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Letters to Teachers.


“I would like to ask what to do with a pupil who plays very readily and a good grade of music, and has a very sensitive ear for music, but who cannot read. She is only eleven years old, but she can go to the theatre or opera and play everything she heard on her return home. She plays very brilliantly and is destined to become a fine musician, if I only can conceive a plan in which to make her read her music. That is her only drawback.”



Cases such as you mention occasion the teacher a good deal of trouble, but it is easy to see on the face of your account that the pupil has an extraordinary talent for music. The problem, therefore, is to keep what you have and add to it the things which are now missing. My own experience with this class of pupils is, that if a part of the lesson is of such a character that they cannot learn it by ear, such as Inventions of Bach and pieces by Schumann, or other writers of good quality, the pupil is obliged to read the notes in order to learn her lesson. A facility in reading is merely a matter of experience. My own method is not to bother myself much about the reading, except to insist upon perfect accuracy. If memorizing is made the rule, this assists very much to accuracy, and meantime the habit of reading carefully once formed, reading easily will come of itself, provided the pupil has enough to read and things that she must read, in order to find out what they are. Later in the course, or now and then from the point where you are, a half hour twice or three times a week devoted to reading easy duets for four hands, or still better, six- or eight-hand pieces, if you are situated so you can manage two pianos tuned together, will do wonders in the case of reading. In these cases the most essential thing is that the performance goes straight along without any delay, no matter who gets out, and the leaves must be turned over promptly without stopping the rhythm, so that the habit is formed of following the music with an even motion of the eye across the page, one line after another, instead of reading by jerks as the pupils usually do.

There are many other elements of good reading that can be cultivated by different modes of practice, as for instance, recognizing a musical phrase as a whole from its appearance on the page, also chords and accompaniment figures. The influence of the four-hand performance, if the obligation not to stop is rigidly enforced, is toward inaccuracy. The rhythmic movement impresses the pupil as the main thing and a few false notes more or less are not allowed to interfere with this. It is evident that a little of this will go a good ways and that the utmost care has to be taken that the habit of accurate and careful reading, so patiently formed by study for memorizing and careful proof-reading afterwards, is not destroyed.

The habit of playing by ear is in no way detrimental to the pupil. It would be just as sensible for a painter to object to a new pupil on the ground of her having such a remarkable facility for line and color. According to this scheme, a drawing pupil would be more desirable who had never shown any disposition to make pictures of the objects about her, portraits of her friends, and especially to illustrate the funny happenings of daily life. As said before, in my own experience I have never known this mode to fail. If the pupil’s mind is active, which you can ascertain from her standing in school, all this improvement in reading will be sure to come. If, however, her music is a special endowment, not accompanied with quickness of mind in other respects, it will be necessary to do a great deal more for her in order to awaken her mind.

“Will you, please, kindly inform me if the depressed knuckle method is taught in leading schools, and if, as one teacher declares, Paderewski and Sherwood use that method in playing? I contend the proper method is that of holding the hand in an arched position. Is it possible I am wrong, and that as great artists as Sherwood and Paderewski use the depressed knuckle method?”        Perplexed Teacher.

Artists of the grade of Sherwood, Paderewski, Joseffy, etc., do not teach any one position of the hands. The position of the hand on the keyboard varies extremely, according to the nature of the passage and the hand. Sherwood has very short fingers and stretches present great difficulties to his hands. He is obliged to spread the hand out pretty flat and use quite a good deal of lateral arm motion, making his extensions arpeggio wise. Mr. W. C. E. Seebœck, for instance, has very long fingers and can easily play tenths like octaves and reach twelfths without serious difficulty. Naturally, therefore, his fingers bend themselves in a five-finger position upon the keyboard under circumstances where a hand like Sherwood’s would be extended to its utmost limit. Every good artist uses all sorts of positions, one kind of position for one passage, another for another. Scales and running work of scale character call for a five-finger position of the hand; arpeggios require longer extension of the fingers. I have lately seen a letter from a student in the Leipsic Conservatory whose teacher requires the depressed knuckle you mention. This is not commendatory of the teacher. It merely signifies that he is a survival from an old generation of piano teachers who considered this position advantageous. The hand positions in Mason’s “Touch and Technique” cover the whole ground. If you will consult the diagrams in the first and fourth volumes, you will find that every position of the hand is authorized except this particular one of extremely depressed knuckles. The objection to this position is that when the knuckles are depressed in this way the finger has already been bent as far as it can be, and it is impossible to raise the finger to touch with it. I have never been able to ascertain the reason why some teachers urge this position, nor have I ever seen an intelligent explanation of its supposed advantages. It is certainly not considered desirable by the great number of advanced teachers. What is wanted in playing is a free and strong hand. Its position is entirely a matter of the relation of the hand itself to the passage in question, and, besides a very general preference of certain positions as becoming, it is not necessary to dwell upon position of the hand so much.


