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The Dull Pupil.


The daily routine of a teacher’s life is very apt to harden his sensibilities, to make him callous against the particulars of individual cases; the lawyer, the physician are similarly affected by their profession; they may be called by their best friend but from the moment professional duty sets in their friend is a “case,” nothing more, but also nothing less; and to this latter valuation I mean to call attention, for the “case” may be simple; but if it should require the entire force of knowledge and experience, the personal relations or professional callousness make not the slightest difference. Rather, I should say, if the “case” is an intricate one, the lawyer and the physician call it ”interesting,” and redouble their efforts, while the average music teacher just sighs, and fulfils his contract with a heavy heart by killing the stipulated time some way or other, and wishes he was dead, or rather his backward pupil, whom he is very seldom inclined to regard as an “interesting case.”

And yet this is wrong, very wrong, whichever way we look at the question.

To avoid any misunderstanding, it may be best to state right here that freaks are not under discussion; microcephalæ, idiots,* pitch-deaf children, analogies to color blindness; malformed arms and fingers are not “interesting,” but impossible. But the common, ordinary “backward pupil,” with whom there is nothing the matter, except that he or she doesn’t “get on,” is a most interesting subject; a subject on whom a teacher can show how much he knows, what sort of man or woman he or she is, and how much they can think for themselves, in the way of finding ways, means, resources, methods, etc., and, therefore, I earnestly invite the attention of teachers to this subject.

It is a matter of such vast diversity, that the space of an essay cannot be expected to contain all its varieties and their cures; but the discussion may be opened by settling a few cardinal principles as a foundation for further investigation.

The foremost question in this matter seems to be that of talent. Now, I do not believe that there is such a thing as “musical talent!” This does not lessen my reverence for Bach and Beethoven, but, on the contrary, raises it to a far more serious plane than the admiration of any particular talent should be. I believe in a multitude of degrees of intelligence! in an intelligence; that is, an inward understanding of life itself. This intelligence, inherited directly or remotely, seeks a form of manifestation, and its selection of form follows the line of the least resistance. Early impressions form probably the largest item in the choice; if a child with innate intelligence sees pictures at an early age, and in an impressionable moment, when its mood and the pictures tally, it will take to painting, and it will feel hurt if you laugh at its first awkward daubs, because its imagination fills out all that was wanting in craft; it saw so much more in its little daubing than you, big grown-up stupid, could see. If the early impression was musical, it will take to music; and not for the jingle’s sake, no, but for what is behind the jingle ; it will tap the ivory and tell large, long stories of talking stars, and flying kittens, and dolly’s grandchildren, stories wonderful and miraculous, which you, great grown-up numskull, cannot understand, because you hear only the tones actually produced, not those that were meant. What was really meant was the little giant’s transcendental philosophy, which may have been all wrong, but it was thought, imagination, its personal relation to the world, just the same. On the other hand, when this intelligence is missing, the nimblest fingers and the quickest ear will not make a musician of the child, unless its vanity is fostered, and then it will turn out a sham in the end, a failure.

Philipp Emanuel and Friedemann, Bach have not equaled their gigantic father, though they had infinitely superior advantages; the “intro” was missing, and as the scientists say that mothers are more responsible for that, John Sebastian is not at fault, for, Heaven knows, he did not shirk the trouble of teaching.

The backward pupil is, therefore, to my mind, not lacking in musical talent, but in intelligence! and this must form the next point of investigation. Is the intelligence dormant, or is it absent? There is perhaps no question more difficult than this. I have had a pupil who represented the hopeless type to perfection; for three long years she was at an absolute standstill, and I should have given her up if it had not been for some minute, I may say microscopic, indications of a dormant intelligence; indications no stronger than a spark breaking through an ash-covered fire in a dark room, when we are not certain whether it came from the fireplace or from our own eye. Yet I persisted; with kindness—harshness had no more effect than water on a swan, it simply dripped off—and judicious selection of material, I continued until in one lesson—I shall never forget it, and I have witnesses for the occurrence—it was in the middle of the lesson as if something in the girl had snapped, she was suddenly transformed, a different being sat at the piano, she played the exercise with a rhythmic pulse, with shading, yes, almost with feeling; the piece went marvelously well; I, and also my witnesses who knew the girl for a long time, were dumbfounded. Of course, I did not with a word or gesture betray my astonishment, but took the change quite calmly. From that day she progressed at a perfectly astonishing pace, and now, after four years, she is one of my best players, established herself a few months ago in her native city and is a busy teacher, also playing occasionally in concerts.

But what where intelligence is absent? All I can say, is, how do you know? have you tried your best? It is never totally absent; that must be remembered. Your task it is to find the channel of accessibility, and when you have found it, then proceed from the known to the unknown. In this connection I want to recommend a splendid little book by P. Du Bois, “The Point of Contact” (Phila. Wattles & Co., 1897), to all teachers, whatever they may teach; in it you will find that idea expounded splendidly, lucidly, and lovingly. I say lovingly, for unless you love your pupil and your work, all the theories on earth will not help you. But if your heart is in your work, I should like to see the backward pupil who would not be awakened by your efforts.

Literary men often object to it that such pupils are taught at all; they express their objection with more or less terseness, and are not short of commonplace cut-and-dried arguments, but they are prompted by jealousy, because they think that the occupation with music turns the children away from literature; and that shows how much they know about music! My experience, without one single exception, has been that backward music pupils were just as backward in their school work (even in callisthenics), and many a one whom I succeeded in ”waking up” has proven that he did not wake up for music in particular, but “all over”; and the other teachers came and thanked me for it. As if such a pupil could be turned into literature! Why, his “intro,” or whatever you wish to call it, must be opened up, the windows of his soul must be cleaned and loosened, the sunshine of love (and love is intelligence) must enter first, before any knowledge can penetrate, except meaningless formulae and data, and if art cannot do that, what is it for? Just to kill time? No; however much the jewel-bedecked mob called society may try to relegate art to that domain, we have better authority on our side, thank God!


* The case of Blind Tom forms no exception, for he never made music any more than a parrot; neither expresses thought nor sentiment; both act under a purely animal imitative impulse, and have nothing to do with art.


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