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Letters to Pupils


To E. E. H.—Your quandary as to your vocal student is more than ordinarily interesting to me, since it is one which I have encountered a hundred times in my own experience of a score of years in voice-teaching. When there is no ear, or, rather, when there seems to be none, it is quite unwise to leap to the conclusion that there is absolutely no perception of the interrelation of tones, and, consequently, no hope of learning to sing. There is such a thing as an ear, absolutely unconquerable, which may be likened to a bank of sand as a soil in which to raise flowers; but such cases are exceedingly rare. Nearly every human being has some trainable perception of tone, but in such a case as that of your pupil, being isolated from the hearing of music, there is a huge rampart of difficulty to scale. Very few people realize how much of their supposed musical genius is the result of things learned in the plastic years of infancy and early childhood, when the subconscious brain is as plastic as warm wax, yet retentive as granite. From the full and clear diagnosis which you give of the case, I am at first disposed to say that you have gone to work with wisdom and skill. All the experiences which you recount sound to me like plagiarisms from my own life-labor with intractable voices. I once had a case quite like this, with the added obstacle that, like Beethoven, the lady was quite hard of hearing. The task was a tedious one, it must be admitted, but she did learn to sing artistically and in good tune, and is to-day a prominent singer and choir- leader in one of the principal cities of the South.

Tell your student that there is ample reason to think that she can acquire the art of singing if she cares for music and is patient.

Here is a simple device for stimulating the ear into sensitiveness, and fitting it to be, as it must in singing, the regnant queen of the larynx. Select a tone lying in the middle of her scale, or just a few semitones below it. Sound this tone, loudly, and about four times, requiring her, not to make any effort with the throat, but to listen as intently as the silent and expectant feline, couchant at the gateway of the anticipated mouse. This intense listening is necessary to all musical development, and we find nearly as much trouble to secure real listening on the part of our piano-students as in the tyros of singing. Now tell her to try to secure that note with the throat, and while she is holding it, add the fifth, and the root of the triad chord in which it is the third. First make a major chord, which is the easier, then the minor. Thus, suppose the chosen tone to be second space A, associated in her ears with F and C, making her voice an integral part of the sweet, pure chord of F-major. Next, take F-sharp and C-sharp. Again, treat the tone as the root of the A-major, and the A-minor triads in turn, then, as the fifth of the D-major and the D-minor chords. Thus, you see, the girl will feel six of the most simple and most beautiful interrelationships of tones, and, before she is well aware, she will find a delicate perception arising of tone-modifications. Try this, and write to me personally how it works.

One more thing, accustom her to listen daily to intervals, not to chords, on the piano, and learn their names as soon as may be.

Now try her as before, but do not strike the tone she sings, only giving on the instrument the other two needed by the triad. Let no number of false shots cause you to abandon this tone-archery, for you must remember that the inconceivably numerous muscular modifications and adjustments of the human vocal machine are simply beyond computation, and are one of the most marvelous things in the universe. When one has not sung, the muscles are as ludicrously inept as are the muscles in the legs of a puppy, waddling in his new-found world, as those of a colt awkwardly prancing, or that still feebler bit of wonder, and bundle of animated dust and warmed clay, the human baby. Think of the little toddler’s abortive efforts to support himself, and to change his locality, and then remember that the larynx may be a newborn babe in the æsthetic kindom of tones at a time when the rest of the body is quite mature and able to meet the demands put upon it in the realms to which its various organs are correlated.

By all means let the girl tug away at singing; singing is quite as artificial a department of music as the performance upon any instrument, and the notion that it is a pure instinct and nothing else is one of the foggy blunders which retard the advance of our art.

Perhaps nothing else is quite so important, upon the whole, as the culture of the voice, both for speech and song.

