Among the things that grew tiresome and predictable to me while a conservatory student were the inevitable conversations about a performer having “fingers, but no musicality,” or “musicality, but no technique” after attending a performance. I certainly participated in these discussion as a young student, but after a while I stopped. Why do we have to reduce things to either/or? The human mind is more complex than that.

It was years later that I read what Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) called l’espirit geometrique and l’espirit de finesse, sometimes translated as the “mathematical” and “intuitive” minds. I blogged about this in 2009 over at Pristine Madness. To revisit what I wrote then: “the former is a way of thinking that deals with exact definitions and mathematical and scientific abstractions; the latter deals with intuition and ideas and perceptions that cannot be subject to exact measurement. Truths of different natures are to be found by each.”

But the most important thing about this—to me, at least—is, as the late Jacques Barzun succinctly put it in From Dawn to Decadence, it is possible for a well-trained mind to “think like Euclid and like Walt Whitman.” For me, this eradicated the right brain-left brain dichotomy, which I view as the illegitimate heir and pretender to Pascal’s ideas.

Those youthful conservatory conversations might have been more productive and interesting had they centered around why one performer seemed more interested in technical exhibition, while the technique of another couldn’t always meet the demands of one’s musical imagination. These are among the problems that high-level teachers seek to help students solve: the integration of necessary and complementary components into an artistic whole. But teachers can also become stuck in one way of viewing their work.

Two conversations among the many I’ve had with other teachers are representative of what can happen when students never grow out of the either/or mindset engendered by the type of conservatory conversations mentioned above. One teacher said: “Technique can’t be taught. You either have it or you don’t.” Another said: “Musicality can’t be taught. You either have it or you don’t.” Might these teachers have annihilated each other had they met, like matter and anti-matter?

I wonder if Adolphe Christiani, a German-born pianist who taught in New York in the 19th-century, had discussions about performers whose work was weighted more towards either technique or interpretation while he was a student. He clearly thought about it later and included a table of fourteen types of musicians based upon their possession of—or lack of—talent, emotion, intelligence, and technique in his book, The Principles of Musical Expression in Pianoforte Playing (1885). Before getting to the table, though, here’s an excerpt from a review of the book that appeared in The Nation in 1886:

The circumstances under which this book appears are so sad as to invest it with a sentimental personal interest that would mollify adverse criticism, were it called for, which is by no means the case. On the contrary, the book is one which every pianist in the country, elementary or advanced, should carefully read and take to heart. Twenty years ago the author, who was one of the most esteemed piano teachers of this vicinity, began to meditate on certain problems connected with the proper execution of his art, and concerning which there was a remarkable absence of information in musical text-books. Five years ago he began to devote all his leisure time to putting his thoughts into shape on paper; and after much trouble in securing a subscription list large enough to tempt a publisher, the work was at last on the point of appearing when the author suddenly died.[1]

Christiani introduces his table by writing: “I have said it requires talent, emotion, intelligence, and technique to make an artist; what then would be the result if one or more of these four requisites were wanting?”[2]

Table from Adolphe Christiani’s Principles of Expression (1885)
Talent Emotion Intelligence Technique Highest Obtainable Result Would Be:
1 2 3 4 Executive Artist, of highest order.
1 2 3 Non-executive artist; probably first-class teacher.
1 2 4 Natural artist, without musical training.
1 3 4 Executant musician; probably scholarly and critical, but dry.
1 2 Enthusiastic music lover; more impulsive than discriminating.
1 4 A virtuoso, without being either an artist or musician.
1 An individual possessing the key to a treasure chamber, without having ever opened the door.
2 3 4 An ever-laboring artist, whose life is too short to obtain the perfection (s)he aims at.
2 3 Artistic connoisseur; probably a good art critic.
2 4 Spasmodic executant; more sentimentality than judgement.
2 Music-lover by instinct; a good listener.
3 4 Scholarly executant, but cold.
3 Musical theorist.
4 Virtuoso of the music box kind.

I view the table as a bit naïve, but an interesting curiosity. You can find the full text of Christiani’s book over at archive.org.


  1. Review of Adolphe Christiani, The Principles of Musical Expression in Pianoforte Playing in The Nation, Jan. 21, 1886, p. 63.  ↩

  2. Adolphe Christiani, The Principles of Musical Expression in Pianoforte Playing, (New York: Harper, 1885), 16.  ↩