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Letters To Teachers.


1. What methods may be used in teaching piano lessons to a child who does not read ? We like Mathews’ “Twenty Lessons to a Beginner,” but there it is necessary that she should read and write also. She is very bright and can have a daily lesson.

2. How does Dr. William Mason’s octave touch differ from that of Kullak? F. M. T.

The first part of the “Twenty Lessons” can be given without the pupil being able to read. And if the teacher is willing to take the trouble, she can go on to quite a length in the same way. That is to say, all the keyboard exercises, such as the two-finger, arpeggios, and scales, can be given perfectly well and to quite a high degree of difficulty without the use of any notation whatever, the teacher merely having the matters at hand for reference. But in doing this it will be desirable to give each exercise a name, and to impress this name upon the child at the moment of learning the exercise, in order that exercises may be recalled for review and practice. Thus, there will be four different ways of playing the two finger exercises, which are to be given cumulatively, one until it is understood, then add another and other, until the child has them all, which will not take very long. These four ways will be the clinging touch, the arm touches, the hand and finger elastic, and the devitalized. Here we have in all six different manners of eliciting tone (the arm touches including “up” and “down,” and the hand touch being not the same as the finger elastic). Scales must be taught in the manner mentioned in my “Twenty Lessons,” and the arpeggios carried through. In the latter, the child must know the C position of the diminished chord, and whatever “changes” you add to it, from 1 to 15. Then, designating the position and the change, add the rhythm, and you have a full direction, as “C position, third change, meter of 12s.” Chord forms and little cadences can be taught very well by rote. But in every case there must be a set of verbal handles, in order to be able to call them up when needed. But when it comes to melody the case becomes more serious. It is quite possible to teach a child one simple melody after another by rote, provided the child and the teacher have sufficient patience. But it is not altogether easy to hold a number of such lessons in the child’s memory without something to steer by—some kind of notation. I am inclined to think that any child smart enough to do these things by rote is also smart enough to learn a notation. And I do not believe it will be at all difficult for the child to learn the staff notation direct. Just as soon as you have localized, for instance, the eleven places of the treble staff as corresponding with the white keys running toward the right from D next middle C, I do not see why a very little attention would not make the child competent to read from the staff in the course of a few weeks, without bothering her or making anything difficult for her.

But if the staff is thought too difficult, why, then, we have no recourse but to fall back upon the tonic sol fa, which needs only that the child should know seven letters by eye, and be taught the scale relations that the seven letters stand for. Then, too, the elements of the notation should be taught very carefully, and only one at a time. Begin by teaching the scale thoroughly, so that the child can name the scale tones you play in a melody. This may require some weeks, and you will do better if you begin with the tonic elements (do, mi, sol, do); then when these are all felt properly, add the dominant elements (re, sol, te), and then the sub-dominant (do, fa, la, do), and finally all together. Just as soon as the child can first sing a melodic phrase from hearing it played over once or twice, and call the scale names, then give the staff places for notation, and there we are. Possibly it will be found even here that the scale places will afford no more difficulty than the tonic sol fa itself. A smart child does not need to be kept back. I was able to read from the newspaper about the time I was three years old. I learned by pestering my mother, until she told me one letter after another and simple words in order to keep me quiet, until I could find all the others of the same sort on the page. I believe any child can be taught to read in the ordinary course of the household before reaching five years of age—I mean, any child manifesting interest in things. However, be this as it may, some sort of notation we must have pretty soon, not for use in first learning, but for convenience, primarily, in recording, and then for convenience in recalling.

(2) Mason’s octave touch I do not understand to be at all different from that of Kullak, but his method of bringing the pupil to an easy play of octaves is different, but it is all in the two finger exercise, the so-called octave exercises adding merely the octave extension of the hand. Finger and wrist remain quite the same as in the two-finger exercise.

In this connection I think it proper to state what I understand to be Dr. Mason’s claims with reference to his system of technics. I do it because a pupil of my own reported to me recently having heard an eminent pianist play who does not like Mason’s technics, and, who, in fact, made several slighting allusions to it. She remarked, “All the time he was using Mason’s technics at the very moment when he was speaking against them.”

Dr. Mason came on the field of action when the pianoforte had received important illustration from the works of Chopin, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Thalberg, and Liszt. At this time the immediate predecessors of these great geniuses were such mechanicians as Herz, Kalkbrenner, and strict pedagogues. Mason himself was a pianist by nature, having been gifted with a highly musical nature, excellent early training, and early experience of great importance. When he went to Europe in 1849 he represented in his own playing the best that America had at that time produced. He went to Leipsic, to Moscheles, and after a year there spent a year with that virtuoso, “Dry-as dust” Dreyschock, and then went for several seasons to the coterie with Liszt at Weimar. At Weimar he probably heard for the first time the works of the great romanticists interpreted in the modern style, and there he himself became one of the leading exponents of the school of piano playing which is now current over the whole civilized world.

