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Music-Study And Manual-Practice


How do the great majority of piano students, even some of the most talented, earnest and ambitious, set to work to learn an étude or a piece? There are certain études which the modern piano-teacher and pianist can not dispense with, among them being the Cramer, Clementi, Chopin, Henselt, and Liszt studies, and some of the Bach preludes and fugues, all of which must be so thoroughly learned that they become a part of one’s musical consciousness. For what permanent good to one’s musicianship will result from merely getting the technic of an étude into the fingers, without its music entering and abiding in the mind? These masterpieces in the form of études are musically too great to be practiced merely for the technic there is in them, and to make them one’s own property, every phrase must be memorized.

We tolerate too many poorly learned lessons, for one that is not learned “by heart” is practically not learned at all; that is to say, we only know what we remember. How is it in dramatic art? Would it not seem absurd at the play for an actor to come out, book in hand, and read his part? How it would hamper the rendering and action! He could not throw himself freely into the rendering if the text were not a part of himself, graven on his memory.

Just so in playing the piano: we never see any solo pianist of reputation play from the printed page. In these days of high art specialty it would seem as absurd as in the case of the actor, and for just as good reasons. Now, each lesson which the student prepares ought to be as nearly like the perfect playing of the artist as possible, not a stumbling, stammering note reading from the printed page. He should be prevented at the very beginning of his lessons from falling into the habit of making the slightest mistake. If he practice slowly enough after learning the phrase mentally, until it is well fixed in the mind and trained into the fingers, there will be no occasion for any mistakes.

Suppose a pupil in the public school has a lesson in spelling to learn. His teacher selects a number of words for him. He is required to learn the words “by heart,” to know every letter in each one in proper order, to know the sound and meaning of each. He is given very little to learn for each lesson, and as he has daily lessons, is expected to learn it for the following day. Here is a great point: to learn only a little at a time. Have short lessons, and have them as often as possible, because the brain, especially at first, tires quickly, and one is unable to concentrate the mind on the work very long at a time.

Music should be studied in the same way. The pupil should be taught to master it, so that in a short time he will know it, and play it as perfectly, as far as it goes, as an artist would know and play it. Suppose the lesson for to-day is that little piece by Behr, “In Happy Mood.” It will not just do to put a cross at this piece and tell him to take it for his next lesson, and let him go. It is the teacher’s main business to show the pupil how to study a thing, and to lay it out for him. The first thing to do is to find out the key and measure and fix them in his memory in connection with this identical piece so that he can never forget them. Now, shall he proceed to read the piece through, playing slowly with both hands? By no means! It is not a lesson in sight reading. The object is for him to play this piece for all there is in it, like a little artist. But it is n’t time to play it or to attempt to play it until it is learned. The next thing is to learn the first note in the melody, which is, in this case, E fourth space, a quarter note on the fourth beat, the touch to be used the down-arm, dropping on the fourth finger. When all this is noted and fixed in the memory, he proceeds with the next melody note in the same way, and so on until he finishes the first phrase. Let him play it on the top of the keys several times, naming the letters. Then play it aloud until he can sing or whistle it correctly from memory. All this is the work of a few minutes, if the pupil is in earnest and gives his whole mind to the work. It is a matter of only a minute or two more to consider and memorize the fingering, the touch, the meter, the accent, the musical effect, the relation of the notes to one another in the phrase, the shading, etc., and master the technic of it. But brain work must always come before hand-work. When the pupil is sure of one melodic phrase he may go on with the following one, or he may learn the accompaniment to the first phrase and then go on with the second melodic phrase. He must concentrate his whole mind on one thing at a time, one note, one phrase, and fix each in the mind, before going on to the next. Let it be all brain work and study, until completely memorized. Then the greater part of the work is done. The technical practice which remains is soon accomplished, when he can give all his attention to studying the right motions for producing any phrase he has learned. “Five-sixths of piano-technic, and even of piano-mechanic, is in the head rather than in the fingers,” says Leschetitzky.

The pupil may say, “But it will take longer to learn my étude this way.” We answer by asking, “How long did it take to do the first phrase? Five or ten minutes at most. At that rate you could learn half a page a day to begin with, and in a dozen lessons you will be able to take in a phrase at a glance, and learn two or three pages a day. Think what a repertoire you will soon have!”

In the usual way of practicing, the piece is played through, from a dozen to a hundred times a day, according to one’s stock of nerve and dogged perseverance. This will take longer in the end, and one does not feel that he knows the music when he gets done. He will feel that he has not accomplished all that he should for the great amount of time expended. Then, after all that, he will have to go to work to correct the mistakes he inevitably made because he tried to play it before he knew it mentally.

We used this old method in our practice for years. We were taught to play over from the notes a certain section of a piece until it sounded about right, but if it were a very difficult passage (and frequently the music was far beyond the technical and mental grasp), it simply had to be played over many more times, until we concluded that the only way to master a difficult passage was to practice it many hours a day for years, in a likely-to-be plodding, perfunctory way. (After the manner of certain pianists of whom we have heard, who practice with their digits and read a novel at the same time, and thus literally “kill two birds with one stone.” They wear deep ruts in their piano keys, and not only plunge their neighbors into the deepest blues of despair, but have some difficulty in avoiding the blind staggers themselves.)

After a while the piece would work itself into the fingers and, within an inch of its life, into the brain; and then we never felt certain of going through it in public without a break. This uncertainty, together with the extreme nervousness resulting from the great amount of practice required each day in order to pound it into the fingers, unfitted us for performing publicly. We felt the music, we loved it, but had not the right way of studying. It was mostly all mechanical finger works and little clear mental study, and that little was done after instead of before the technical work—the “horse behind the cart.”

The present writer is thoroughly convinced, after having had experience in learning and teaching both ways, that the brain-work, the studying, the memorizing, will precede the manual or technical part, if one works scientifically. He requires that each melodic phrase, with its accompanying harmony or counterpoint, with its measure, meter, note values, octave, intervals, touch, dynamics, accent, and fingering, shall be learned—that is, committed to memory—before it shall be practiced for technical mastery. In other words, the mind shall survey intelligently all qualities and quantities to be found in the given phrase, and memorize them before it shall direct the work of the hand. There are the memories of sense-impressions taken through the eye, the ear, the fingers; and the memory of the construction and musical and dynamic and other content of a phrase. It is this last, the actual mental grasp and memory of the content, which we believe should be the mainstay of the pianist, and the other memories used merely to strengthen, but by no means to supplant it. Let music study precede manual practice.


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You are reading Music-Study And Manual-Practice from the July, 1898 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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