The Etude
Name the Composer . Etude Magazine Covers . Etude Magazine Ads & Images . Selected Etude Magazine Stories . About . Donate .


The Making of an Artist. A Talk With Mark Hambourg.

BY WILLIAM ARMSTRONG.
 
A Broad View of Life.
THE individuality of Mark Hambourg is as pronounced in his manner as it is in his view of things musical. Excitable, emotional, absorbed completely in his work during a performance, and miles away in thought from it when he is alone, his culture is of the broader kind that gives hire an interest in everything. To talk, live, eat, and sleep music, a state of things that may once have been set up as an ideal, seems very far away from the higher artist of to-day, and “what the public wants is individuality” a distinguished musician once said to me. And individuality is neither possessed by a person of cramped mind nor is it developed by an absorption ill one thing to the exclusion of all else, even though that one thing be the chosen art, and that art the most exacting of all others—music.

Total absorption in one theme, however fascinating, bars all opportunity for observation of anything beyond it, and acute observation is, after all, one of the most vital means of a musician’s development; for it not only widens his store of general knowledge, but relaxes his mind and freshens it for receptiveness in the, to him, all-important direction.

MARK_HAMBOURG_001.jpgHow Madame Nordica Works.
Two summers ago Madame Nordica was studying certain cuts in Tristan und Isolde, made at the Metropolitan, but not at Munich, where she was shortly to sing in the work. Last summer at St. Moritz, in Switzerland, she studied the title-role in La Gioconda. Of her work she talked but little, and when away from it never. At such free moments she was absorbed in the study of things about her, whether it happened to be snails and their habits or the narrow streets and quaint customs of a Romano village. Often after such an excursion she would return to her work without resting, and deliver some passage that had before not quite pleased her, and with an exact shading and dramatic value that she had previously desired and not fully obtained.
 
Overconcentration.
To dig continuously at one thing and to constantly dwell upon it weakens the ability to accomplish, and, if it does not go right, incites nervousness. On the other hand, if it should go right in the beginning continuous repetition more likely than not finds the mind somewhere else and errors creeping in because thought had gone astray into other fields. When a pupil would say to Lebert “I have practiced six hours today,” his reply would be: “Then you have sat at the piano four hours longer than tour mind was capable of acquiring anything.”
 
Pruckner, the piano-teacher, asserted that to play a scale wrong once through absent-mindedness was to undo all the good that had gone before through a correct playing of it.
 
No Fixed Rules.
To settle the exact limit of practice-time for the individual is well-nigh impossible, for the reason that physical endurance and, equally with it, power of concentration of mind find no two cases alike.
 
Mark Hambourg, in expressing the views that follow for the benefit of THE ETUDE, makes the time of practice a minimum, but insists on constant exercise of mind and ear during the period of study. He speaks from the point of view of one possessed of exceptional powers of concentration. Paderewski, on the other hand, requires likely more hours of study to sustain his standard than any other among the celebrated pianists. Here, again, two factors enter into consideration: the first is habit, which influences the mind as strongly as will; the second is that Paderewski’s technic is not of the standard of ultra-development achieved by some of his noted colleagues, who, on the other hand, lack his strong charm of individual appeal.
 
On the development of concentration of thought, on the training of mind and ear, the length of time to be devoted to practice, and on the growth of individuality and its expression in the playing of Beethoven, Hambourg touched during our conversation one rainy morning in London. Outside, the green garden was dripping and sodden; within, the long room in which he studies was clouded half by the gloom of the day, and half, it must be confessed, by a cloud of smoke from Russian cigarettes—for with the smoker there is no better way of finding out what he really thinks than by consulting his tobacco.
 
Numerous Repetitions not the Best.
“My first advice,’ he began, “is not to practice too constantly. Rest between passages, never repeat a thing too often continuously. I would even indorse, after playing a certain passage through once, the listening intently until the buzz is out of the ear; not to drudge, not to think over it. The majority play without thinking or listening. Another vital point is the bridging over of one passage to another, the securing of continuity in the performance of a work. Without this bridging over we have neither breadth nor cohesiveness; it is a fluttering of chaff in the wind; there is neither the mastery of intellectuality nor the value of artistic finish. To play passages over and over again without thinking and listening may mean something for the hands, though even this is doubtful; but assuredly it means nothing for the head.

“To the properly equipped pianist nothing is difficult, nor are there certain passages that some have described as a hurdle which is sometimes made at a leap and sometimes missed. Some passages naturally are more difficult than others, but, as I said, with a proper equipment they are always under command. We do not trust to chance. Sometimes, indeed, there may be a fluke with the best, but due only to one of two causes: we have, perhaps, smoked too much or not practiced enough. To be sure, in this matter of absolute technic one man may not be as great a virtuoso as another, but that does not prevent his giving pleasure through his performances if his mind shines in them.
 
