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Blunders in Music Study

October 7, 2006

Like a voice from the Unseen, the Eternal, music speaks to the soul of man. Its informing word being delivered in the language of the emotional nature finds some response to its appeal in every normal human breast. Shakespeare indicated this truth when he had his Lorenzo, in the Merchant of Venice, say:

_”The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus;
Let no such man be trusted.”_

It is not the normal soul, fresh from its Creator’s hands, that is fit for such dire evils, but the soul perverted by false conditions and surroundings. Where vice has become congenial and the impure reigns supreme, that which rouses and expresses noble aspirations and pure emotions can find no room. Normal instincts may also be dulled, the inner being made, as it were, musically deaf and dumb, by a false education which stifles and dwarfs the finer feelings, or by circumstances which permit these to remain dormant.

The emotional natures of human beings differ as widely in kind and degree as the intellectual and physical natures. In some people sensibility predominates, and the irresistible activity of fancy and feeling compels the expression in rhythmic tone combinations of ideals grasped intuitively. Thus musical genius manifests itself. No amount of education can bring it into being, but true culture and wise guidance are needed to equip it for its bold flight. “Neither diligence without genius, nor genius without education will produce anything thorough,” as we read in Horace. Other people with marked aptitude for musical expression have reproductive rather than creative endowments. To them belongs talent in a greater or less degree, and they are adapted to promulgate the message which genius formulated for mankind. Talent may be ripened and brightened by suitable environments and fostering care.

There are besides persons led by genius or talent into other avenues than those of the tone-world, and the great public with its diverse grades of emotional and intellectual gifts. The cultivation of the ćsthetic tastes is profitable to all, and no agency contributes so
freely to it as music. Too many people engaged in purely scientific or practical pursuits have failed to realize this. In those nations known as musical, and that have become so through generations occupied with the art, music study is placed on an equal footing with any other worthy pursuit and no life interest is permitted to exclude musical enthusiasm.

Unless disabled by physical defects, every one displays some sense of musical sound and rhythmic motion. It is a constant occurrence for children, without a word of direction, to mark the time of a stirring tune with hands, feet and swaying motions of the body. A lullaby will almost invariably soothe a restless infant, and most children old enou gh
to distinguish and articulate groups of tones will make some attempt at singing the melodies they have often heard. The average child begins music lessons with evident pleasure.

It should be no more difficult to strengthen the musical instincts than any other faculties. On the contrary, it too often chances that a child whose early song efforts have been in excellent time and tune, and not without expression, who has marched in time and beat time accurately, will, after a period of instruction, utterly disregard sense of rhythm,
sing out of tune, play wrong notes, or fail to notice when the musical instrument used is ever so cruelly out of tune. Uneducated people, trusting to intuitive perceptions, promptly decide that such or such a child, or person, has been spoiled by cultivation. This is merely a
failure to trace a result to its rightful cause, which lies not in cultivation, but in certain blunders in music study.

These blunders begin with the preliminary course on the piano or violin, for instance, when a child, having no previous training in the rudiments of music, starts with one weekly lesson, and is required to practice a prescribed period daily without supervision. To the difficulties of an introduction to a musical instrument are added those of learning to read
notes, to locate them, to appreciate time values and much else. The teacher, it may be, knows little of the inner life of music, still less of child nature. Manifold perplexities arise, and faltering through these the pupil acquires a halting use of the musical vocabulary, with
other bad habits equally hard to correct. A constant repetition of false notes, wrong phrasing, irregular accents, faulty rhythms and a meaningless jumble of notes dulls the outer ear and deadens the inner tone-sense. Where there is genius, or decided talent, no obstacle can wholly bar the way to music. Otherwise, it retreats before the
blundering approach.

Many a mother when advised to direct her child’s practicing, or at least to encourage it by her presence, has excused herself on the plea that it would bore her to listen. If the work bores the mother it is not surprising that the child attacks it with mind fixed on metal more attractive and eyes seeking the clock. Occupations which are repellent in early life leave behind them a memory calculated to render them forever distasteful. It is therefore a grave mistake not to make music study from the outset throb with vital interest. An appeal to the intellect will quicken the ćsthetic instincts, be they never so slender,
and almost any one will love work that engages all the faculties. Those pupils are fortunate who come under the influence of a teacher with strong, well-balanced personality and ripe knowledge, and are treated as rational beings, capable of feeling, thinking and acting. Too
many music teachers learn their business by experimenting on beginners. It has been suggested as a safeguard against their blunders, and all ignorance, carelessness and imposture, that music might be placed under the same legal protection accorded other important factors in social life, and that no one be permitted to teach it without a license granted by a competent board of judges after the applicant had passed a successful examination, theoretical and practical. This would be well if there was any certainty of choosing suitable persons to select the judges.

