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An Individual Who is a Problem.



Every institution in the world is familiar with the Individual who samples its goods on the outer edge. Something prompts him to desire much, but he enters with little faith; he never absolutely sacrifices himself, and shortly he has a fall from grace that is veritably a cruel bump.

In music this Individual (the Man, and he has a sister, the Woman) is not uncommon. He wants (1) to sing for his own amusement; or (2) to learn enough harmony to write two-steps; or (3) to take a few piano lessons so as to play his own accompaniments. And if you will teach him these arts he asks: “Will it take long?”

Teachers invariably regard him pessimistically. This is because he is so inevitable. Here is a case, in point, not from music, but from life. If the reader wants to get better acquainted with the original let him see Mr. Arthur Morrison’s sketch. A youth of slobbery sentimentality had a pronounced aptness for stealing. After having been punished for various forms of the offense, he determined to lead a better life. He was hungry when he made this resolution; the rain fell cruelly on his unprotectedness; he was wet to the skin and had no place where he might go for warmth and comfort. His resolution came to a climax opposite a church door. The lights were bright; everything looked cheerful; and besides, the place was a safe asylum. So he went in, passing, as he did so, a little old lady who was selling warm sausages on the side-walk; and as he took his place among the worshippers he did not know what was uppermost, warmth, sausages, or the better life. As he became warm and drowsy his desire to pass forever from the way of sin grew stronger, and the result was that to the last fervent call for those who will this day repent, he stepped forth. He was the last to leave the church. When he reached the door, the sausage woman was preparing to go home. On the top stone of the wall where she had been seated there was a little pile of pennies, her earnings for the day. Her back was turned to the convert. He saw the pennies and knew that he could stretch forth his hand, take them in, and make off with them unobserved. He did so and a new life of opportunity, on a cash basis, was before him.


Of course, the argument is absolutely without fault that declares so complete a fall from grace not to be final and disastrous. It maintains, quite correctly, that a time will come when the experience will yield its good. And because the truth of this is so universally accepted human nature is forever prone to help those who manifest a desire to be or to learn; and this, even though it be evident from the outset that, at the first convenient turn in the road, the Individual will make off without the polite formality of saying “Good-bye,” or “Thank you for what you have done for me.”

Indeed the Individual is interesting in this: that he sets us to wondering if we may not find a way of understanding him, so complete and exact, that he will get good service from us, in spite of himself? If the well-spring of action in him may not be made to burst forth as a fountain, may it not be made to trickle?

Many teachers who encounter the Individual sit down and argue with him, or devote the first interview to unfolding to him the glory of the subject, pointing out the deficiencies of his ambition and dilating on the greater advantages of coming in touch with the whole subject. The flame may burn more brightly while it is in the oxygen of this eloquence; but we must remember how it behaves in the rain.

Everyone who has had experience with the Individual agrees that whether he is fated to slip back from his efforts, as persistently as did Sisyphus, he is well worth taking up, just as he is; that it is infinitely better to work with him toward his ideal, for he can see it, than to substitute for it one that he cannot see. If he deserts his own standard the offense is a more valuable moral experience in what it has of personal responsibility than if he deserts an aim furnished by an effusively kind friend.

Many teachers turn the back upon the Individual because of what he is; because he is incapable of studying seriously for a term of years. It seems to me that this proceeds from a misconception of music in education. Music is a form of self-expression; it is strong in some, weak in others. As all forms of self-expression are to be traced back to human nature’s striving to satisfy itself, the purpose of any desire to learn at once shows itself to be higher than the dictum of pedagogy.

Surely no one should attempt to say what good may follow even a trifling ambition. And anyone to whom a trifling ambition presents itself, asking aid, may use infinite tact, and force, and foresight in turning this trifle into more. The art of unfolding a human being’s possibilities to itself is so vastly rare that many of the Individuals lose ground and desert because they have been unskillfully treated.

One can quite readily understand how the Individual arrives at declaring that he should like to learn enough about the piano “to play his own accompaniments.” It is a desirable possession, and he craves the Power. But the teacher is at fault who urges upon him in all its details the error of his ambition. At his state of enlightenment the whole truth is almost certain to frighten the ambition entirely out of him. It is far better for him to begin and to realize, bit by bit, that his initial desire was out of joint. Tell him this before he has made an effort and he will either take to the woods or calmly disbelieve all you say. But take his conception seriously, augment it by deftly leading him on, and the investment of effort will pay a good dividend both to teacher and Individual. But if you take him in when he is wet and hungry, cheer him with ease and warmth, and exhort him to better things, to loftier aim while he is really getting drowsy, it must not surprise you that he slips easily from the elevation, and makes off with the warm-sausage pennies.


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You are reading An Individual Who is a Problem. from the March, 1900 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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