To E. A. P.—Your trials with the 17-year-old girl who will not practice dry studies, who is careless about counting, who takes no interest except in tuneful etudes, who likes pieces and cries constantly to be favored with them, who nevertheless is backed by parents who are determined to have her learn is one of the terribly thick-shelled hickory-nuts which all musical laborers encounter now and again during their life of toil in the cause of the education of the human race. It is a puzzle, no doubt. Try this. Make a compact with her that, if she will devote a third of her time for practice to those odious ill-sounding technical formulas, she may have all the time a series of the very prettiest pieces which you can find in her grade, and, furthermore, that you will play four-hand pieces with her. That a student abhors the hideous formulas of the scale, the trill, the arpeggio, the figure-group, and all the other inquisition full of awful instruments for inflicting pain upon the tonal sense may be, in reality, no bad indication. It is often just the most musical students to whom these things are in their rawness the most distasteful. Such necessary, but uninteresting, elements must be learned, but they must be disguised. Do you know what civet is? All the best perfumes owe their permanence to the presence in them of either civet or musk, yet both civet and musk inhaled in their full strength, and unmodified with other sweeter and more evanescent odors would be to most, if not to all, extremely ungrateful, if not even repulsive. So do not despair, even though your reluctant student cannot work up a frenzy of delighted enthusiasm over such heart-moving utterances as C-D-E-D-C, C-D-E-F-G, C-D-E-C-D-E, or the noble and indestructable C scale itself. To an advanced musician, to whom the relation of such groups of tones to many and many a touching and beautiful passage of immortal music is clear, they are baptized in a charm not their own; but remember to the beginner they are as dry as sawdust or bran. You must go to work with all possible tact and suavity. Give her only small homœopathic spherules of such raw music-matter, and let the bits of protoplasm take their own time to cohere and elaborate themselves. If she shows any feeling for any kind of melody, there is hope for her. Do not arch unnecessarily your eyebrows with a supercilious scorn for taste that will not take to the sonata form kindly at first, but let her play melodies, always on the strict stipulation that she will earn her pleasure, as we all have done by doing the ungrateful task first. As to the not counting, that will all be obviated by your playing with her. Teach her also to play four- hand pieces with her fellow-students. There is a vast deal of music composed in this form, and then, what is more, the whole realm of the orchestra is well represented by four hands.

To G. W.—Yes, having the spirit which your letter manifests, even with all your hampering limitations, you may take heart and go ahead with the toils, the noble toils of the musician. It seems to me especially to be commended that you have so good a set of books already. It is very difficult to recommend books to a student, for three reasons: first, there is now a great wealth of excellent books in the English language; second, much depends upon what direction your studies may take, and, third, it in part depends upon how much money there is in your exchequer available for such a purpose. Shooting an arrow at a venture, like the Hebrew of old, I will name a few at random. To cultivate enthusiasm about music and its poetic envelope of sentiment, take the “Musical Sketches” of Elise Polko. For the same purpose in a higher way, Liszt’s “Life of Chopin.” For a smooth and entertaining, as well as thoroughly instructive, account of the history of the art I can recommend that by W. S. B. Matthews.

In a philosophical vein there are two very excellent, yet readable books, the “Letters to a Lady,” by Ehlert, and “From the Tone-world,” by the same critic. The “Chopin and other Essays” of Mr. H. T. Finck will also help you. There are good lives of all the immortal composers, and you can scarce go amiss unless you buy some of those too circumstantial German works which would probably weary and disgust you. You ought also to read a few good musical novels, such as “The Minor Chord,” “Mine Enemy’s Daughter,” perhaps “Charles Auchester,” and a half-dozen more. As for the sonatas of Beethoven and the operas of Wagner, there are many pamphlets and primers, like those of Dr. Hugo Riemann, Mr. Federlein, and the rest.

Now as to your more technical and personal questions, if you are busy all day, and can only command the evenings for study, I would take an hour and a half for the piano, then an hour for reading, and at least a half-hour for theory. You say that your music, though selected from Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, and all the rest of the great men, sounds to you like notes without any meaning; this shows that you have the real musical foreboding, if I may translate a beautiful German word, Ahnung. That is the most hopeful sign in the whole case. You are probably right, and it would be little less than a miracle if, having studied in a secluded school, and not even having heard your teacher play much, you had anything but a dim notion how things should sound. For this deficiency there is a specific cure, and but one,—unfortunately a very costly cure,—the hearing of representative performers, and that in large numbers. For this culture, which is quite indispensable for a rounded musician, you must spend some time in a large city. So arrange your affairs that you may be able from time to time to go to some large center where a vast amount of music is to be heard, and there for three months or two, or one, take in all that you can digest, selecting it very carefully so as to secure the utmost variety of deep and lasting impressions. Do not think of giving up the beloved study, for it is such secluded enthusiasts as you, growing up in the solitude of the country or the small city, with the poetic environment of Nature, it is such flowers as you, I say, that become the brightest ornaments of our cities in time. Sometimes those who live in the city itself are in ignorance of the advantages which surround them, which would be ridiculous were it not lamentable. Yes, yes; let your love for the art go on, and keep up a true enthusiasm for its wonders and secrets.



The following description of the invention is by an Italian friend: “From the tops of the keys of a keyboard starts a skein of electric wires, which arrive to another apparatus, where are placed several instruments of music, which all play by the means of electromagnets, giving the movements of the instruments’ bows, and producing the same movement, ample or shaking, as wished. Many other electromagnets give action to substitute the work of fingers as keyboards on the strings of the instruments.” This gentleman further informs the world that the invention is for sale. It would doubtless prove useful to certain operatic touring companies, who would be glad to dispense with fiddlers and others who expect to be paid, and strike—not the lyre—when they apply to the exchequer in vain.—“Music,” London.


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You are reading Letters to Pupils from the March, 1900 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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