Training the Ear.
“In practicing one should play at first very slowly, gradually increasing the speed until the proper tempo is attained. The first point is to listen to what one is playing; for it is not a mere matter of tempo that is to be acquired, but tone-production and variety of touch. It is the way that one listens to things that brings the finish and develops the artistic side of the performance.
 
Daily Practice.
“In the earlier stages of study I should never recommend anyone to practice more than two and a half or three hours a day, all told. One must acquire technic; but, after all, one can do just so much and no more. Later on one may play for five hours a day, though after that something else than piano practice should be taken up.
 
What and How to Study.
“To the beginner falls the lot of finger-exercises and drudgery, but he must also study theory and harmony together with them so as to memorize and understand that which lie is eventually to play. Of studies, those of Czerny are the best of all; Cramer and the Gradus ad Parnassum of Clementi are too complicated. The easier a thing is to understand in the way of studies, the more one can learn through it. We do not begin with big dumb-bells, but with small ones. It is not well to undertake too many different kinds of finger- exercises at one time, but, instead, to stick to a few, working at them thoroughly with both hand and ear.

“In the beginning the mechanical part has absolutely nothing to do with the artistic side of things. Memorize all studies; learn them by heart so that nothing interferes with the position of the hand, with thought-concentration, and attention to what we are endeavoring to attain.
 
“Do not play too many things the one after the other; for to be constantly changing tends to ruin the touch, the fine feeling in the ear, and everything. In sticking to a few studies, thoroughly memorized, more is to be gained technically than by any other course that can be pursued.

“In the selection of his repertory the pianist cannot be too careful. Bach to start with, because it exercises everything one has. Of course, one ought to study Liszt a great deal, and Chopin. One danger is that one can study all one’s life and never study a quarter of the things one should.

“In performance good taste is the principal point. That depends again upon the temperament of the
performer. The virtuoso pleases in his own way, but it must be through perfection of finish. It is, indeed, in all aspects of the pianist’s work the finish of the thing that takes the public. When one plays in public the audience does not excuse one because of ill health or because one looks tired. Nothing short of perfection satisfies.
 
“ʻHow to study?’ Even if you read through things, to acquaint yourself with them as pianoforte literature, a good bit of time is required; but, if you wish to study a thing as a work of art, that is different, and each number should have five or six weeks of practice. Then, when you pick it up again you find things that you have never seen before, no matter how much you may know.
 
Individuality in Interpretation.
“The putting in of detail in the interpretation of a composition is a matter of individuality—one sees one thing, one another. Take five great pianists, in general the same, and in the matter of detail they are entirely different. Each one sees from his own point of view, and who is right and who is wrong it is impossible to say. The best judge is the cultivated public. If they receive a thing, it is good; if they refuse it, then something must be wrong with it. Conservatism in the performance of Beethoven is the curse of the young pianist. He looks upon Beethoven not as a dead parchment, but a great personality, with passion, intelligence, and imagination.

“The wonderful part of it is that intelligent persons never object to five great artists playing Hamlet according to their own individuality. Then, if this course is not objected to, why should the Shakespeare of music be always played the same? That I could never explain, except on the ground that all musicians looked on music not as an expression, but an art to tickle the ear. If that were so, no phrasing, no climax would be required. But music is a language in which to express your own feelings.

“With an actor, when he plays a big role, there must be voice, modulation, everything. I do not see why Beethoven cannot be played in that way. So far as the public is concerned, they love individuality in the performance of Beethoven. But conventionality dictates against it. Why not play Beethoven so that he can be understood as Shakespeare is when he is acted? With many good conductors this principle is admitted. Then why not with the pianist? In the first instance, there are a certain number of instruments; in the second only one.
 
 
Developing Individuality in a Pupil.
“With the student the teacher has to develop the individuality. If a good diamond is not well cut it will produce no effect. The better polished it is, the better the effect. The teacher is the molder to a certain degree; then to the pupil is left the development of his own individuality. When he is prepared he may do as he likes. But one must be prepared to argue, one cannot talk about things that one does not understand.
 
Narrow-Mindedness.
“A most unfortunate point with a certain percentage of music-students is that they are narrow-minded: they know too little else beyond music. In the present day the musician must have general knowledge. If one works eight hours a day, four should be given to the piano and the rest to the acquirement of general knowledge, musical and otherwise. The hearing of good orchestral music, the theater, the ballet,—for by this last one learns the character of the dance-form and how to play it,— pictures, light literature, poetry, and when possible travel,—all these things tend to a general development, without which one will be but as a mechanical engineer who knows how to put a few screws together, and the individuality must be a small one. The greater the artist, the greater the individuality.”
 

<< This Department.     Practical Points by Practical Teachers >>

Monthly Archives

The Publisher of The Etude Will Supply Anything In Music