Engaged one day at the library in a pastime that is always most agreeable to me—gathering notes of useful information to the musical student—an unusual conversation arrested my attention.
The first speaker was a bright-eyed little Miss whose generally serene and charming features now showed traces of disappointment regarding her examination problems in Arithmetic. She launched out at her practice in these words: “I would like to know the ‘Present Worth’ of all these exercises; this monotonous ‘Two-finger’ routine; these interminable scales; these dry, stiff, Wrist gymnastics. I am sure Mozart and Beethoven never had to go through such torturous ordeals.”
“Why, Esther!” exclaimed a companion; “don’t let people hear you speak like that, or they will think you are not up with the times. Mozart and Beethoven were good enough in their day, but these latter times would not be satisfied with the artists of a century ago, for, you know, this is a superior age.”
Doubting, and half provoked at this gentle chiding when sympathy with her views would have been more grateful, Esther in a suppressed voice replied: “I wonder if it is, I wonder if it is!” and then began those dry, monotonous, interminable exercises, which, under her well-trained fingers were so interesting that she soon forgot her chagrin and the vexatious problems. After an hour she paused and began soliloquizing thus: “I do love music after all, but I could not aspire to be a musician; it would monopolize a life-time, and there would be no leisure for anything else. I detest one-sideness in people. All great musicians are one-sided. I only want to know enough to interpret their works for my own enjoyment, and then, if I should ever have to fall back on my own resources, I could teach music.”
This last reflection startled me, but not to discover to the little maiden that her random utterances had interested any one, I quietly resumed my work. At the same time many old verities rushed upon my recollections, notably, that we often get important ideas from others in moments of excitement to which they never would give expression in calmer moods, first of all, because intensity of thought is often aroused only under exciting influences; secondly, when not under foreign pressure, the fear of being obtrusive frequently makes them shrink from verbalizing their opinions. Moreover, many apprehend too keenly adverse criticism. It is a bitter dose, undoubtedly, but there is nothing better for the artist or the student, in any sense, than criticism. It opens the eyes to flaws hitherto unseen; it awakens better thoughts and induces more reflection, consequently better judgment. Let us all learn to take criticism for what it is worth; if it be very good it will be highly beneficial; if it be unkind or captious it need not be injurious, for, does not the bee sip honey even from poisonous flowers?
Perhaps, many of my readers have said likewise: “I would like to know the worth of Exercises.” Their worth is incalculable, not, however, because of the intrinsic value of a set of exercises; their importance consists in being the groundwork of a magnificent superstructure. One would have to be more than a mediocre
musician to be able to interpret the works of the masters, even for one’s own enjoyment, for the capacity to relish the classics implies a cultured taste which is not to be found in every day strummers; yet, the study of music need not be a lifetime monopoly; there can be plenty of leisure to read the poets, study the languages, dive into the sciences and metaphysics; indeed, these things are important items in the musician’s curriculum. If some were one-sided, all were not; it is not a necessity of the profession.
As the purpose of this article is to touch briefly upon some falsities in private theories that seem to gain prominence amongst a large class of music students, I will begin with
“This Monotonous ‘Two-finger’ Routine.”
Routine as a rule is monotonous, but there are many monotonies in life that are essential to our very existence. What if our blood should cease to flow just because the constant pulsation had become monotonous? What if the sun should refuse to shine because the day-light was getting to be old?
While there are many necessary monotonies, as we see, there are, also, a great many routines which might and ought to be despoiled of that hideous character— wearisomeness. In this class those preliminary Daily Five finger Exercises stand first, and alongside with them, all methods of instruction whatever they may be.
The Teacher’s success lies in having the pupils interested; but how can their interest be kept up through those daily routines which are exceedingly irksome to the young, if there be no variety and novelty in the work they have to do? It is true, the same task must be done over and over; the same five fingers must be used ever and anon, but no teacher is competent as such, if this one point—ingenuity—be lacking; tact is more than talent.
Generally, there is more technic than music taught to students. This is a mistake. It is not possible to make a musician by mere technical work, though a good foundation of this is necessary to begin with, and to be continued. Along with digital feats the intelligence must be brought into wide play. If a pupil cannot tell the difference between a waltz and a saraband, how can the spirit be caught and a characteristic rendering of either be given? No matter how young the pupil may be, if the five fingers are able to “Turn a tune” at all, that tune ought to be understood even as it is heard. Now, I do not advocate thrusting theory and difficult analysis upon young minds; I only say give these in proportion to their capacity and development. I have seen dear little children of only six or seven years, throw expression into their tiny pieces by marking the phrases, accelerating in motive sequences, and slackening speed before the entrance of new parts. I have watched them distinguish between major and minor triads, and cling to prolonged notes, hearkening to the over-tones, or echoes, as they would say, because they had been taught to listen and to think, as well as to play; and these were not unusually talented pupils either. Is there not, often, a tendency to under-estimate the capability of little ones?
A word now, about those “Stiff Wrist Gymnastics.” If they are stiff, throw them away forever; the object of those exercises should be to loosen the wrist; anything that tends to rigidity of muscles is harmful in the highest degree.
Are the scales interminable? I should like to be enlightened upon the meaning of the expression in this application. While my mind deduces several interpretations of the term, none is entirely satisfactory; but, I am convinced when one is able to play a scale perfectly—and by ‘perfectly’ I mean perfectly, not half-way, or passably, or fairly well—there is a degree of technical proficiency attained which is able to contend with almost every difficulty.
To refute the assumption that the great musicians never had to go through the ordeals of tiresome practice I need only refer to their biographies. This brings me now to consider that “Mozart and Beethoven were good in their day,—Alas! for the day in which they would not be good enough “—“but this is a superior age.” I certainly shall not deny to the nineteenth century the prerogatives of its merit, neither is it the purpose of this article to discuss the validity of its claims, for I should want to unearth ancient Greece, and search all the libraries of old Egypt before touching the question of the superiority of the age. I believe we are a great, at least a greatly progressive people; moreover, I believe we have sounded depths in science never before reached, and climbed heights in the works of art hitherto unsealed; but I do not believe it is because of our vaster intellects that we have attained our pre-eminence. Our vantage ground covers centuries; we roam it over and gather here and there ideas which these superior minds of ours never could conceive. The beautiful flower is there iu (sic) full bloom and we pluck it; or it may be only a bud which we nurture until it opens out, and then we enjoy its loveliness and make it all our own. All this is very well and wise, indeed, a most profitable thing, for there is very little we could count on, and let us be sure of it, if we were obliged to produce something all our own. Originality is not the characteristic of the modern musical tide. It is true we have had our Liszt and our Wagner, besides many others of high merit, not the least of whom are our American musicians whose “Present Worth” in their noble efforts to raise art above the common level calls forth commendation my pen declines expressing because of its inadequacy; yet, even they, and the greatest among them, fail not to do homage to past merit. If there is any one thing derogative to mental superiority, it is the littleness that prevents our seeing anything good in others more than we ourselves possess. It indicates a barbarous proclivity, as Goethe says, “In what does barbarism consist but in not recognizing what is good in others.” In viewing the tendencies of human nature we cannot but notice how much overweening conceit is woven into the very tissues of our being. It is a stunning thought, but let us not leave it too hurriedly; familiarity with it might go a long way in developing other views within us and making of us something more than we are.Etude Magazine. April, 1895