Between this method of playing and the directions in the instruction books, or even the instructions in the conservatories, the hiatus was world-wide. Not only did current instruction utterly fail to grasp the central points of the art of playing the piano in this modern sense, it did not even lay a foundation for it,—in short, had no relation to it. So when Mason came home and began to teach, he at once began to introduce novelties of improvised exercises, some of which were his own instantaneous inventions, designed to meet a particular case, and others traditional usages from other eminent pianists, exercises or modes of practice which they had invented for their own use. In this way he originated, or first formally and publicly introduced, the first form of the two-finger exercise, his ingenious changes upon the diminished seventh (the germ of which I think it quite likely he may have got from Joachim Raff), and above all the system of accentual treatment of exercises, in order to improve the attention and train the hands more rapidly. The octave exercises were a new departure, but they offered nothing new when it was done, but merely a shorter and more direct road for reaching the method in which all good artists play octaves.

So if you take the Mason technics together they do not contain, perhaps, one single method of touching the piano which has not many times been applied by great artists. But they do give, so far as I know, the only system of technical exercises which undertakes to afford the player the mental training and finger methods which distinguish the playing of artists in their best interpretations from the well-schooled playing of amateurs and conservatory pupils. Any artist, in proportion as he plays well, plays after the manner of the Mason technics; and artists like D’Albert, who play well in certain respects but fail in others (such as delicacy and nuance), play after the manner of the Mason technics to a certain extent, and fail to play by just so much. In fact, the D’Albert playing (to judge by what I heard of it) lacked all or nearly all of that refinement and expressiveness of finger point upon which the appealing quality of the tone depends,—exactly the quality in which Paderewski and Joseffy are far superior to him.

1. “What exercises ought I to use for finger stretching and thumb limbering ?”

2. “Exercises for raising the knuckles of fingers 4 and 5, and depressing those of 2 and 3?”

3. “Finger and hand gymnastics?”

4. “Are the vocal exercises of Mr. Fred. W. Root in the Musical Messinger good, of value?”

5. “In vocal instruction is there anything better than Bassini?”

6. “I do not understand phrasing, only what my ear catches; what book of Mathews shall I get? Is not his first for very young beginners?”

7. “My powers of memorizing have been suffered to decay; can I get help, or just practice, practice?”

C. L. P.

This correspondent also asks me to recommend a conservatory nearer Colorado than are Cincinnati and New York.

The first three questions in the above list I answer by recommending “Mason’s Touch and Technic,” all four volumes. All that is necessary for the purposes named is in the book. For bringing up the knuckles, and for forming the hand, there is nothing better than the two finger exercise, especially in elastic touches and in sixths. But in doing these be sure that the wrist is kept low and the fingers operated to their full extent, that is, straightened out for making the touch, and shut quite in to contact with the palm of the hand in making the touch. This in a little time will strengthen the weak side of the hand, especially if you demand more tone of that side and keep demanding until you get it.

I should judge from the letter that the correspondent had a more mechanical conception of finger training than is desirable, and depended less upon musical ideas as such.

With reference to the vocal question, I judge that the Root exercises are of value, and that Delle-Sadie’s recent work is better than Bassini. There may be many other good works; I am not a vocalist.

7. It will not be easy to learn to memorize, but perseverance will do it. It is exactly the same thing as eating very tough beefsteak. Cut off small mouthfuls and masticate them thoroughly. In other words, take a phrase at a time, first play it both hands together, then the right hand alone twice. Conceal the notes (this is very important) and try to recall what you have played. Then if you fail try and think clearly exactly how far you can, and just where the memory fails. Look once at this precise point, then try the phrase again from memory. When the right hand is learned, try the bass in the same manner, finally, both hands together. Learn the counting at the beginning, because this is your guide to the way in which the two parts go together. When you have a melody and accompaniment learn the harmony, i. e., the succession of chords; then fit the melody to it, phrase by phrase. For first exercises in memorizing, Bach’s first and eighth two-part inventions are excellent. Be sure and take something which will not remember itself. What you want is a habit of intellectual attention, therefore take music which is strong upon the intellectual side—music which you cannot whistle, and which you could not play by ear. In a few months, little by little, you will accomplish it. It will be very difficult at first, and require considerable “sand,” but after a little it will become easy enough, and all your playing will be very much improved.

I cannot recommend a conservatory. In fact, I do not know that there is a good conservatory west of Chicago, though there may be hundreds of them.

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