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Second Prize Essay - Musicians or Executants, Which?


Shall we make our piano pupils into musicians or shall we make of them only executants? This may seem to many a very absurd question. So it is, from any rational point of view. The prompt answer ought to be “Both.” But the practical problem which piano teachers have to solve is not so simple as it seems. Here, as elsewhere, the one right way is a “strait and narrow” one, and I fear “few there be that find it”; whereas “wide is the gate and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there be that go in thereat.”

To be a musician means to be musically intelligent. First, one must have learned the fundamental, elementary facts of music,—above all, the key relationships and chord-relationships of tones. But how much of this sort of elementary intelligence in music is acquired by the average piano pupil? Very little, I fear. Take twenty fifteen-year old pupils at random, from the classes of any half-dozen teachers, and see how many of them can tell the ordinary scale and chord intervals by ear, without looking at the keyboard. If the test proves any satisfactory musical intelligence on the part of even

a small percentage of the twenty, it will result better than any test I have ever made. The common run of piano pupils neither know, nor care to know, the fundamental principles of music. They are content to translate mechanically from notes to keys. When they can do this readily, they are pronounced “good readers”; and this is held to be a most desirable accomplishment, whether the ready reading means anything to the reader or not. Such ready reading is very much as if a child should learn to pronounce rapidly and fluently the Latin words of Virgil or Cicero, and should rattle off the sonorous periods without understanding the meaning of a single word or phrase. Would any one call that reading Latin? Is it any less stupid to read music without seeing in the least the relations of the tones one plays, than to read Latin without understanding the relations of the words? Yet this is precisely what is done by thousands of piano pupils who pass for “good readers” of music! No wonder that the study of music is despised by college authorities and is looked upon, not as an integral part of a course of study which aims at culture, but as a mere “accomplishment,” without value as mental discipline, and only to be tolerated because young women will have it, and the college must provide it or its pupils will go elsewhere.

Second: Something more than this elementary knowledge is essential to musical intelligence. From the elementary chord relations of tones, one must go on to the full knowledge of harmonic relations. To play any composition and fail to see the chords and chord-relations which are present in every portion of it is simply to miss a large portion of the sense. One must know harmony, therefore, and know it thoroughly, in order to be musically intelligent. So thorough and complete, indeed, must be a musician’s knowledge of chords and chord-relations and of the inter-relations and interdependence of keys that he perceives all these relations intuitively, without stopping to think about them. It is thus that all educated people perceive the grammatical relations of master works written in their mother-tongue, if not in one or more foreign languages, living or dead. When we are reading the great masters of English literature, we do not stop to parse sentences or to spell words. We have mastered all that. We had to do so before we could get the sense of the writers. Now we do get it, and get it at once, unless the writer has thought and expressed himself obscurely, without ever thinking of the grammatical construction. Would any man be considered even fairly well educated who was not prepared to do this? Of course not. Neither is any man entitled to be called a musician to whom the grammatical construction of the works of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn or Chopin is obscure, or who understands it as yet only with labor and pains.

But Harmony and Tonality are not the only factors in musical intelligence. Melody-tones and chord combinations are heard successively, in rhythmical and metrical order. Phrase follows phrase; phrases are grouped into clauses; clauses into periods; periods into paragraphs and then into larger wholes. In short, there is the whole great field of musical form, which is to music what syntax and prosody are to language. Where is the alleged musical intelligence which ignores all this, or perceives it vaguely and dimly, failing to recognize the relations of part to part and of each to the whole? Then there is the relation of melody to accompaniment, of principal to secondary ideas, which must be thoroughly understood and clearly enunciated by the player. In Bach and in many other writers, there is the combination of two or more melodies, now one and now another being of superior importance. These relations are what passes under the title of Counterpoint. How can one play a Bach Invention or Fugue, so as to make it interesting or intelligible to any one else, if he himself does not understand its construction?

All these matters then, Tonality, Harmony, Modulation, Rhythm, Metre, Melody, Counterpoint, Form, must be completely familiar to every pianist who is anything more than an unintelligent acrobat. To understand and to help others to understand the great works of the masters who have written for the piano is the only worthy aim a pianist, as such, can set for himself. To translate glibly from notes on to keys; to astonish by his feats of digital dexterity, may dazzle “them asses;” but it has little or nothing to do with musical intelligence, either in the performer or the hearer.

We are hearing a great deal about Technic nowadays; and far be it from me to depreciate it. No man can worthily interpret the works of the masters without technical attainments which involve long and laborious years of work. But my point is that no amount of technical facility will make an intelligent musician; and that, without musical intelligence, technic is no more valuable than the feats of a tight-rope dancer or of Mlle. la premiere danseuse, who pirouettes across the stage on the tips of her toes, or kicks up until her ankle strikes the top of her head.

That there is so small a proportion of musical intelligence, considering the number of young people who take lessons on the piano is partly the fault of teachers, but more that of pupils and of their parents. What patrons desire to see is tangible results. The daughter must “play a tune,” and that speedily. The daughter herself wants to acquire technic enough to show off in difficult parlor pieces, and there her ambition stops. The teacher, perhaps, is one who would be glad to lay the foundation of sound musical intelligence in his pupil, but she is neither willing to give time and attention to anything but the learning of pieces and the necessary technical preparation for them, nor are her parents willing to pay him for any time beyond this. They are too ignorant to appreciate his aims for his pupil or to see the value of the results he desires, even if they were attained. If he will not do what they want done, some other teacher will. He is wholly dependent on his teaching; so he feels it necessary to go on, do the best he can and trust to time and his own tact and influence to gradually bring the pupil into a more intelligent perception of what is best for her and to inspire her with some of his own enthusiasm.

But what a deadening process is this to an intelligent, sensitive, enthusiastic teacher! What an atmosphere of chilling stupidity and ignorance enwraps him like an Atlantic fog, driving the warmth from his very marrow! How he spends his life blood in the effort to communicate his own ideals to ignorant pupils, only to find that when he has succeeded in the case of one or two susceptible young souls, their aspirations are deadened and stunted by the same chilly, unsympathetic atmosphere, which dwarfs his own intellectual and artistic life. Many a teacher, in country village and town, even in a country college, has lived a heroic life, spent his strength for naught, and died “unwept, unhonored and unsung,” to whom his neighbors would raise monuments if they were capable of appreciating his manliness, his self-devotion, his generous enthusiasm for high ideals.

On the other hand, there are numerous teachers, I fear, who have not the faintest conception of what constitutes musical intelligence; to whom fluent technic and ready “reading,” in the meaningless sense, constitutes the be all and end all of musicianship. They think themselves musicians; they are accepted at their own estimate by the community in which they live; they are in full sympathy with the limited aims of their pupils and patrons; consequently they are honored, respected and successful. Their work is a trade; they supply a constant current demand, they “do a good business;” while their one competitor, whose aims are incomparably higher and whose knowledge is such as they have not the remotest conception of, lives neglected, socially and professionally, and dies poor. Yet, perhaps his life is not wholly wasted; who knows? Perhaps, sometimes a fuller intelligence, a higher ideal, a nobler character may grow from seed which he sowed in sorrow, apparently among thorns or in the shallow soil of the stony ground. Says Carlyle: “Let a man do his work; the results of it are the care of another than he.”

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