A practical Vienna musician, H. Geisler, has recently created no little sensation by asserting that the pianoforte, although indispensable for the advanced artist, is worthless, even harmful, in primary training, and that the methods used in teaching it are based on a total misapprehension of the musical development prescribed by nature. Sensual and intellectual perceptions must actively exist, he feels, before they can be expressed by means of an instrument. It is a mistake to presume that manual practice can call them into being, or to disregard the supremacy of the tone-sense. He considers the human voice the primitive educational instrument of music and believes the reasonable order of musical education to be: hearing, singing, performing.

This order is to be commended, and might readily be followed if primary instruction was given in classes, which being less expensive than private tuition, would admit of more frequent lessons and the services of a competent teacher. Classes afford the best opportunity for training the ear to accuracy in pitch, the eye to steadiness in reading notes,
the mind to comprehension of key relationships, form and rhythmic movement, and the heart to a realization of the beauty and purport of music. In classes the stimulating effect of healthy competition may be felt, an impulse given to writing notes, transposing phrases and melodies, strengthening musical sentiment and refining the taste.

Both the French Solfčge method and the English Tonic Sol-fa system prove the advantage of rudimentary training in classes. Mrs. John Spencer Curwen, wife of the president of the London Tonic Sol-fa College, and daughter-in-law of the late Rev. John Curwen, founder of the movement it represents, has applied to pianoforte teaching the logical principles
underlying the system, which are those accepted by modern educators as the psychological basis of all education. From her point of view the music lesson may be made attractive from the moment the pupil is placed at the instrument.

Time is taught by her as a mental science, with the pulse as the central fact. She proceeds rhythmically rather than arithmetically, making constant appeals to that within the child which is associated with music. As the ear is expected to verify every fact, whether of time or pitch, she deems essential to profitable practicing the daily supervision of some person who understands the teacher’s requirements.

Many times a child who can readily explain the relative value of every note and dot will stumble in the time movement when confronted with a mixture of the same notes and dots. This is because no mental connection has been established between the mechanical time sign and its sound, which is the outgrowth of instinctive impulses. Time confusion
may also be caused by confiding too implicitly in loud and persistent counting, instead of trusting to the intelligently guided rhythmic pulse.

The keenness of musical perception in the blind is a subject of frequent comment. It is due to the fact that neither outer nor inner ear is distracted by the organ of sight, and the mind is compelled to concentrate itself with peculiar intensity on the tone-images aroused
for its contemplation. When one of the senses is weakened or lost, the others become strong through the requirements made on them. This shows how much may be gained in music study by throwing responsibility on those faculties it is desirable to develop.

There are numerous promising schemes for class work in operation in our own country, some of them offering excellent advantages to the student. From the music study in our public schools valuable results ought to come in time. Thus far, unfortunately, it is too often conducted by teachers who are themselves without trained musical ability and who
permit their pupils to shout rather than sing music of an inferior order to the accompaniment of a piano wretchedly out of tune.

The much beloved Phillips Brooks once said: “A school song in the heart of a child will do as much for his character as a fact in his memory, or a principle in his intellect.” Unquestionably a love for good music, inspired during the formative period, is calculated to open unlimited possibilities, and ours could readily be molded into a musical nation if
a firm foundation for musical knowledge and appreciation were laid in our schools. After the rudiments were mastered, it could easily be decided which pupils had a natural bent demanding special training.

Where music study becomes compulsory the blunder of permitting the compulsion to be felt must be avoided. Socrates of old, in Plato’s Republic, advised making early education a sort of amusement. Those who heed his counsel should not forget that in turning music study altogether into play work there is danger of weakening the will. The tottering footsteps should be guided wisely, as well as tenderly, in the first approach to the Temple of Art, that the pupil may learn to walk, as well as to observe and think independently. We most prize beauty that we are able to discern for ourselves. We gain strength by  intelligently conquering our own problems and perplexities. “Nothing is impossible,” as Mirabeau has said, “for one who can will.”

