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Letters to Teachers - W.S.B. Matthews

letters-to-teachers.jpg“1. Should the damper-pedal be used in playing the Bach inventions?

“2. For the average pupil, how long a time is required to secure a rounded, firm, first joint of the fingers? I have used the Mason technics’ for four years, also some other exercises, and find pupils have no difficulty in eventually playing with a firm joint while using the exercises, but in any other work are liable to use a depressed joint. For example, a pupil eleven years old, very talented, having a remarkably good touch, able to play two-part inventions well, will, in playing those inventions, be as liable to play them with the first joint turned up as outward. She has used the Mason ‘Technics’ for four years and is gradually overcoming this fault, but very slowly; and as all my young pupils are as slow over this matter, the question that troubles me is whether this is due to a defect in my teaching or the usual difficulty of young pupils.

“3. Would you permit a child to sit lower than the usual position in order to reach the pedals? She is twelve, unusually small, plays well such selections as ‘Second Waltz,’ Durand; ‘Fandango,’ opus 91; No. 4 Schytte; Beethoven’s ‘Rondo,’ opus 51, No. 1, etc., and I find when playing for her own pleasure will sit low and use the pedal indiscriminately. Wouldn’t it be better to teach her the correct use of the same and allow a much lower position? Her technic for her age is excellent.—M. L. B.”

The pedal is used for two entirely distinct purposes: First, to prolong vibration after the finger has left the keys (for basses, and for melody notes which have to be left before the time has expired); and, second, to improve the tone-quality by permitting harmonics to sound. For the latter purpose the pedal is pressed only a little, not more than half-way down, and is discontinued before the next tone begins to vibrate. This latter use is almost universal in melody playing, among artists, even in such pieces as the Bach inventions and similar work. It would be used upon the accented notes only. Artists also sometimes play the pedal with every note in a series, for the same purpose. These uses of the pedal are never marked in the music, and they cannot be exactly taught; the sensitive student has to find them out for himself. In the inventions or elsewhere, when the tone chain is along a chord track (arpeggio) the pedal is generally used a little by good players. But it is not safe to teach this unless you have first of all trained the pupil to hear the harmonics and sympathetic resonance, as shown in the pedal exercises in Volume IV of “Touch and Technic.”

Your second question I am not able to answer. It depends upon the hand. Some pupils have closely knit hands which never offer the difficulty you mention; others have soft muscles and not much of them, and very loose joints. These take longer. You will shorten the time if you first of all cause the pupil to observe the difference in the position of the joints and to tell by feeling which way she is playing. In order to get good melody the finger has to be rather firm between the hand and the point. Teach how to set the finger, the touch being made with the cushion, and not absolutely upon the tip end, and then recur to the subject as often as the fault appears. In other words, generate conscientiousness in the pupil. This is very difficult to do, and with some almost impossible; others will accomplish it in a short time. The defect in your teaching is in not making the pupil more careful. If the touch comes right in the exercises, the teaching is right so far; the failure is in not applying it to the playing.

A low position is universal now among artists. There is no harm in it. Teach the child how to use the pedal right away. If she feels the need of the pedal she will get the points easily.

* * *

“1. What can be done for a pupil, a young lady eighteen years of age, whose fifth finger and thumb go ‘out of joint’ when she plays? She has had very little work in technic, but is very talented and plays very well.

“2. I find it almost impossible in the majority of young pupils to have them play the Mason ‘Technic’ up to the metronome time. One pupil especially, a girl 13 years old, has worked faithfully to reach the desired tempo, but she cannot seem to make her fingers move any faster. She is not very strong, and, although she is very bright, her mind does not seem to be sufficiently developed to control her fingers as she wants to. I fear that by trying to play faster than she really can she will get the habit of ‘stumbling.’ What can I do for her?

“3. Is there any teacher who can give a thorough course of lessons by mail, in how to teach phrasing and how to make it clear to pupils?

“Any information in regard to these questions will be most thankfully received.—M. S.”

I am not able to give any suggestions with regard to the getting out of joint; if it seems to be due to weakness of muscles, it could probably be mitigated by massage of the fingers and hand and by exercises. If it is a peculiarity of the hand, try the value of the Mason two-finger exercises, particularly in double sixths as soon as she has had the single note forms. This develops the hand as such.

Do not worry yourself about the metronome time in the Mason exercises. I prefer all the slow forms much slower—two beats to a note instead of one. The fast forms are desirable at speed; but give the pupil time. You can probably get speed in scales and arpeggios sooner than in the two-finger exercises. Possibly the difficulty is in the wrist’s not being held free enough. This is a very common fault, and with it speed is impossible. But for slowness of mind you will have to wait. You did not make the mind; all you can do is to improve what there happens to be.

Lessons by mail is a pretty idea. Harmony has been taught in this way with fair results, but art cannot be transmitted by mail. It requires the living example. Learn what phrases are, find them in your pieces, and then try to feel how they ought to be sung. Then sing them with your fingers. Later on, get lessons, if only for a few weeks, from a good teacher.

