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That First Lesson.


1. From the Pupil’s Point of View.

Oh! that first music lesson from a new teacher, how alarming it is! One goes into the room shivering and shaking, and feeling all arms and legs; one’s fingers won’t play a bit; one’s ideas all fly to the winds, and one feels such an idiot in consequence. Beside, some teachers seem to take pleasure in finding fault with every mortal thing, and, of course, just at the first go off you can’t know what way they prefer you to sit, or to hold your hands, or to finger. You do it as the last teacher used to tell you, and the new one is sure to want it just the opposite. Then, you are afraid to say much before you know whether this new master or mistress is jolly and chatty, or silent and severe, or cross and snappish, or sarcastic and cutting. So you sit mum before the piano, and just answer “Yes ” and “No,” and you feel all the time they are thinking how stupid you are, or how sulky.

But the worst of all—at least, I always think so—is a lesson from an indifferent teacher. An impatient one, who seems to jump down your throat the whole time, isn’t nearly so bad, for it shows he takes some sort of interest, at all events; but an indifferent manner is so discouraging. It does not seem worth while taking any trouble to play well. I once had one of that sort, and he just sat by the side of the piano and said nothing. I went on playing drearily, and he neither praised nor found fault; so I got completely disheartened, and had to wink very hard indeed to keep from crying. As it was, I finished up with tears in my eyes, and was very glad to get out of the room at last.

A friend of mine once really did cry at a first lesson; and she wasn’t such a juvenile either, but well on in her teens, and very musical. This is how it was. There was a first-rate teacher who got on with his pupils wonderfully, a foreigner, and very peculiar. Well, this girl—let us call her Marjory—had heard all sorts of tales about the queer things he said to his pupils, the sarcastic moods he indulged in sometimes, the way he used to storm and swear at them other times. So she fancied she was fully prepared for anything he might say or do, and went for her first lesson determined not to mind. Not a bit of use. He had another mood on, which she had not in the least anticipated, and which, consequently, quite upset her. It was an affectionate mood, if you please! Pie was an old man, mind you, and had nearly white hair; but Marjory wasn’t used to liberties, and having no mother or governess with her, she got right down terrified. He called her “my dear,” and even “my darling” (I am sure he meant nothing by it, only he was very eccentric), and at last, accidentally or not, in showing her how to play a certain passage, put his arm round her waist. That finished Marjory, and she burst out crying, to his intense astonishment. Of course he wanted to know what was the matter, and if she was ill, and wound up “I have n’t been scolding you, my dear, have I?” by way of improving matters. I don’t think Marjory gave a very clear explanation (!), and she did her best to stop crying; but when once she got out of the room after that first lesson, nothing would induce her to take another of the same professor.

Now for a pleasanter experience of my own. How well I remember going as a child to a very famous German musician for a first lesson, and being dreadfully shy and frightened. I was painfully trying to play something to the great man, with shaking fingers, and nervously afraid of making mistakes, when he astonished me beyond measure by calling out, in his genial voice, “Now, make as many wrong notes as ever you like; I shan’t mind! I only just want to get an idea of your touch, and how you play, and the wrong notes don’t matter a bit.” How comforted I was, to be sure, and what a new and startling idea it was to one who had been taught to consider a wrong note the worst of crimes! And I had had it impressed on me, too, how important it was I should play my very best at this first lesson. I have always blessed the great man, I can assure you, for that time when he set me so completely at my ease, and encouraged my trembling fingers; and have ever since remembered and profited by his assurance that touch was of greater importance than mere correctness.

Unfortunately, it isn’t often the unfortunate pupil has such a pleasant experience at a first lesson.

2. From the Teacher’s Point of View.

That first lesson! What an ordeal it is to the young, the shy, or the inexperienced teacher! Not absolutely the first lesson ever given by any one teacher;—for trying though that may be, it can occur but once in a life-time,—but the first lesson given to a new pupil, an oft-recurring experience to most teachers, and more especially to those with a large school connection. Thus, every term brings a fresh batch of “first lessons,” which even an experienced teacher may shrink from, if he or she chance to be nervous, or shy, or sensitive.

