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The Musical Education of the Young, by Jacques Dalcroze.


Jacques Dalcroze, the eminent Swiss composer and pedagogue, has advanced ideas as to the musical education of the young. In view of their originality and suggestiveness, it seems worth while to make an abstract for the benefit of the readers of The Etude of a recently published article which he wrote for a German periodical.—Editor.

No one can determine the ground principles of a thorough and natural education for the young without having lived in constant intercourse with children of all ages and having studied their growth and development, physically and mentally from year to year with a watchful eye. One who would succeed must know the difference between a child of five or six and one of ten. He must realize that one is an entirely different individuality from the other, and that at adolescence still more remarkable changes occur, transforming the boy and girl into the miniature man and woman, that a treatment which is effective at one age is utterly out of place at another. The first condition of a rational scheme of instruction is that in its elements and manner of presentation it should conform to the child’s age and stage of development.

Do Not Begin with Piano Study.

One great obstacle to such a scheme is that in the eyes of the great majority “music” means “piano,” and that instruction in music is synonymous with lessons on the piano.

Not that I would underrate the importance of this much-abused instrument; parents are thoroughly justified in wishing their children to learn it. My contention, however, is that the child should not begin to play the piano until he realizes what music is, until he loves it for its own sake, and feels the impulse to express himself musically by its aid. His ear should first become familiar with tones and with their reciprocal relations, which his fingers are later to embody through its mechanism. He should first be able to define melody, harmony, polyphony; his feeling for accent, measure and rhythm awakened, his body should be trained in such a way that limb and muscle may develop their crude and latent powers for the task before them.

And yet the child is put before the piano and expected to master all these difficulties of the most abstracts of arts, in connection, too, with a mechanical training for which his tender fingers are wholly inadequate. If the piano really trained the ear this would not be so bad, but its influence is exactly the reverse. Its tone production is mechanical; it is absolutely independent of the ear. The hand learns to strike the keys which the eye sees are called for by the music. It is merely a question of localization by eye and finger, the ear is left out of the reckoning and becomes dull and sluggish. A musical ear can only be developed when it is forced to classify intervals without the help of sight or touch. This the piano does not and cannot do. Even those who thank nature for the gift of absolute pitch are in danger of losing it by practice upon it. I do not hesitate to say that out of a hundred piano-playing children not more than ten, at the most, notice a change of key when a piece is played to them. Yet enjoyment of music in its highest phase is dependent upon the ability to follow the curves of a melody, to discern changes of harmony, to detect the concurrent sounding of several different themes—not to speak of the influence of this ability upon the player’s art as regards interpretation, delicacy of touch and shading, all of which depend upon the ear.

The too common aim of the pianist is to vie with the pianola. Haydn and Mozart are played only by babes and sucklings now-a-days. Schumann’s charming pictures of child life, Beethoven’s bagatelles, Chopin’s short preludes and nocturnes are all too easy, forsooth, to show off the execution of our pupils. Rapidity, brilliancy, are required of them, not the ability to transpose, to modulate, to phrase and shade without the notes before the eyes—the notes which leave nothing to the initiative of the player, precisely like the cut paper pattern of the pianola.

The sense of the beautiful in music exists as a germ in every child, but he can love only that which he fully comprehends. Put him before the immense box of sound that we call a piano—does he learn music? No! Only tiresome exercises, the wearisome task of putting thumb under finger and finger over thumb. Ah, mothers, when you complain that your children do not love music, that they will not play scales—be comforted; it is, on the contrary, a proof that they do love music, and detest the scales only because they do not understand what this drilling of the fingers has to do with it. How many pupils can tell by ear what scales their teacher plays for them, even though they may be able to run the whole series fluently on the piano from beginning to end? Do you know that of the hundred best piano pupils in a conservatory scarcely one can reckon the intervals of a minor scale with accuracy? How can you expect your children to play the scales with pleasure when they know them so badly? Let them study their structure, how one differs from the other; let them see that each one is the expression of a distinct key; let them play their simple melodies first in one and then in another key—you will find that the scales will no longer be a bugbear, but an enjoyment to them.

Begin with Singing, Ear Training, Etc.