* * *

“Please answer the following questions under the head of ‘Letters to Teachers,’ as I have great confidence in The Etude and it is my great help and guide in music. As both teacher and pupil I have heard people of supposedly good sense advocate a change of teachers. Now, if my present teacher is an up-to-date, enthusiastic, well-trained, experienced teacher, have I any reason for leaving one who understands my needs perfectly to go in search of ‘new style,’ ‘different ideas,’ ‘broader teachings,’ etc; anything other than my capable teacher can give me? I refer more especially to expression and style in piano-playing. Could such a course benefit me in any way?—A. T. M.”

Changing teachers is like changing boarding-places, or changing wives, or parents. Some think it gives more variety. Others think that it is better to bear the ills we have than to fly to others we know not of. Pupils who take lessons of a variety of teachers never play well. I have yet to find the first exception. Any artist who has studied many years has, of course, had two or three teachers at different times. But on investigating you will find that the good work has mainly been done under one, or under an elementary and an advanced. If these are competent, the work will be done.

There are times when a student gets in a rut and needs to be shaken up. If you have got into such a rut with your teacher and cannot seem to get interested in what he gives you, change to a better one. If you do not find yourself improving one year with another, and the teacher cannot account for the fact, change. But often the time when the student is most dissatisfied is the very moment when the work is doing the best and will soon work out into something satisfactory. When you change you lose all your momentum and begin over again. So unless your teacher is absolutely uncongenial to you, or neglectful, or incompetent, better stick to him until you are quite sure you have all he has to give.

Of course, there are well-instructed German teachers who are all right in Mozart, possibly in Bach, and in the earlier Beethoven, but who have no skill in the romantic. If you have that sort of teacher you might change, provided you can find a better.

* * *

“Through the query column of your journal will you please advise a young man, seriously fond of music, whose opportunity for practice is considerable in the aggregate, but so irregular as to make lessons from a teacher impracticable, what could he hope to accomplish by self-instruction on the piano, and what books would be suited to his needs? Thanking you in anticipation of your kindness.—A. M. B.”

It is very difficult to answer this, because the results you might attain by self-directed practice would depend upon your natural talent, your perseverance, and your ability to criticize yourself. The great majority of music students fail to notice about half there is in a piece. They get the melody, if it is noticeable, and a sort of accompaniment. But the suggestions of inner voices, the refinements of accent, the rhythmic and melodic nuances, and the climaxes they overlook. Moreover, too many are content if they can get through when they have good luck, but are not especially disturbed by the necessity of going back or of stopping and beginning again.

In practicing by yourself, first of all, it is not necessary to play everything possible in your grade, whereever (sic) you may commence. If you take up a course of graded studies, skip along, playing the musical ones and playing them well. A few pieces in each grade are enough. Learn each one well, so it can be played like a piece. In this way you can do a good deal. You have to look out and avoid excess in every direction. Too much power, too slimpsy a touch, too fast, too slow—avoid all excess.

Supposing you to be of limited technic, but capable of beginning with the third or fourth grade, take up that book of my “Graded Course.” Take with it the “Book I of Studies in Phrasing.” Learn each one of these thoroughly well, so that it sounds like a song. Take at the same time Mason’s “Arpeggios” and go through the first seven chords in the direct motion; later in the reverse motion; still later in the two hand positions. Practice a good deal in 6’s, 9’s, 12’s, 18’s, 8’s, 16’s, and the rhythmic tables.

Work about half an hour a day upon arpeggios and go on next day where you left off. When you have completed one grade take the next. When you can play all my first book in phrasing, take “Book II.” You can also play three or four salon pieces in each grade. This course, taken in connection with some study of musical form (my “Primer of Form” is clear and good) and perhaps a good primer, and you ought to improve. But you will almost certainly acquire bad habits in one way or another, which a living teacher would have saved you from. There is no help from this, unless you have some discreet person hear you play now and then.

* * *

“Please tell me the meaning of the line with turned-up ends that I find often in The Etude and in some music?

“Give some instances where the hand-staccato touch is preferable to that of the fingers?—D. H. M.”

The biasing line under the bass indicates where the pedal begins and ends. It is used by some publishers and not by others. It was at first thought to be more exact, but experience does not bear out this view. All marks are imperfect.

All repeated chords in quick motion are played with hand-staccato, all very heavy chords which have to be left before they are finished. Many passages of melody take a hand-staccato besides a finger-motion. For instance, the study in C-major, No. 7, of Chopin, opus 10. The slow movement of the Beethoven sonata in G, opus 14, takes a hand-motion. All detached chords in moderate movement, especially if containing a melody-tone, have both a finger- and hand- motion. Without the positive touch of the finger the tone lacks vigor. Without a hand-element or an arm-element, it lacks volume.

After all, there are no rules. It is a question of the music and of the effect. If you get it, all right. The question then is whether you get it the easiest way. That is all there is of it.


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