The Etude
Name the Composer . Etude Magazine Covers . Etude Magazine Ads & Images . Selected Etude Magazine Stories . About

Types of Piano Teachers.


A young lady writes to the Musical Times, London, her experience with the typical (in her opinion) music teacher. She begins by pointing to a class of dissatisfied plodders, which are found in all callings, who deplore their fate, and think themselves doomed to everlasting toil, and thus make themselves eternally miserable. She says:—

“I think much of the disheartening toil and failure of which some music teachers complain is their own fault, and arises from their misunderstanding or ignoring what is required of them. There are certain enthusiasts who, because they happen to have had a conservatorium education, fancy that they have a mission to try and make all their pupils into virtuosi, when all that these poor sufferers demand is to be enabled to respond to the eternal appeal of the drawing-room, ‘Do play us something, Miss Smith!’ I myself, thank goodness, do not quail now before that dread demand; but what have I not gone through to attain that state!”

After her mother had taught her the notes she was sent to a boarding school at the age of thirteen, and there came in contact with, she goes on, “a governess, who gave some five and twenty of us half an hour’s lesson twice a week, and with all that raw material to experiment upon, she must certainly have found the best mode of grounding beginners. She was, however, rather listless and apathetic in her manner, and I fear her heart was not in her work. I did not stay under her very long, for my health was too delicate for boarding- school.” Her next experience was with governesses in her own home. She describes one as being “a stout, elderly lady, whose great recommendation was that she had known Chopin. Her enemies said that he had lodged for a week in a boarding-house which she kept. I never heard her play,—I do not know any one who did,—but she was very good-tempered and used to praise my playing very much. But she always used to be taken ‘faintly,’ as she called it, at the end of the lesson, and had to be restored with two glasses of sherry and a sandwich. This was submitted to for some time, but at last she got to require three glasses, and then mamma thought a change of teachers would be desirable.”

Another one she had at this time was “a young lady from the Royal Academy, who was rather nice, but she was always getting up a concert or a recital, and worrying us to take tickets, besides wanting to rehearse her pieces before me. Mamma said that she thought too much of herself and too little of her pupils, and so we changed again.”

She now meets with an educated teacher from Leipsic, whose standard greatly conflicts with her own. Here is her opinion in full: “Mr. N. was certainly a beautiful player, and a most painstaking teacher, but he had certain drawbacks. First, he was nervous and shy in his manner, which is most objectionable in a master. Then he was too exacting and over-critical, never seeming satisfied with anything that I did. If I played ever so correctly he would complain that some note was not held down long enough (as if that mattered, so long as it sounded rightly), or that I played in too level a tone, or used the pedal wrongly, or fingered improperly, or something, until I got quite impatient and longed to cry, ‘What does it matter so long as the piece goes smoothly?’ Then, too, his pieces were always so dreadfully classical and ineffective. If he ever gave me any modern music at all it was by some German composer with an unpronounceable name, and so bristling with accidentals that when once learned it never would keep learned, but got fresh mistakes in it every time one played it. But the worst was his persuading me to play studies. He wanted me to practice scales and finger exercises, but there I flatly rebelled. I had done with the nursery, thank you! He declared that he played them every day himself, but I took the liberty of quietly disbelieving him. Still, the studies were bad enough. Mr. N. assured me that they would improve my touch and execution; I never found that they did, and they certainly did not improve my temper. To think of the time I wasted over those dreadful things, when I might just as well have been practicing something that I could play to people! Six mortal times a day did I wade through that tangle of notes, and by next lesson it was as full of wrong notes and things as ever. As I could only spare an hour a day for practice, I thought it too bad to waste my time thus, and should at last have demanded a release from my toils; but after six months we again changed our place of residence, and I my master. Still, I fancy, I did make progress with Mr. N., and should have liked him very much had it not been for the aforementioned drawbacks, and also a way he had of seeming uncomfortable all the time of the lesson, shrinking or wincing when I played a wrong note. This, if not an affectation, was an unpleasant mannerism, besides showing inferior breeding.”

She is now placed under a certain Mr. R., whom she describes as “an energetic and rather hot-tempered man. He used to walk up and down the room or stand away against the mantelpiece while I played, and shout out when anything went wrong; but he would never correct me, however long it took me to find out my mistake. I think this was a very good plan. When I was stupid, which happens occasionally to every one, I suppose, he did not scruple to call me names, even ‘Stupid head’ and ‘Wooden fingers;’ but I am not easily made nervous, I am glad to say. His chief fault was that he gave his pupils scarcely anything but his own compositions. They were nice drawing-room pieces enough, but one does like a change.”

After this she has a short career with a Signor A., whom she describes as a “delightful man;” her mother, however, was of a different opinion. In all this changing and interruption the natural unfolding of the musical nature must have been seriously interfered with. A dwarfed musician could only be the result of a course like this, at best. The Signor is thus disposed of by her:—

“He was not at all one’s idea of an Italian, being tall, slender, and fair, with a full beard like floss silk, and, oh! the most heavenly pair of blue eyes. He taught some of his own compositions, too, but they were soft and dreamy as himself—’Baiser d’amour,’ ‘Battements du cœur,’ Les soupirs,’ and the like. He would sit down to the piano and play one of these pieces so tenderly, with his eyes upturned toward me all the time, with a pathetic, beseeching look that reminded me exactly of my darling Skye terrier, Nellie, who died the year before. Somehow mamma took a strong dislike to Signor A., and after I had had six lessons made some excuse for discontinuing.”

