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Thoughts, Suggestions, Advice - Practical Points by Practical Teachers


Mendelssohn advised that pupils should not pass judgment on a piece until it was well learned, for the best music does not show its beauties until it is played finely. How, then, can a pupil rightly judge a piece, especially when his mind is all taken up with its problems in notation and with its technical difficulties, and when it is marred with many bad mistakes and false dissonances?

There is another fact to consider here: pieces that have so transparent a content as to be pleasing when poorly played are the kind of which one soon becomes tired. Such pieces wear out their beauties before they are learned. No pupil ever becomes a good player until he has learned many pieces well enough to play them up to their correct time without mistakes—without breaking. But it is no secret to say that all teachers know that many pupils do not exercise patience to review a piece often enough and long enough to learn it perfectly. The fault lies in the impatience of the pupil, his demanding pieces that please him at his imperfect readings.

Why waste time, money, and work over the fifth-rate when the first-class is at hand? Many pupils would do well to take the old farmer’s motto: “The best is good enough for me.” We all go to the doctor when we are ill because we think he knows best what to administer for restoring us to health. We, for similar good reasons, go to the lawyer, the architect, or the surveyor. They have given years to the study of their professions, therefore we have confidence in their judgment. So has your teacher given years to the study of music, and he has had years of experience in teaching; so why not rely on his judgment? You may not like the taste of the doctor’s medicines, yet you take them. Why not as readily learn the pieces your teacher selects for you? Your teacher is as anxious to give you the best as you are to have it. Really, now, does it not seem a trifle presumptuous for a youngster to set up his groundless whims against a teacher’s experienced taste and judgment?

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I wonder if teachers and students have considered the advantages of learning many short pieces—pieces that require no more than from two to four minutes to play.

It takes less time to learn a short piece than a long one, so the student does not get weary of the practice of it, and therefore he can work it up to a higher degree of finish with more interest than he could a longer composition. More pieces can be learned, and, as these may embody different characteristics, the student will find each a different lesson in interpretation, and when learned, he will have pieces for all times and occasions and to suit all tastes.

Every player should have from five to ten short pieces ready to play, of different styles, as, for instance; a snappy tarentella, a dreamy evening song or lullaby, a bright little valse or mazourka, a dainty romanza or barcarolle, and perhaps a variation on a popular air.

There is one occasion when the short piece will prove your friend. If it is known that you play, you will be invited to play; when you go to make visits or when strangers come to see you. Sometimes these invitations are given out of politeness. How do you know whether these people really like music or not. If you are so thoughtless or tactless as to begin some long intricate composition, perhaps incomprehensible to them, they will either listen to you out of politeness and be bored to death or they will interest themselves conversing on domestic matters and your finale will interrupt slightly this conversation: “My husband does not like them. (You play very well, my dear.) No, he will not have an onion in the house.”

But when in doubt about your auditors, begin with a piece that can be played in two or three minutes,—a piece of decided character which will be sure to interest your hearers and stop while they are interested. When you have finished, you will learn by their words and manner whether they like music and just what sort of a piece to select next. Thus, the short piece will prove your friend.

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An etude is an exercise; if it is not an exercise, then it is not a true etude. A “music piece” should express the art of beauty in tones. By catering to the taste of pupils who want to be entertained where hard work is demanded of them composers have produced studies which are a sort of a compromise between an etude proper and a music piece. The original idea of exercising—that is, of training—the fingers and hands is concealed, and consequently only too easily forgotten. Some wrote etudes for cultivating the pupil’s taste, as if the music by Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and others were not sufficient! An etude that should be a music piece is not a true etude, and vice versa. There are “etudes” which are beautiful music pieces, but their names are really misnomers, unless one would take them as “studies” from the composer’s stand-point, like painters do. There are people who do not care for bread, but they like cakes and pies. Suppose a person, in order to deceive them into eating bread anyway, would mix the materials of bread and pies, and try to produce a new kind of pastry. All would declare it bad bread and worse pie. It is very nearly so with those “musical” etudes. Technical exercises are intended to promote the skill of the player, and if a student has his interest centered upon the things to be observed in such technical work they are useful; but, if his interest rests upon other than technical points, then the etude ceases to be a profitable exercise. The subject of etudes forms an important chapter in the history of piano literature; naturally every new technical development had to be exhausted by numberless etudes. Some musician said the reason why so many new etudes are written is because we get tired teaching the old ones! Why not invent new scales and major and minor chords; so that teachers be interested with novelties? The etudes to be practiced by a pupil ought to be reduced to the lowest number possible, but they ought to be such as will truly serve his technical development; his musical sense should find superabundant nourishment in strictly musical pieces.