Those who treat all pupils alike, who have a cast-iron “system,” or “course,” of their own, feel nothing of this, but the teacher whose custom is to adapt himself to each pupil’s special needs and individual nature, is very much at a loss at that first lesson. A new pupil is probably shy and uncomfortable, and plays his worst; thus the teacher is often at fault as to the kind of character he has to deal with, and the course it is best to pursue. For aught he knows, the pupil may be forward and self-confident, and require checking and repressing; or he may be painfully diffident and nervous, and require encouraging and reassuring; or he may be dull and indifferent, and require arousing and spurring on. How, for instance, are you to know, just at first, whether quietness proceeds from sullenness or from shyness? And what manner are you to adopt? That keenly sarcastic, or even good-humoredly bantering style which would but serve to stimulate the clever and lazy, or the conceited and ignorant, would render a sensitive pupil perfectly miserable,—indeed, probably reduce him to tears before the close of the lesson.

I remember a case where a pupil of exceptionally nervous temperament came for a first lesson to a lady teacher who knew nothing of this. Consequently, she treated the child (a girl of about thirteen) in the ordinary way, and as the latter played extremely badly and only giggled at everything, the music mistress, Miss J., without speaking angrily, was perhaps rather strict. In a moment the pupil was in floods of tears, and Miss J. then guessed too late that the giggling had been hysterical, and that the bad playing was due to intense nervousness. This was not the end of it, however. The girl went home crying, and vowed she would never take another lesson from Miss J., while the latter received a visit next day from the irate mother to say her child had cried for three hours without stopping, and had made herself quite ill. She (the mother) was very angry about this, and added that her daughter had been very fond of her former music mistress(!), but was of a very highly-wrought organization. Now, had the unfortunate teacher known all this before, her manner would have been very different at that first lesson; as it was, she had been neither harsh nor impatient, her sole ”crime” lay in treating an abnormal disposition as a normal one.

It is, of course, quite possible to be mistaken even with regard to a very ordinary little mortal, as in one case where pupil and teacher took a mutual dislike to each other at the first lesson. Miss Green’s impression was “what a pert, forward child and how ridiculously affected” nine-year old Emily was; because she was much overdressed for her age, wore her hair elaborately curled and frizzed, and had not a particle of shyness about her. She played carelessly, too, so Miss Green spoke quite sharply, and put her back to babyishly easy music. On the other hand, Emily thought (as she used often afterward relate!) “What a horrid, strict old thing that Miss Green is! I know I shall hate her.” Now, would you believe it? The impressions given by that first lesson were entirely wrong! Emily, who was not, of course, responsible for her style of dressing, turned out to be a perfectly natural and childlike child of an extremely affectionate disposition; her bad playing, having merely been the result of non-practice during the holidays, rapidly improved, so that she showed herself a really musical and promising pupil, and became a prime favorite with her teacher. Then, on her side, Emily soon grew so fond of Miss Green, that she would never take a music lesson till she had first jumped, violently, on that lady’s lap, and given her a series of regular bear’s hugs!

With some pupils, however, it is impossible to make any mistake. At the very first lesson they march into the room with a self-satisfied or consequential look, seat themselves at the piano with an air, and after a great deal of settling of skirts and music stool, prepare to “show off.” They also speak to their new teacher in a self-possessed, not to say patronizing tone, which absolutely invites a snubbing. How trying misplaced self- satisfaction and conceit are, and what a long course of snubbing and showing up of ignorance it takes to effect an improvement, however! For which reason, a first lesson with a conceited pupil is anything but a pleasure.

On the other hand, the painfully shy, timid child, being dreadfully afraid of the strange teacher, does not do herself justice, and never “thaws” at that first lesson; although later on, under a persistent course of kindness and encouragement, she may blossom out into an affectionate and docile pupil. But all the teacher’s attempts at making friends are sure to meet with no response at that uncomfortable first lesson.

In fact, on the whole, one generally feels that the first lesson is so much time wasted, what with one thing and another. There is all the old music to be looked over (such rubbish as is often brought, too!) and perhaps some of it to be listened to, strummed through; and a long time is spent trying to find out what things the pupil does not know and ought to know. Then very likely “Mamma” or the governess is present, listening and (as you are uncomfortably aware) criticizing all the time, or still worse, breaking in every now and then with remarks and suggestions. This prevents your really making your new pupil’s acquaintance, or setting her at her ease, and she is rendered twenty times more shy and awkward by such speeches as—“Why! Dolly, what has come to your memory? Why do n’t you answer Miss So-and-So at once? She will think you an ignorant little girl!” or, “Oh, Dolly, my dear, how badly you are playing, and you used to know that piece quite nicely What ever will Miss So-and-So think of you?” or, “Now, Dolly, Dolly, speak up, do, and don’t be silly. What ever has come to you? Miss So-and-So won’t eat you!” And Miss So-and-So meanwhile is wishing the officious speaker miles away! Such are the trials of “that first lesson!”

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