I am inclined to think that the elementary principles of phrasing in piano teaching might be taught to the younger pupils in classes, or in one general class, meeting once a week. Of course, there would come in the worldly but necessary consideration that the time available for such a class would be Saturday, when there is no school; yet this day is at once the teacher’s most important day financially, and also the one on which it is rather difficult to get the entire class together, by reason of the holiday engagements which many of the pupils will have. But, setting aside this part of the question to be solved by every teacher according to her needs, let us take up the question of what such a class should teach, and how.
The end to be arrived at is the appreciation of music written seriously, in thematic style, such as, in a high sense, the novelettes of Schumann, pieces by Bach, and the principal movements in sonatas. In order that the pupil may appreciate such pieces as these, and play them intelligently when she arrives at the proper stage, it is absolutely indispensable for her to have made certain preliminary studies, and to have undergone preliminary cultivation. Moreover, there is not any kind of a piece which is at all worth playing which is not made up more or less thematically; i.e., by the repetition and sequence of leading motives, the proposal of a theme, and the due answering of it later—the relation of question and answer, or of subject and predicate.
I have lately given considerable study to the selection of material for educating the pupil to this phase of music, and have arrived at the following: The stages to be covered are these: First, measure form (or the disposal of the movement within the measure, as half pulse, whole pulse, of or in whatever combination of long and short tones). The measure form begins at a certain point, and extends to the corresponding point in the next following. Every measure form has a certain influence as a design.
Next, after this point has been recognized, I think the question of symmetry comes in: the production of phrases by two motives, or one motive repeated, sections by two phrases, and periods by two sections. Third, I think we may go on and show more plainly the manner in which similar symmetries may be created by applying the same motive over and over again. Schumann furnishes the best illustrations of this; but I have found in some little pieces by Gayrhos two or three which illustrate the same principle within the limits of the third grade of difficulty. Fourth, the development of larger symmetries, of song form with trio; and fifth, still larger forms, or forms in which thematic principles are carried to larger forms.
In order to cover this ground, it is necessary to take the first steps very slowly and carefully, and, above all, not to go faster than the pupil can follow you. Especially it is indispensable to form the habit of clear analysis. A motive, for example, consists of a certain rhythmic figure, which has a certain melodic direction or form. When this figure is sequenced upon another degree of the scale, it sometimes affords the same results, and sometimes different. For instance, let the figure be one of four tones, like the syllables mi-do-re-mi. When this is sequenced on the next degree higher, it gives us fa-ra-mi-fa, and the third is minor. So also when sequenced upon the next higher degree. Such a figure carried out through the octave, and finished with a single tone upon the tonic, makes a sort of passage.
All of this kind of work (which corresponds to what one might get by giving some of the exercises in Plaidy’s technics, which sequence up and down the octave) rests upon harmonic considerations.
I think that a class such as I am proposing should begin with a certain training in harmony. For this I have already writ en a method in a piano primer. The pupil has to learn to form triads, both major and minor (and perhaps diminished), upon every degree of the chromatic scale, and to play the triads in different positions; later, to know them in inversions.
The second step is to form keys by superimposing three triads,—a tonic, subdominant, and dominant (as shown in the primer). Third, to harmonize by ear the scale, playing the tones slowly, and touching after each tone its natural bass.
Directly after this, or before it, must come some ear- training. I lately attended an exhibition of some pupils by my friend, Mr. Calvin B. Cady, and his pupil, Miss Julia Caruthers, in which ear exercises were well done. A short phrase was played, which the pupil, after hearing twice, sang off, and then wrote upon the blackboard, using merely a short mark for the note-head (in order to save time and not arrest the idea). Next the phrase was sung again, and the pupil decided the measure and placed the bar; then the phrase was sung again if necessary, and the stems and flags put on. A higher stage of this exercise is to dictate an alto. This was done as soon as the soprano phrase had been written, as above. Then the pupil singing the soprano, the teacher played an alto at the same time, which alto the pupil had to hear while singing soprano, and then to sing while the teacher played the soprano. When this was done, which was not generally until after several trials, the pupil wrote the alto under the soprano. Work of this kind takes a long time. The pupils I heard had received, I suppose, perhaps one or two hundred dollars’ worth of instruction upon this point. But they had been originally deficient in ear. and, belonging to wealthy families, the instruction had been given “regardless.” But there was nothing in this exercise which any musical teacher might not do equally well. It would be merely a question of opportunity and patience.
Among the material I have found for elementary work in phrasing, there are some of the variations upon the Chaconne of Händel in his Harpsichord Lessons which come in very handy. Then the Schubert waltzes afford delightful examples of symmetry, and are also valuable for exercises in transposition, which is a necessary part of making the concept musical. Later, things by Reinecke, Reinhold, Wolff, and Heller. Schumann, curiously enough, I do not find so good in this grade, for I am looking after third-grade pieces.
In teaching this work, it is of the utmost importance to analyze each motive into its elements: its rhythm, melody, and, above all, its harmony. I have lately noticed for the first time that in thematic work only the melodic figure and the chords are changed, the rhythm remaining fixed. In variations the melodic figure is amplified and the rhythm changed, but the harmony remains unchanged, or, if changed, it is only from major to minor, or vice versa.
The relation of question and answer, or of subject and predicate, is also something which must be taught. Any phrase tending away from the tonic has the character of proposing something; any phrase tending toward the tonic has the character of answering something or of balancing up something. In the Schubert waltzes these symmetries come in their most elementary form. In thematic pieces the question and answer are of the same nature, but reached by means of totally different motives. This will be seen the moment any good thematic work is analyzed.
The advantages of doing this work in classes would be that more pupils would be interested in it, and the effect of emulation would be to make more of them realize it at its value. Then the instruction would probably be better done. But this brings up the question of ensemble classes, and several others equally important, which I will take up.—W. S. B. Mathews, Musical Record.