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One great obstacle in phrasing is the bar which separates measure from measure. Children somehow, I suppose from long continued counting, have the idea in playing a melody, that it must be a sort of “begin afresh” after every bar, and to carry a phrase over a bar without breaking it in two seems quite as impossible as for the proverbial milk-maid to get over the stile with a whole pitcher.

So, then, if pupils cannot get over a bar without a break, the best thing to do is to take the bar down. In other words, in teaching phrasing, give exercises which are written out without the bars, the phrases closely grouped and marked, and even make the pupil copy short things (as Mendelssohn’s shorter “Songs,” so excellent for phrasing) without the bars, and phrase them herself, in this way bringing the long curved lines into prominence. The present method of phrasing is certainly unsatisfactory, as the straight, perpendicular, heavy lines which separate the measures are much more calculated to “call a halt” than the long indefinite lines which seldom ever are just right, and which have no authority or command either for stopping or continuing in their whole slender, bending make-up. There is nothing more detestable than melody chopped up into equal parts; yet that is what we hear from children perpetually, and generally because children cannot come across a bar without stopping.

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What do you say when a pupil brings along some of “Mama’s old music” and wants to take it,—perhaps “The Maiden’s Prayer,” or some other notable antique? A great deal may be said at such a time, and there are some things which it may be best to leave unsaid. There is no rule to follow infallibly. A teacher can only use his best judgment and let it go at that. When the music is suitable, use it. When not, say so and give your reasons for so doing. In the long run you will gain respect by being independent as regards your selection of music. Either you know what is best or you do not: if you do, hold to it—if you do not, then change your profession else accept. If you accept all advice sent, you will soon find your class has but little regard for your opinion.

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Conceive the children whom you teach as centers of activity. Regard it your duty to employ that activity in a serviceable manner. Do not listen too attentively to the now common precept that the child as he learns must be amused. His learning should be work that entertains him; but the work must be of the nature that will gain him Power which may be applied in manifold operations. Unless Power gained is not a factor that may be universally applied it is of little value.

Educators realize this and are now prone to urge the act of learning as of more value than the thing learned. In his work on “Civil Government” John Fiske points out that the needed habit is the faculty for research; that with it the learner has a scheme for learning; and that his scheme is probably of greater value than the subjects to which he applies it. Hence not so much what we may make him know; but how we teach him so that he proceeds to find out what he wants to know is the basis of judgment in education. Activity applied is a habit, an application of Power that may endure forever; while items of knowledge may pass away after serving us temporarily.


I sometimes wonder if “going abroad” is quite so heinous an offense as it is depicted. I know that I enjoyed it, and it did me good, and no one condemned me for it. There is ever so much written about those who go to Vienna and gaze in ecstatic hopefulness at a certain door in the Karl Ludwig Strasse, meanwhile trying to find the German words for: “Is the Professor at home? and would he give me lessons, so that I may teach his method in New York State next spring?”

That is the way the novelist paints him (it is usually “her”). But I have been in Vienna and watched them (him and her), and asked them how they were succeeding, how long they were going to stay, how is your German coming on? and all that. I never met one who was not inspired to do good work, at almost any sacrifice.

They say one gets hard knocks in Vienna. One gets hard knocks anywhere, if one is inclined to become chaste by being chastened; and, according to good authority, that is the only way. I am becoming convinced that people want to know more in order to be more; and I think it a good reason.


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You are reading Thoughts, Suggestions, Advice - Practical Points by Practical Teachers from the March, 1900 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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