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Nature's Course With the Child.


How to Interest the Very Young.

We now see the importance of educating the young children. To produce the best results we must begin early. And yet, wherever we make a start, we find that the child’s education has already been going on. When the children began in the primary school it was found that some of the most impressible years of their life were already past. Hence arose the kindergarten, which is doing so much for the development of childhood. But here, again, we find that a still earlier chapter of life is closed, and we must go into the nursery and mother-play for life-lessons of vital importance. This is especially true of musical education. The same impressions received in infancy will influence the whole life of the musician. It is in these earliest years that the soul of the artist is awakened.

The work of teaching little children is generally considered an elementary matter, and it is too often committed to teachers of limited experience; but nowhere is greater teaching power required, and above all a delicate appreciation of the child’s nature. The child is so plastic that any blundering done now will be more disastrous than it would be at any later time. Such considerations as this might well cause us to shrink from the responsibility. But we cannot lay it aside. For better or for worse the child’s education is going on, and it depends largely upon ourselves what that education shall be. If we cannot completely realize our ideals, we can at least give some help and inspiration to the little ones.

No conscientious and intelligent teacher will think lightly of the work of child-training; but, on the other hand, no intelligent and conscientious teacher need despair of the task. If there are great difficulties to be encountered, we shall find great helps in the child’s own nature. Let us consider some of these.

Enlist the Child’s Self-activity.

This is a ruling principle in every child’s nature. It is stronger or weaker according to the amount of vital energy; but in every case it grows stronger with exercise. When the child works from his own volition his interest is thoroughly aroused, and he becomes conscious of power—the sure pathway to successful achievement. It is the exercise of self-activity, which is the essence of real education. The teacher should clearly distinguish between musical instruction and musical education. They are often used as synonymous terms, but in reality are opposite principles.

Instruction, as the etymology of the word implies, is a pouring in of knowledge. Education, on the other hand, is a drawing out of the faculties. The former, even when suited to the child’s understanding, soon becomes wearisome, for the average child does not care much for theory; but education, which is the exercise of the child’s own creative faculty, keeps him continually on the alert.

This Self-activity must Work according to the Child’s own Nature.

How else could it be self-activity? There is where so many teachers fail to secure the full co-operation of the child. It is hopeless to expect a little child to see things as a trained teacher sees them. That will come with time and experience, as the rose will unfold its petals from the rosebud; but as we would not be foolish enough to pluck open the bud to get at the rose, neither should we anticipate the natural process of development in the child’s mind.

There must be mutual understanding and sympathy between teacher and pupil, and yet the child cannot bridge the gap which separates his mind from that of the teacher. An old story says that when Mohammed found that the mountain would not come to him, he wisely decided to go to the mountain. If the child cannot come to the teacher, the teacher must go to the child. And this calls for that fine faculty—a sympathetic imagination. Here is the test of the real teacher: to put himself in the place of the pupil and see things from that point of view.

But be sure that this is genuine, for children are keen and merciless critics of shams. Don’t try a condescending manner, and remember, too, that children resent babyishness. All great souls approach the child-spirit reverently: “Of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.” And we are told that unless we become as little children we cannot enter into their heaven. When we enter into that wonder-world of theirs we learn the vast difference between the childlike and the childish. There we often meet with flashes of inspiration, all the more wonderful because the child seems so unconscious of their deep import.

The Child’s Self-activity Naturally Works through Play.

This is Nature’s method of education. We see it to some extent in all living creatures. As we ascend in the scale of animal life we see the play-instinct becoming more and more evident, until it reaches a fuller development in human life. And as we rise in the degrees of human culture, play takes on more varied forms and higher meanings. That which is so inwrought into the natural order of things must be profoundly true. Long ago Plato said: “Deep meaning often lies in childhood’s play.” As the centuries rolled on different sages got glimpses of the truth, and at last Freidrich Froebel grasped it as the great principle in the education of childhood.

The play impulse does not need stimulating, for it is already active in every healthy child: it only needs to be applied in the right direction. Let the music lesson be a game, and it will be a delight to the child. Taken in this spirit, the necessary vocal or instrumental practice becomes a joyous exercise of the faculties. The lesson is no longer a matter of compulsion, but of permission. Must I do it? gives place to: May I do it? And this makes a great difference in the progress of the child. Longfellow’s words may be applied here:

“Ah! how skillful grows the hand

That obeyeth love’s command.

It is the heart, and not the brain,

That to the highest doth attain.”

Some teachers who have followed thus far will perhaps be thinking: “Yes, play is all very well as a recreation; but ought not the child be trained to steady habits of work?” The answer to this is that through play we can get the most effective work done. This is true all through life. We do most heartily that which we like to do. Take away the zest of play from our sports, and who would put forth the same amount of energy if the game were considered simply as a task of work? In play everything is idealized, and the player loses sight of the effort in reaching forth after the ideal.

It will be seen, then, that imagination is a necessary factor in play, and it follows that play is an exercise of the imagination. Now, the value of a trained imagination in the musical student cannot be overestimated. Without it there can be no soul of beauty in the music, nor any inspiration. It is through the imagination that the musician is able to “see visions and dream dreams.” The child’s musical images will necessarily be simple, but they will lead on to others continually growing in richness and variety. The interval is vast between the child and the great composer, and yet it is a difference of degree rather than of kind. From the child’s simple play- images there is an unbroken sequence up to the glorious imagination of Händel’s “Messiah” or Wagner’s “Nibelungen Lied.” Much more might be said along this line; but we leave it for the present to consider one other means of helping the child by following his natural sympathies.

All Children like to be Helpers.

There is no surer way to a child’s active good-will than by seeking his co-operation in a thing which he feels himself able to do. He likes to be trusted in the performance of some duty, and will put forth his best efforts to prove trustworthy.

Here is a fine chance for suggestive work on the part of the teacher. Instead of telling the child, let him discover the new truth for himself. Start the idea, but leave it incomplete where he will be able to carry it forward to completion. Make the children forget the official in the genial companion, and always cultivate a spirit of partnership. Teaching carried on in this spirit will meet with a hearty response from the children. There will be no danger of listlessness or inattention; but in closing it will not be out of place to give a word of caution as to the other extreme.

Do not Hold the Child’s Attention too long on the Stretch.

Remember that attention is literally at-tension. It is true that all of our faculties grow stronger by repeated acts of tension, or, in other words, by proper exercise; but this tension must not be too severe nor too prolonged. Physiologists tell us that muscles which have been overstrained have the same flabby appearance as those which have never been invigorated by exercise. Undue tension of the brain causes more or less of brain-softening. And the law holds with equal force in the finer processes of emotional tension, which are so largely controlled by music. The musical sensibilities will grow keener and stronger with proper action and reaction; but the attention should be relaxed and diverted at the slightest symptom of weariness. Disregard of this will lead to languid interest, to growing indifference, and in more extreme cases to positive dislike of the music lesson.

This article deals only with the general principle of interesting children by observing the natural trend of their sympathies. How to work this out in detail is a question of ways and means, about which more may be said on another occasion.


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You are reading Nature's Course With the Child. from the March, 1900 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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