I am sure that all thoughtful teachers will agree with me when I counsel the parents and guardians of the pianists of the future to defer piano lessons until they shall have taken a five or six years’ course in purely musical subjects, viz., singing, ear training, musical terminology, analysis of tones in general, etc., as well as exercises for the arms, hands, feet and legs. These comprehensive bodily gymnastics are by no means so far removed from our subject as one might imagine. Such movements develop the feeling for rhythm so commonly lacking in the young. Up to the sixth year children have not sufficient control over their limbs to move them with rhythmic regularity. Two or three years later the sense of rhythm begins to develop in a comparatively small number, but fully seventy-five per cent. remain unable to follow rhythmic changes by definite and regular movements. Even those who possess it lose it temporarily at the period of greatest physical development, which takes place from twelve to fourteen. At this age all bodily action is attended with a certain heaviness and lack of equilibrium.

The Importance of Rhythm.

Every human being has his own characteristic rhythm manifested in bearing and movement. Those in whom the rhythm sense is wanting are always awkward and heavy in walk and gesture. The nervous pupil will play by fits and starts; the phlegmatic one will dwell on the last count of the measure; the one who is sanguine will hurry over it. An observant teacher will foresee all these defects in his pupils before hearing them play a note, by their walk, their bearing, their manner of greeting. Gymnastic exercises such as I recommend give the child control over his movements and power to execute them rhythmically with lightness and elasticity. Beginning at the age of five or six they should practice for two years. Then the study of time values may be taken up, not with the fingers as upon the piano, but with the entire body. As the child makes a gesture or a movement it can be associated with a sign of a whole note, a half note, or a quarter note. Groups of gestures or movements can be associated with measures, and thus accent, measure and rhythm become a part of his life,—and rightly since life is rhythm. Nor should the work be confined to bodily activity alone; the voice should be in use from the very beginning and by means of easy melodies illustrate the varying elements brought to consciousness. A child thus trained will not only have learned the most difficult things of music without knowing that he has learned them, but his health and bodily freedom have been immeasurably strengthened and improved.

Tone Perception.

Now the seven or eight year child takes up the study of tone, and the sense of hearing comes into play. The first thing to learn is the difference between the whole and the half step. This is best done by singing the scales, but not in the usual way. The piano player knows but one scale, the only difference between one key and another being that resulting from their different fingering. The substitution, however, of a tactile sensation for the impression made upon the ear by a musical tone is fatal to the highest attainments in the art. We find that when piano pupils come to study harmony the image of the keyboard obtrudes and obscures the strictly musical relations of tones. These are best secured by singing the scales from the same pitch, say about middle C. After the scale of C has been sung sing the scale of G. The F sharp immediately gives warning that it is not the C but the G scale—and so with all the other scales. In this way the difference between the whole and the half step is clearly perceived and in time the learner acquires absolute pitch, but this is imperilled if he uses any instrument save his own voice.

The physical advantages of beginning a musical education with singing instead of the piano are manifold. Three-fourths of the children who practice the piano have round shoulders and sunken chests. The breathing exercises that naturally accompany the gymnastic periods of instruction ward off such effects. They further the expansion of the chest, give erect shoulders, and quicken the circulation—no small gain for those in the early years of life’s battle.


Without going into detail which would carry me too far, I must mention the study of phrasing and shading now to be taken up, though it is generally overlooked in most schemes of musical study. A Swiss musician, Mathis Lussy, has formulated the laws of musical expression with remarkable clearness and logic in his book, “Rhythm and Expression.” The pupil should in like manner be taught the principles of phrasing and to reason out for himself the underlying cause for contrast in strength and variations in tempo, so that he may apply them independently of the directions with which modern music is too often profusely provided, and which consequently dull his power of initiative.

The child of eleven or twelve who, after having gone through the course I have just described, sits down to the piano for the first time, will have nothing but the mechanical control of his instrument to acquire. He will have learned the laws of tonal expression, rhythm, beauty of tone, accent, measure, phrasing, gradation of tone. His muscles will have been brought under control in such wise that he can cope successfully with the difficulties of this new mode of expression; his ear will have been schooled to distinguish tones and their relations to each other as melodious sounds and not with reference to a monotonous pattern of black and white keys—in a word, he has become musical.

I shall only be too happy if what I have written shall serve to open the way to a knowledge of the true, as opposed to the false, method of musical education for the young.


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You are reading The Musical Education of the Young, by Jacques Dalcroze. from the July, 1906 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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