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Imitation of Defects

BY PERLEY DUNN ALDRICH.
 
Considerable discussion has gone on in musical circles at various times in regard to "teaching by imitation," and it it (sic) presumable that further discussion may yet be indulged in. The argument usually put forth by those who speak against it is that we imitate defects first and virtues afterward—if, indeed, we ever get so far as the virtues. There may be some truth in this statement and, in fact, we know there is a great deal; but it does not cover the whole ground. I heard of a teacher of composition whose most ambitious pupil brought him one composition after another containing serious defects, which, when they were pointed out, he defended by saying that he had seen them in Beethoven, Chopin, or some other master. The teacher finally told him that he was fast acquiring all the defects of all the great masters. He had evidently selected the moments in which the "Homers" had nodded, and overlooked those in which they were most awake.
 
An acquaintance of mine had a most excellent voice and a very artistic temperament which lent a certain charm to his singing. But a deficient method made his voice uncertain and tremulous. The presence of this unfortunate weakness he explained by saying that he had heard certain fine baritones roll out their voices in billows of sound and that he had attempted to imitate the effect. The result was only a tremolo; he added that he found it much easier to begin it than to leave it off. I take it that no one would have objected to his imitation of a large and generous delivery of his voice; in fact, that is just what we like in an artist, and just what we hope to attain some time. What we would have objected to was the fact that he missed fire when it came to the actual acquisition, and acquired something that he did not want, when he was really after something very valuable, and without which he could not be an artist.
 
I read an article somewhere recently in which a certain well-known piano teacher related how in early life he had been deeply moved by the beautiful touch of a fine pianist. He had spent days in imitation of it and did finally acquire it. I suppose every musician can look back upon like occasions and recall how his enthusiasm was kindled into furious flames by some composition or performance. I do not see how a pianist could hear de Pachman play and not desire to emulate the exquisite beauty of his touch. And what singer can hear Sembrich without wishing that her smooth and facile voice production was a part of his own equipment? Surely if we imitate these things with any degree of success, we are nearer something that is artistic. It might be said that in these cases we have chosen great models and that younger students are not always equally wise in their selections. In fact, hundreds of them have no such opportunity, and their chief model is their teacher, who, as we all know, must of necessity be anything but perfect in most cases. The fact of the matter is that imitation would nearly always be an excellent thing if it were applied to an excellent artist and judiciously used. But what shall we say of the matter when it comes to the ordinary teacher who does not play very well and sings a dozen times worse? Here is the rub.
 
There is some excuse for the busy teacher, for he does not have time to practice, and there is nothing in the world that will so utterly unfit a man for genuine artistic results in his own work as much listening to efforts of pupils that are entirely devoid of real musical quality. Fortunately, modern methods of teaching take into consideration how a thing is going to sound; but in spite of this the teacher of singing is seldom at a high artistic level, and his performances must at best be somewhat perfunctory and not adapted to use as a model for imitation.
 
Of course, some teachers are best suited, by reason of their attainments, to the teaching of advanced pupils, and others, because of their patience and conscientiousness, to the teaching of the earlier stages of development. I think this distinction is a valuable one in the selection of a teacher. There is much talk about the value of beginning with a good teacher, and I am sure no one would advocate a poor teacher at any stage of the game. But it is, nevertheless, true that the more attainment one acquires the further one gets from sympathy and interest in the early stages of development. This is a matter that easily adjusts itself, however, for every teacher of prominence has advanced pupils, in whose ability he has confidence, who can carry pupils through the elementary stages, saving him a loss of energy, and keeping him fresher for more advanced work. If this teaching is done more or less under his supervision he can feel sure that it is comparatively well done, and in sympathy with the lines of his own work.
 
The teacher may be pretty well assured that whether he will or will not, his pupils will imitate him; and it seems that he must find it his duty to point out to his pupils that there are certain things in which he is not a good model. This is especially true of teachers of singing, whose voices, as a rule, sound fatigued. A man who spends the greater part of each day giving lessons will soon lose the bloom of his voice, even if he has a good method. Some teachers of voice have extraordinary nerve strength, that bears up well under the strain of many hours of teaching; and, by the way, they do not usually appreciate the good gift kind Providence has sent them.
 
In the earlier stages of development pupils do not consider much the matter of mood; they have not developed the musical perception that discriminates so closely as to distinguish between a musical mood and one that is unmusical. A well-trained voice or hand will do approximately the right thing when "warmed up," but sometimes goes wide of the mark before it gets to the point of the right mood. But pupils cannot always perceive and understand why, at certain stages of progress, it is safer not to imitate certain things which are impossible except with more advanced technic. Take for example the matter of power in singing. The fully equipped artist has a firm, solid, resonant voice, and is able to deliver a large free tone. This is absolutely impossible to a beginner, and he should never try to imitate this quality while the voice is being placed.
 
The duty of the teacher, therefore, is to point out what may be imitated and what may not. The imitation is all right and advantageous to the pupil if he select the right thing to imitate.
 
A certain young man was studying piano playing with a fine pianist. Frequently when he went to his lesson the teacher would hear him play a study and a piece, and then would say: "Now, I will show you how it should go." Thereupon he would seat himself at the piano and play the composition through at a tempo that the student could not attain in three years. As an example for the student it was simply of no use whatever. Fortunately he discovered this fact after a time and went to a teacher better adapted to his needs. In this case the teacher was entirely to blame, for the example he set for the pupil was entirely impossible for him.
 
In the case of the pianist mentioned in the first part of this article, the case was reversed. The student had found exactly what he needed to imitate, and the result was a great artistic gain.

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You are reading Imitation of Defects from the March, 1904 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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