Then comes a dreadful story of a Teutonic individual of doubtful character. She says: “He was one of the thundering, smashing players, and used to give me lessons far too difficult,—all octaves and big chords, such as he loved to play himself. He persuaded mamma to pay him for the twelve lessons half-way through the term, as his wife lay on a bed of sickness. Then, at the next lesson, he came in tears, and related how he had become security for a friend, who had run away and left him liable. Unless he could raise ten pounds by next Thursday he would be thrown into a debtor’s prison. Mamma never can resist a person who weeps, so she gave him the ten pounds, and we never saw him again, nor Uncle Henry’s overcoat and umbrella, either, which were hanging in the hall, and which, in his distress, Herr Z. must have mistaken for his own.”

Her experience at the “College of Music” with class lessons is, perhaps, the most disastrous of all. She says: “The pupils were promised two lessons per week in piano or singing, besides an hour’s class harmony and a lecture, all for two guineas a quarter. This was not a success, for, after all, one hardly got one’s money’s worth. The piano lessons were only fifteen minutes in length, and one was expected to sit out the lessons of two other girls, as if that could do any good. So I had the tedium of gazing at two dreadful, ill dressed objects of girls for half an hour while they stumbled through their pieces, and then of being disturbed during my own playing by their whispering and tittering, as they doubtless exchanged ill-natured remarks upon my appearance and performance. The weekly lecture was usually a dull and uninteresting affair—at least, I only went once, for the room was so stuffy and crowded that it gave me a headache. But the harmony class was really too ridiculous for anything. We learned first a quantity of hard names for the notes, such as ‘super- tonic’ and ‘submediant,’ as if A, B, and C were not far more convenient and easy to remember. Then there were mysterious figures which represented chords, how or why I do not know, nor what was the good of them when they were done. I only remember one thing distinctly of it all, partly because it was so frequently repeated, and partly because it seemed so utterly incomprehensible and meaningless as to have the effect on my mind of a spell or prophecy in a foreign language. This was, ‘A chord of five-three becomes in the first inversion a chord of six-three.’ At last I summoned courage to ask the Professor, one day after he had given up as hopeless the correction of my exercises, what influence all this could have upon my playing, or what benefit I was likely to derive from it. He replied (in a moment of irritation, I admit), ‘Not the slightest.’ And, as I shared his opinion, I left the college at the end of the term.”

The last of the sad record was a “dozen finishing lessons from Herr Blitz, the great Icelandic pianist.” He is thus described:—

“He was one of those regular foreigners whose clothes seem all creases and face all hair; he had a pair of very staring, light gray eyes, made more staring by spectacles. His manner was an odd mixture of almost childish good humor and ill-bred brusquerie. Instead of asking me to play, he took my music case from me, and, after rapidly fluttering over the leaves of the half-dozen pieces it contained, uttered some exclamation—in Icelandic, I presume—which sounded like clearing his throat, assuming at the same time a strange, half despairing expression of countenance. He then asked me to play him the scale of G-minor, of all things in the world, first in single notes and then in octaves; and, after I had complied to the best of my ability, he asked me several questions about keys and time, and things of that sort, which, I confess, I never did or shall understand. Having done this he arose, and without hearing me play, remember, delivered himself of the following verdict to mamma, in the odious broken English which I will not attempt to reproduce:—

“‘My artistic position enables me to be frank with you, madam, and to tell you the naked truth, unpleasant though it may be. Your daughter has simply wasted the most valuable seven years of her life, and will never play so as to give herself or others pleasure. She has neither knowledge, technic, nor talent’ (the monster!), ‘and for me to give her lessons would be robbing you, wasting her time, and making myself unhappy.’

“‘But, Herr Blitz,’ gasped mamma, almost staggering under this outrageous speech, ‘1 assure you she plays very nicely, indeed. You have not heard her yet. If you only would. Of course, I don’t mean she plays like a professional, but her playing has been greatly admired by all our friends,’ regaining courage to stand up for me as she went on.

“‘Then, in that case, I will withdraw my opinion to the contrary,’ replied the hateful man, grinning; ‘and I should advise you to, as you say in English, let well alone.”

“‘But I thought if you would give her a little finish,’ began poor mamma (as if I would have taken a lesson of him after such rudeness).

“‘I should have to give her a little beginning first,’ he answered, ringing for the servant to show us out; ‘and I regret to be obliged to decline.’

“‘I think there is, perhaps, some misunderstanding,’ I ventured to put in, wishing to give a little sting in return before leaving; ‘Herr Blitz is not to suppose that I wish to qualify for a mere music teacher.’

“Quite unmoved, he bowed us out with the reply: ‘Every lady should be able to teach two things to her children,—the Lord’s Prayer and the elements of music.’

“I need not pursue my experiences; they have always been the same. I have, however, found the proper course to pursue, now that I am old enough to think and act for myself. Every year I collect a few pieces which have struck me on hearing them, and then I take half a dozen lessons of anybody who will undertake to teach me those and nothing else. So I get what I want, and at least avoid being imposed upon. I play dear mamma to sleep every evening, and most of the girls, I know, are jealous of my playing, so it cannot be very bad. I have even played at two fancy fairs and a workingmen’s temperance concert. I find my piano a great solace and pastime for the winter evenings, so I do give pleasure both to myself and others, whatever Herr Blitz may say.”


<< Letters To Teachers.     That Other Teacher. >>

Monthly Archives


The Publisher of The Etude Will Supply Anything In Music