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The Principles Of Musical Pedagogy




To W. E. S.—Thus far I have written only of the “up-arm” touch. But, as you already know, there is a “down-arm” touch which is much used by the best pianists. It is applicable in many eases where the “up-arm ” touch could hardly be used. It is as simple and as easily learned as the upward movement of the arm, being merely the reverse movement. The fingers are to rest quietly on the surface of the keys with the wrist elevated; then the tone is to be produced by suddenly lowering the wrist and allowing the natural weight of the arm to be brought to bear on the keys through the fingers. The wrist and all the finger-joints must be perfectly loose if the touch is to be sympathetic. It is well to practice this with single fingers, as I recommended in the case of the “up-arm” touch; but it is most frequently used in the case of octaves and chords. These two pressure touches combined, i. e., the up-arm and the down arm touches, alternating with each other, constitute the most important peculiarity of Kullak’s celebrated octave teaching and make it especially valuable. You are aware also of the special and extremely useful application of this principle recommended as a two-finger exercise in Volume I, of Mason’s “Touch and Technic.”

And now I come to one of the most important means of acquiring a sympathetic and expressive touch, viz., the “pull touch.” It consists simply in drawing in the finger while it is on the surface of the key. I do not mean that it necessarily implies any movement on that surface, but only that the finger should be in contact with the key, not above it, when the pull is made. Otherwise the touch is not pressure, but a blow, more or less modified.

It is well, I think, to begin the practice of this touch with a simple staccato. Let the hand rest on the surface of the keys in its natural extended position, not the traditional “school-correct” one; the fingers being nearly, but not quite, straight and the whole hand quiet and easy. Then flex the whole hand suddenly, i. e., shut the hand, at the same time bringing the closed fist as high up from the wrist as it will go. (This last point I regard as important, my experience being against Mason’s recommendation in the first volume of “Touch and Technic” to abandon the hand unrestrainedly to the action of the flexors.) Then allow the hand to open again in its natural relaxed position and to fall lightly on the surface of the keys ready for a repetition of the pull. At the instant of the sudden shutting of the hand let the middle finger pull much harder than the others and press down its key vigorously. As you have already learned by experience, this will produce a beautiful, pure quality of tone and a real, live staccato effect without the least trace of harshness or thumpiness. In my experience I have obtained better results by starting out with this motion of the hand, the simple opening and shutting of it, letting the hand fall when it opens and rise when it shuts, and by applying it first of all to the simple pull-staccato as above described, than by any other application of the pull-principle.

You are, I know, familiar with the first volume of Mason’s “Touch and Technic,” probably the most original and valuable contribution to the technics of piano-playing made by any teacher during the last half of the present century, to say the least. It is nearly fifty years now since William Mason, then a boy in his early twenties, studying at Weimar with Liszt in the company of von Bülow, Klindworth, and Pruckner, got the first hint of the two-finger exercises, which he has so thoroughly and carefully elaborated, from something he saw one day in the great master’s practice. The principle of it, when analyzed, is simple. It depends on the fact that all the fingers are flexed by the same muscles, but that it is nevertheless possible, while shutting the whole hand, to determine by far the greater part of the force of the contraction of the flexors into a single finger, at will.

This principle is of very far-reaching importance. In the first place, there is no possible way of strengthening all the fingers so much and so rapidly as by the powerful opening and shutting of the hand. The two-finger exercise as elaborated by Mason not only does this, but individualizes the fingers as does no other exercise in the whole range of piano technics. The principle of accent, which Mason applies so thoroughly, gives the power of discriminative emphasis in the highest degree, enabling the player to use almost any degree of power he chooses for any given finger, while the other fingers apply greater or less force, at will.

The principal application of this is, of course, in the delivery of a melody, with a subordinate accompaniment played by the same hand at the same time, especially when the melody is to be delivered by the weaker fingers and is to be not only prominent and powerful, but shaded and phrased so as to be expressive. And you will observe, as soon as you give suitable attention to the matter, that the great technical requirements of modern piano music, i. e., of the music of Chopin and more especially of Schumann and his successors up to the present time, are: (1) singing quality; (2) discriminating emphasis; (3) power of tone (without impairing the singing quality). Finger dexterity (the importance of which I do not wish to underestimate) is a subordinate matter nowadays, that is, if one is aiming to become an interpretative artist rather than a “virtuoso.” Look through the complete works of Schumann and see how very small a part is played by the old fashioned technic of scales, arpeggios, and five-finger exercises compared with powerful chords, octaves, lyric melodies, the subordination of accompaniments to melodies in the same hand, etc. Yet these works are the most profoundly expressive of any which have appeared since Beethoven. The technic of Schumann is primarily the technic of expressive playing, not the technic of bravura.

Unless I have failed to make my meaning clear to you, you know that my ideals for you as a piano student have been to make you, primarily, an intelligent musician and a competent interpreter of the best music, relegating what is called “virtuosity” to second place. These ideals I advise you to retain for yourself and for your pupils, aiming at the culture which comes of intelligent appreciation and interpretation of the best music rather than at any kind of display.

Of course it is very difficult, not to say impossible, to teach piano technics on paper. I can hardly hope to do much more than remind you of the points I have made in your lessons, putting them in something like systematic order. And your practical experience as a teacher will teach you more than anybody’s writing or talking. The principles I have suggested you will find sound and indispensable. The practical application of them is a matter to be decided in each particular case and the only final test is that of results. If you get them by applying the two finger exercise, for example, just as it is recommended in Mason’s book, or in the modifications of it which I have taught you, well and good. If not, invent some way to enable your pupil to get hold of the right end of the string. Methods are for pupils, not pupils for methods. The teacher who is a slave to any method whatever, who invariably follows the same technical routine regardless of the special needs of his pupils, is a hopeless pedant. Here, as elsewhere, “the letter killeth; the spirit giveth life.”


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