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To the Would-Be Musician.


I am in receipt of a letter from the Editor of The Etude asking for an expression of opinion regarding the necessary qualifications for a musical career. I would not like to advise anyone to undertake the study of music with the profession in view, for it seems to me that a student so undetermined and un-enthusiastic as to wait for advice of the kind would be disqualified for success in advance. To follow art for a livelihood means the encountering of many privations and the traveling of many a rough piece of road; and an inward impulse, an overmastering leaning toward it, is absolutely necessary if the individual is ever to acquit himself with credit or find the pursuit of the muses and the pursuit of happiness interchangeable expressions. If you can fancy yourself contented in any other walk in life, do not, my dear young musician, become a professional or ever hope to become an artist. If the call is in uncertain tones do not heed it, for the musician’s life (save to those of a certain mental and physical nature) is, of all lives, most miserable.

But what are the elements of this nature, you ask, and how may it be recognized when found?

First, I would put a certain intellectual alertness, a quickness of perception, an ability to take in the salient features of anything at a glance. It is manifest in the natural sight-reader. The inability to learn easily to read at sight is a bad sign. It indicates that the pupil cannot grasp the outlines unless he can comprehend the details of musical phrases. In the practical life of the artist there come many occasions where he must save himself in an emergency. He must continue on the G string when the violin breaks down. He must save his voice from breaking when compelled to sing with that treacherous “frog” in the throat. He must play serenely on when his memory lets slip a passage, or a strange piano develops unpleasant peculiarities. He must improvise without a false progression when a pull-down sticks in the organ and introduces an unexpected organ-point in the treble. He must conform to all manner of idiosyncrasies if he accompanies a vocalist. He must arrange for any combination of voices or instruments, any composition, at any moment, under the most disquieting circumstances, if he would be a good conductor; and he must find some way of refilling the program and holding the concert, no matter who fails him at the eleventh hour. While the composer is called upon to see the way out of the most intricate mazes of harmony so smoothly that the critic will fondly imagine that no knotty spots ever existed. This is but a brief summary of what a musician, even of ordinary standing is called upon to perform, and I have made no reference to the multitudinous duties of the teacher, for they would require an essay all by themselves.

Now, will anyone tell me that any child but a clever one can earn his honest salt in the profession? To become a charlatan is easier, the main thing needed being an abundance of a compound metal resembling gold in appearance but much cheaper to produce. But fortunately, though society is preyed upon continually by a horde of fakes, the day of any individual fake is short, and, if you pass by where you saw him flourishing a year ago, lo! his place is nowhere to be found.

I fancy that some one objects that I have put superficial cleverness at the head of my list of qualifications, and put a premium upon slovenly, lying, conscienceless work of all kinds. But not so fast, Sir Critic. That is but one side to the medal. Let us examine the other.

Superficiality, if it means the ability to see the important when circumstances forbid the seeing of both the important and the unimportant, is a prime requisite in the aspirant for artistic honors. The player who skims, who simplifies at sight, who plays by ear, may be a very difficult subject for the teacher. It may take worlds of patience, oceans of tact, and any amount of firmness to bind such a one down to the drudgery of painstaking practice. But, the feat once accomplished, the chances of a successful, and often a very successful outcome are good. The patient plodder, on the other hand, makes the most docile of pupils. It isn’t necessary to tell him anything twice, if it lies within the reach of application without inspiration. He is balm to the preceptor’s heart, and one likes to have him come into the studio, for he brings the promise of a restful half-hour. But what is he but a complicated machine? If he strikes a single wrong key will he not break down? Did anyone ever give to his playing that most necessary of all qualities, fluency? Is there ever any natural pulse to his rhythms? I pity these industrious, heavy- headed, ambitious artisans. They often achieve commercial success by sheer force of their business ability; but they could achieve that in so much more abundant measure in some other direction that I could never advise one of them to undertake music as a life-work.

A good ear, a sound constitution, a patience which curbs the headlong impulse till it travels at a preconcerted gait—these and hosts of other things are too obvious in this connection for more than passing mention. And to them might be added all other elements which contribute to success in any business—but have I not said enough concerning the qualifications which the would-be artist will find it difficult to do without?


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You are reading To the Would-Be Musician. from the March, 1900 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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