“I have a young lady who takes lessons on my piano and has an organ at home, and her friends tell her that it will spoil her touch on the organ. Will you please tell me what the difference is in the touch on the two instruments? I have studied under R. Goldbeck, and use pressure and loose wrist, and I cannot see why the organ should not be played the same way.” C. H. B.

There are two differences between the piano and the organ from a technical standpoint. The piano key has to be pressed or struck rather quickly in order to get a good result. The organ key also has to be pressed quickly, but not with so nearly a hammer blow. The main difference, however, is in leaving the keys. The organ sounds no longer than the finger holds the key. The piano continues to vibrate more or less after the fingers are removed from the keys, and if the pedal is used this vibration can be continued quite a long time. The influence of organ practice on piano playing is to make it more timid and less brilliant. I have never known that piano practice unfavorably affected organ playing, when a pupil has once formed the habit of a legato and organ touch.

One of the difficulties of living in this world is to so conduct oneself as to meet the approval of everybody who gets their eye upon you. There was a gentleman once who accomplished this, but he died of softening of the brain about a week later. All the rest of us have to put up with more or less unfavorable criticism from those who judge imperfectly, or who know more than we do.


“What must I do in order to play Bach’s preludes and fugues intelligently?”          N.S.M.

A Bach fugue is a discussion of a musical subject; by which I mean a theme is given out in one voice, answered in another, and so on until all the voices have taken their turn at it. Meanwhile the voice which first announced the fugue continues with a counter-subject, or counterpoint, while the second voice is giving out the theme. When the third voice begins the theme the second continues the counterpoint, and so on. After the first voice, all the contesting voices having had their “whack” at the principal theme, there is generally a modulating interlude, long or short, after which one of the voices comes in with the theme in a new key, generally to be answered by one or more of the other voices in the proper relation for the new key. Then there follows another interlude, and the fugue breaks out in a different spot. In order to play a fugue intelligently it is necessary first to know the theme and to be able to play it with expression. One ought to follow the counter subject also, and know generally into what keys the fugue modulated and how it gets there and in what keys it propounds the subject anew.

The question of playing a fugue intelligently has two sides, turning on the answer, whose intelligence. Your own intelligence is complete when you have ascertained the facts I have mentioned above; your hearer’s intelligence is complete when you have managed to play the fugue in such a way that he follows these changes and answers and interludes. This means that the subject is given out a little more emphatically than the other parts, and that the voice movement is very carefully studied. In order to play a fugue intelligently you should begin with some of the Bach Inventions, those in two parts,—the first, fourth, eleventh and thirteenth are much the best. Of the three-part Inventions the first and seventh are particularly good. Then when you come to the Well-tempered Clavier, the fugue in C minor, in D major, and in F major and G minor are among the less difficult. One of the most beautiful fugues of the first volume of the Clavier is that of C sharp major. This, however, is very difficult, and ought not to be attempted until one has reached the ninth grade at least and has played at least as many fugues as I have mentioned above, and played them well, learned them by heart.

Memorizing a fugue is a very important step in the process of playing it intelligently. I have a pupil who after memorizing a fugue writes it out. The result is that her understanding of the voice movement, the modulations, and general treatment of the composition appears very plainly in her work, so that everything is musical and interesting. The test of good fugue playing is that it sounds interesting and natural instead of sounding dry and exercise like. A volume might be written on this interesting question which you have raised, but out of regard to a possible retribution, I forbear.

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