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What a Music Teacher Ought to Know.


It is scarcely a generation ago that there existed a genus of music teacher in America, a strange, tone-producing animal, who knew very little. To this homunculus the word “harmony” meant a knowledge of the tonic, dominant, and subdominant chords; for him the circle of the keys became a semicircle, extending from three flats on the one side to three sharps on the other. This compound of arpeggios and arrogance was always called “Professor,” and would have parted with his head rather than with his title.

It speaks well for musical progress in our country that in the last fifteen years this kind of “Silvery Wave” producer has become as scarce as the dodo or the buffalo. The true music teacher has crowded him out of even the smallest towns, and men and women of higher art ideals have taken his place. Yet it is too much to expect that the highest type of music teacher should flourish at once in place of the tonal ignoramus; we have progressed gloriously toward a desideratum, but the goal has not yet been reached; the ideal teacher is, however, sure to be the ultimate outcome of the advance which is constantly being made along the musical line.

What should the ideal teacher know? What should he be able to teach? First of all, his specialty. In these days of abnormal technic, every musician must become a specialist, so far as performance is concerned. But his knowledge must by no means be bounded by his single instrument. Should he be a vocal teacher, he must at least know enough of anatomy to guard against the ills that the voice is heir to, even while carefully refraining from frightening his pupils with medical terms.

Should he be a piano teacher, a knowledge of the anatomy of the hand will be found equally useful. As regards languages, if a vocalist, he must understand Italian; if a pianist, he ought to understand German, so that the store-houses of most valuable songs on the one hand, of noble histories and treatises on music on the other, shall not be closed to him.

Whatever his branch of musical work, he will need to study the C clef, in its various usages, thoroughly. This clef, to be sure, is not employed in piano music, but many songs, vocal exercises, masses, and all orchestral works and string quartets employ it, and the advanced musician will be hampered in many a work if he does not study the soprano, alto, and tenor clefs.

A knowledge of the history and evolution of embellishments will be found very advantageous; for, while these so-called “ornaments” of music are a very bad legacy from a past age, yet all vocal works of the classic masters, and the piano works of Bach, Händel, Haydn, and Mozart (not to speak of Beethoven and the modern school) teem with them. A mere reliance on the “foot notes” of overedited editions will not absolve the good teacher from seeking this knowledge, for often the editions disagree, and when the pupils begin to compare notes and find these disagreements, they will appeal to the teacher as the final authority, and this individual must be able to explain the reason for his adopting one interpretation rather than another.

The vocal teacher must be literary in some degree. A knowledge of belles-lettres will aid him very often in giving the true spirit of a song or in imparting the correct declamation of a phrase to a student. Elocution, of course, will go hand in hand with vocal training in most cases.

A knowledge of harmony will naturally be indispensable to the advanced teacher in any field of music; but there must be more than this; there must be at least a speaking acquaintance with counterpoint. By this I mean that while it is not necessary, although desirable, for the teacher to be able to write counterpoint of an advanced character, he must at least be ready to point out the significance of many passages written in double counterpoint at the tenth, in triple counterpoint, in augmentation, diminution, etc. No teacher can cause a pupil to make an entire success, even of the inventions of Bach, without knowing by what devices the composer has produced his effects, while a fugue played without comprehension of its scheme, would be precisely like reading a book in a foreign tongue without comprehending the language.

A knowledge of musical form must needs go hand in hand with an ability to teach proper phrasing. In these days, when many careless, yet sometimes famous, composers use the long slur as if it were merely an ornamental flourish, it behooves the teacher to be able to correct a phrasing that would lead astray. What would one think of a reader who declaimed:

“Full many a gem of,
Purest ray serene the dark,
Unfathomed caves of Ocean bear full many;
A flower is born,” etc., etc.

Yet similar errors are made in piano playing frequently and evoke no comment from the weak teacher. Phrasing is the punctuation of music, and no one can phrase with surety without understanding the form which underlies it.

To play a sonata without understanding its form is, at the best, a species of groping in the dark.

The history of music must be understood also; a Scarlatti sonata represents one school, a Bach concerto another; crude progressions in Palestrina, strange endings in Hassler or Schuetz, have their causes which can only be demonstrated by the teacher who is familiar with the development of our art as shown in its history. A comparison of epochs and schools of composition can be made by the competent teacher that will cause otherwise dull works to glow with an actual interest. A knowledge of the orchestra should be aimed at. It is too often a flaw in the armor of an otherwise good teacher that he is all at sea when any instrument but his own is on the tapis. To go to a concert and to be utterly ignorant of what clarinet, bassoon, trombones, etc., are doing, is to fall lamentably short of being a “musician.”

It will be seen from the above that the old proverb,

“Man’s work is from sun to sun,
But woman’s work is never done,”

applies with still more force to the work of a conscientious musician. The true teacher has a life-long task before him, but he can take consolation in the thought that each succeeding task makes the others lighter; they are all pleasantly intertwined, and the appetite for knowledge grows by what it feeds on. A young musician might be appalled at a schedule of study such as the above, yet it affords an ideal to strive for, and each step toward the goal is not very difficult in itself; besides, such a course of study spreads itself over many years; only the American ostrich-pupil will endeavor to swallow it all at once.


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