The aim of music study is to know music, to gain a correct conception of how it should sound, and so, as far as possible, to make it sound. This aim can never be reached by the mere cultivation of technical adroitness. Untold sacrifices are made to-day to what becomes the unrighteous mammon of technique when the mechanical side of practice is
exalted above its interpretative aspects. Schumann deemed brilliancy of execution only valuable when it served a higher purpose. That higher  purpose is to reach and express the soul of music. Unless enriched by it, all mechanism is dead. It is not desirable that every one should perform acrobatic feats on some musical instrument, or indulge in vocal
pyrotechnics, but it is desirable to extract music out of whatever technique may be attained. Instead of racing onward with feverish haste to ever increased technical skill at the expense of other development, it were well for the student to pause until each composition attacked, be it but an exercise, could be interpreted with accuracy, intelligence, and feeling. We should then have more musicianly players and singers. We
should more often be brought under the magic spell of exquisitely shaded tone that may make a simple little melody alive with beauty.

A grave blunder of our present music study is the neglect of ensemble playing and singing. Some of the noblest music written is for part-singing and for two or more instruments. Much profit and delight will be the result of making its acquaintance. Four and eight hand piano arrangements of the great overtures and symphonies, too, are valuable
and enjoyable. They prepare the way for an appreciation of an orchestral performance of these masterpieces, and broaden the musical horizon. Where there are several music students in a family it is a pity for them to confine their efforts exclusively to the piano, although every musician should have some knowledge of this household instrument.
That is a happy home whose members are united by the playing or singing of noble concerted music.

It is an absurd error to suppose that fine soloists cannot succeed in ensemble work, or as accompanists. Those who fail have been poorly grounded in their art. They may give dazzling performances of works bristling with technical difficulties, yet make a sad failure of some slow, tender movement that calls for musicianly understanding and delicate treatment. The truth is, the requirements for an artistic accompanist, or for artistic concerted work, are the same as for an artistic soloist: well directed musical aptitude, love of art, an ear attuned to listening and large experience in sight-reading.

The music pupils’ public recital contributes no little to the blunders of the day in music study. Especially with piano pupils, the work of the year is likely to be shaped with reference to the supreme occasion when results attained may be exhibited in the presence of assembled parents and friends. The popular demand being for the mastery of technique,
showy pieces are prepared whose mechanism so claims the attention that the principles underlying both technics and interpretation are neglected. Well-controlled hands, fingers, wrists and arms, with excellent manipulation of the keyboard, may be admired at the recital, but little of that effective playing is heard which finds its way to the hearer’s heart. A dead monotony will too often recall the letter that killeth because devoid of the spirit that giveth life.

Sounding notes, even sounding them smoothly, clearly, and rapidly, is not necessarily making music, and a succession of them without warmth and coloring is truly as inartistic as painting without shading. If it were more commonly realized that it is an essential part of the music teacher’s vocation to train the mind and the emotions and through them
the will and the character, there would be a higher standard for the music pupils’ recital. No one would be permitted to play, or sing in  public who could not give an artistic, as well as a technically correct performance.

Music students should lose no opportunity to hear the best music, both vocal and instrumental. Heard with understanding ears one good concert is often worth a dozen lessons, yet many students know nothing in music beyond what they have practiced themselves, or heard their fellow-students give at rehearsals or recitals. If they attend concerts at all, it is rather to observe some schoolmaster method in their own particular branch than actually to enjoy music. Trying to gain a musical education without a wide acquaintance with the literature of music is like attempting to form literary taste without knowing the world’s great books. To bathe in the glow of the mighty masterpieces of genius
neutralizes much that is evil. In music they are the only authoritative illustrations between notes and the ideals they represent; they form the models and maxims by means of which we approach a knowledge of music.

In view of hearing good music, breathing a musical atmosphere and being glorified into artists, vast numbers of American girls seek foreign musical centres. They are apt to go without suitable equipment, mental or musical, and with inadequate pecuniary provisions. They expect to attain in a few months what they are doomed to discover would take years
to accomplish, and cannot fail to suffer for the blunder. Many of them return home disappointed in their aims, and ruined in health. Many of them are stranded in strange lands. A crusade should be started against indiscriminate going abroad for music study, without thorough preparation in every respect.

The fact is, a free, true, fearless hero, such as Wagner found in his Siegfried, is needed to slay, with his invincible sword, the dragon of sordid materialism, and awaken the slumbering bride of genuine art. A storm-god is wanted to swing his hammer and finally dissipate the clouds that obscure the popular vision. Some one has called for a plumed
knight at the literary tournament, with visor down, lance in hand, booted and spurred for the fight with prevalent errors. One is equally needed at the musical tournament.

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