empathize with others, feeling the emotions of another’s as if they were our own. Consequently, when we watch a skilled actor perform an intensely emotional scene, we are moved so strongly. A skilled pianist should be able to move his audience in a similar manner, projecting his intense emotions onto his listeners. The purpose of this paper is to provide insight into how piano teachers can help their intermediate and advanced piano students to develop and perform with emotional intensity. It will show how emotional intensity can be applied to a performance, using excerpts from piano literature.
Mirror neurons are a set of neurons in the premotor cortex, the part of the brain responsible for movement. These neurons fire both when we perform an action and when we see or hear someone else performing the same action. Mirror neurons were first discovered in the mid-1990s when a group of researchers were studying the brains of macaque monkeys. Whenever the monkey reached for and grabbed an object, a set of neurons would fire. When a researcher reached for and grabbed the same object, the same neurons began to fire inside the monkey’s brain. The monkey had not performed any motion, but merely watching someone else perform that motion elicited the same response in the brain as if the monkey had performed it itself. The researchers dubbed these neurons “mirror neurons”, because they mirrored the actions done by others.
Mirror neurons and empathy
Brain-imaging technology and further research indicates that a similar mirror neuron system exists in humans. In addition to mirroring actions, the human mirror neuron system also mirrors emotions. Mirror neurons are the scientific basis for empathy. When we watch someone perform an action, that action is mapped onto our motor system. We can infer the motivation and intention of a person just by watching his actions. Watching an action which we can understand and identify with creates a “resonance” in our brain. This “resonance” which we share with another individual is a form of empathy; we experience the emotions which are conveyed through that person’s behavior. In fact, the signal changes from the mirror neurons significantly correlates with emotional empathy levels. If someone cries, his mirror neurons fire, being activated by his motions. At the same time, our mirror neurons are also firing, being activated by observing his motions. There is a shared resonance and sympathy between two people’s mirror neuron...