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Letters to Teachers

By W.S.B. Matthews
 
"Please explain the 'up-arm' touch as given in Mason's 'Technic.' A music teacher and I disagree about it. As I understand it the hand and arm in rising cause the fingers to press the keys and then spring away. She says the touch is made after the arm is raised. Please tell me the meaning of 'Allo, ma non troppo.' It is used in No. 31 of your 'Graded Studies.' Do your 'Twenty Lessons to a Beginner' dispense with a piano? Please name some of the best songs of Mrs. Jessie L. Gaynor and describe for what voice. Please tell me of one or two bright and pleasing pieces to give my daughter. She is in grade 9 of your Studies, but has given her time for the last year to studies and classic work, and can play little that interests the people here. Mrs. W."
 
The up-arm touch is made as described in the book and illustrated in figures 1 and 2. To the eye the up- arm touch is made by springing away from the keys; to the muscular sense it is a push delivered by the triceps muscle, located back of the upper arm, just above the elbow. The springing up of the wrist and arm is for looseness and elasticity. The keys are not pressed down by the hand before it springs away, but the triceps gives a push and at the same time the arm is pushed forward and upward, the wrist becoming loose the moment the touch has been made. The touch is delivered at the moment the motion begins, and not after the arm springs up. You are, therefore, both wrong.
 
You can make a touch with the triceps alone in the following manner: Place the fingers upon the keys (any chord, or even a single note). Then give this sharp push from the upper arm (or perhaps from the elbow will do it). You just "bite in" on the key. The hand pushes forward a very little, but remains holding the keys. The fingers are braced firmly to transmit the impulse. This touch is very effective and important, combined with a very slight fall of the hand—i.e., arranging the fingers for a chord just above the keys, at a distance of perhaps an inch or less. Make the touch by falling upon the keys and biting in with the triceps at the same time. This touch makes a deep and musical tone, and is emphatic. It is much used by artists. Mason is the first piano technician, so far as I know, who has ever pointed out the action of the triceps muscle in playing. While I would not go so far as he does and pronounce it the emotional center of playing, it is one of the most important touches we have. The extreme oscillation of wrist in the arm touches is for the sake of looseness. In actual playing it is often lessened. But after any strong touch, whether finger, hand, or arm, the wrist must be instantly relaxed. This is necessary in order to retain elasticity for the next following touch.
 
"Allegro ma non troppo" means quick, but not too quick. A good musical dictionary will tell you such things as this.
 
My "Twenty Lessons to a Beginner" is for a beginner in piano-playing; and, therefore, do not dispense with the instrument. When you mean to learn to swim, water of sufficient depth is advisable. You could rehearse the motions in your bedroom, no doubt, but there are sensations accompanying immersion in the liquid which would be likely to render your technic imperfect. My "Twenty Lessons" is a method of starting a very young pupil upon the piano in a way to place the musical idea first. Away from the piano you do not have music; and in the beginning the pupil has too little tonal imagination to "play hear" successfully without the correction of actually hearing the tones produced.
 
The best of Mrs. Gaynor's songs are in her "Album of Seven Songs " and "Album of Six Songs," which may be had for high or low voice. In the former the two best are probably "If I were a Bee" and "The Night has a Thousand Eyes." There are some lovely kindergarten songs, very bright and pleasing. The publisher of The Etude will send them.
 
It is not possible to name pleasing piano solos with any certainty, for I have no idea how far along your daughter may be in the art of expression. This essential part of music, without which all playing is worse than St. Paul's "sounding brass and tinkling cymbal," is generally neglected by students intent upon working through a lot of studies and dosing themselves with "classic" music which they hope is better than it sounds. They ought to learn that there was a time when classic music sounded well, and it will sound well again if played with expression and musical feeling. You will not find anything more pleasing to the uncultivated hearer than some of the lighter movements of Haydn (minuets, etc.) and of Mozart. For your use I suggest "La Fileuse," by Raff (edited by Dr. Mason); "Waltz in A-flat," by Moszkowski; "Serenade, "by Moszkowski, and "A Moonlight Journey," by Bendel. All these are brilliant and not above 7th grade in difficulty. If your daughter has not already studied them I would recommend her to play all the lyric pieces in my second book of "Studies in Phrasing." These pieces are such as no student should be without, and they are there well edited for study.
 
"How would you proceed with a pupil of some musical ability who does not care for technic and is deficient in time? She is also studying singing. I thought of having her write and beat different kinds of time, commencing with the simplest. Or would you require pieces to be played in which the different values of notes appear?—B. L."
 
If the pupil is deficient in sense of measure, I would advise her working through a lot of the Mason arpeggios and scales, carrying them through all sorts of measure, first in one note to a beat, then with two, then three, then four. Possibly go on to six to a beat. By this time her sense of pulsation and measure and her feeling for the different kinds of measure ought to be much strengthened. You will now enter upon a study of rhythm, meaning thereby the motion of melody against the background of measure. She must be trained to all the kinds of combined and divided pulses. She already has all kinds of divided pulses, where the division is kept up according to the same pattern. Begin now with alternations of whole pulses and divided pulses, such as 4/4 in the following: 1 quarter, 4 sixteenths ; 1 quarter, 4 sixteenths. Have her listen to this rhythm and define it to you; then she should play it; then write it. Or have her listen and play it after you, and then write it. In this way you go on from one kind of division to another. Combined pulses will first be those of two pulses, then three, then of one pulse and a half, etc. In short, get a tonic sol-fa standard course, and you will find the subject of rhythmics rationally treated. You will also find it handled helpfully in the "Primer of Music " by Dr. Mason and myself. But unless you base your studies of rhythm upon a fundamental feeling for pulsation and measure, you will never arrive at really good rhythm—and there is no other one quality in which singers are so atrociously deficient. Singers have absolutely no sense of rhythm whatever, and they give their singing teachers no end of trouble. When they come to opera or any kind of concerted music, they have to learn this part of their training. But they ought to begin with it. Because an accompanist can follow a singer in her ill-considered vagaries of rhythm is no reason to permit the singer to knock the music out of its fundamental characteristic. There is no music without rhythm.
 
"Will you kindly let me know what you think of the dumb or practice piano? A young lady in the house is very enthusiastic over hers. I remember to have heard them condemned by some. I am not a regular musician, but have played the piano more or less for about fifteen years, and aim to keep my fingers limber and strong. They are not in so good order as they ought to be.
 
"I have for several years considered the five-finger exercises according to Plaidy very valuable, and was surprised to hear you speak of them as old-fashioned. If they have been discarded for something better, I would like to know what it is.—L. K."
 
I do not know what you mean by dumb piano. If it is the Virgil practice clavier, I can say that many find it useful for strengthening the fingers, making the touch more even, and for practicing upon without disturbing the neighbors. It does not take the place of a piano, except for very poor players (under whose fingers it produces perhaps a better effect than the piano). It is simply a device for doing a part of the practice more accurately than it is usually done upon the piano. Many musicians (and I am among them) regard tone production as the fundamental necessity of playing the piano. In tone production sensitiveness of finger to tone gradations is essential, and the pedal is an indispensable part of making fine tonal effects. The clavier wanting these elements, I have doubts how far it can be used safely. I have never known of any artist who practiced upon one. I have known of several who did so for a very short time, but soon gave it up. When using the clavier, several of them gave fine testimonials. Later they changed their minds, but could not recall their testimonials. This I understand to have been the case with Dr. Mason, and, I think, with Paderewski, at least.
 
The five-finger exercises are probably useful for a part of finger training. If you will get and carefully read through the four little volumes of Dr. Mason's "Touch and Technic," you will find many things explained of which you have never before heard, but which all good artists have known these many years. So far is it from the artist's platform to the seat of the student.
 
"I have been studying Mason's 'Touch and Technic,' but am at a loss how to apply the different touches. Should the staccato chords in the last period of Heller's 'Tarantelle' be played with an 'up-arm' touch? When a classic composer writes popular music, how are we to distinguish between that and his best?— Sr. M. M."
 
No precise directions can be given for applying the different touches in Mason's work. Speaking generally, there are two kinds of finger touch, staccato and legato. When the passage is legato you hold the key ; when it is staccato you shorten the tone ; and you do this with more or less force, according to the nature of the musical idea. So of hand touches there are two : a fall of the hand, as in taking a long tone to hold, and a light motion, as in rapid repeating chords or octaves. You use one or the other, according to which you want. Of arm motions or touches there are three or four: Down arm, suitable for heavy chords. This touch is subject to discount, as it is very difficult to obtain a really musical effect by its use. The up arm is suitable for heavy chords which are somewhat detached. There is a triceps touch made exactly in the same manner, without springing away from the keys. This is useful. There is a combination of down arm where the fall is very short, not more than half an inch or so, and the triceps touch. This gives a musical tone with great decision and beautiful harmonic quality. This touch is much used by artists. The forms in the book are exercise forms intended to give you complete looseness of the whole playing apparatus. In actual use a part of the extra motion can be dispensed with. What you are after is tone and ease in playing. When you get the tone you want, the artistic part is satisfied; when you do this easily, economy is satisfied. Common sense is one of the most useful qualities of the human mind. Do not neglect even in piano technics.
 
Much classic music is popular—in the sense of being dearly loved by all musical people who know it. All the composers had spells of nodding. You know them by the stupid sound. Just apply your common sense and listen. Is the piece musical? Can I make it musical by some manner of touch? Do I care for the mood which the piece represents? If a piece is pleasing and represents a pleasing mood, it will be popular as soon as heard. Many people do not listen. They have music played over them, like water over a duck's back. It does not penetrate within. The so-called classic composers were generally a well-meaning lot of men who intended to write pleasing music, according to the ideas of their own time. Some did this so well that their music proves attractive a century or two later. Listen, listen again, and think it over quietly. "By their fruits ye shall know them."
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
—By despising himself too much a man comes to be worthy of his own contempt.—Amiel.
 
 
 
 
 

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