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Five Minute Talks With Girls, By Helena M. Maguire

To the Beginners in Harmony.

Studying harmony means gaining a working knowledge of the materials used in making music. It does not necessitate a gift for composition; it does not require that you have even so much as a desire to write music; but, as you who play use exactly the same materials as he who writes music, you should have a thorough knowledge of these materials; and this knowledge it is possible for you to obtain with­out any great amount of trouble. The conservatories of music the country over are filled, for the most part, with girls of but a fair musical ability and an ordinary amount of intellect; and these girls com­plete the course in harmony without any very severe mental throes, or nervous prostration, or any of the other evils popularly supposed to go with this study. So also may you, if you go about it in a sane and sensible way, and resolve with the beginning of the New Year to follow two bits of advice: one about your text-book, the other about your teacher.


First about your text-book. It is very natural, when a girl does not “get on,” to say: “Well, I don’t like this text-book anyway; I don’t think it is a good one.” Any standard text-book is a good one, and contains all that you need to learn of har­mony; and it is certain that your teacher will have you use only the best obtainable, as it is to his own interest to work with the one which best supplements his teaching.

The use of the text-book.

I have found the real trouble to lie in the way in which you use your text­ book. In harmony you are not through with a chapter when you have studied it once thoroughly. Each new lesson is for the ap­plication of a new principle, but there must come into every lesson those principles which you have passed, so that harmony means a constant turning back, a constant looking at old lessons with new lights upon it; a conning over of these principles so many times that they will eventually become a part of your sub­conscious brain. But this will not be for a long time, and, in the meanwhile, when you come to a hard place, instead of sitting and ruminating over it for an hour, or working yourself into a state of “nerves” trying to evolve something out of your own con­sciousness, turn immediately to your text-book. There you will find a way out of your diffi­culty; there is a way out of every harmonic difficulty, but this way is in your text-book, and not in your brain. Remember that nothing original or creative is expected of you, that your whole task is to apply the principles of your text­book. If you make this your rule, to study and apply your text-book as diligently as you would your cook-book, you will in this way rid yourself of many needless difficulties and many unhappy hours.

The Teacher.

About your harmony teacher.

This is rather a delicate subject to broach, but because it is very important with whom you elect to study harmony, because there are many more poor harmony teachers than there are poor harmony text-books, and because a teacher is largely responsible for the aspect a study takes on to a pupil, I venture to speak of it. A girl is as apt to blame her teacher if she does not get on, as her text-book. When there is something wrong we feel it necessary to place the blame, and it is not in human nature that we bring it home to ourselves. However, the trouble may not be with you. It is very difficult to judge the ability of a person to teach a study of which we ourselves are ignorant, but there are two ways by which you may be able to gauge your harmony teacher’s skill.

Teaching principles, not rules.

In the first place, if your teacher gives you rules to learn “by heart,” at the same time load­ing you down with exceptions to these rules, and, when you bring your examples for inspection, will say when you have followed a rule: “It would have been better to use an exception here,” or, if you use an exception, “You should have followed the rule there,” until you feel yourself dizzily see-sawing between these unstable rules and their worse exceptions, then you have not got a good teacher. A good teacher realizes that the principles of harmony must be learned first and foremost, and that it is not for you to have anything to do with the exceptions to these principles until you know the principles themselves so well as to be able to see for yourself the advantage of taking exception to them. If your teacher impresses this fact upon you and makes the important point of each lesson the care with which you have applied the rule it designs to illustrate, then you have a good teacher, and one capable of carrying you trustily over the road.

Correction of Exercises.

Another way in which a teacher shows his ability or lack of ability is in the way in which he corrects your exercises. A good teacher corrects them at his desk, a poor teacher at the piano. A good teacher is con­cerned with what you alone have written; a poor teacher corrects from a model and is concerned chiefly with how near you have chanced to come to his working out. If your teacher sits down with you at his desk and makes parallel octaves and fifths, augmented seconds and “seventh ups” stick right up from your page, and then shows you how you might have avoided these errors by applying your text-book, you are going to be much more impressed than if he were to try it over at the piano, because to the untrained or partly trained ear parallels and ascending sevenths and so forth sound very nice; and if they do, then it is difficult to see why they are wrong. In the beginnings of harmony how your ex­amples sound has little or nothing to do with the matter. It is always how intelligently you learn and apply your rules. You are going to make mis­takes, of course; it is by our mistakes that we learn, but, given a warm and ever-constant devotion to your text-book, and a good teacher, you will cer­tainly never enter the slough of despond, but will rather look upon harmony as a study which is in­teresting for the very reason that it calls into play your utmost mental powers, and because there is a joy in conquering which makes us tender to that which we have conquered in proportion to the diffi­culty experienced in doing so.

Advantages of harmony study.

I have said nothing as to the advantages of studying harmony. That has been told you often enough through the pages of The Etude; but I would like to impress upon you that harmony may be a pleasure along with being a duty and in no way more than in the new light which it gives you upon the great works of the masters of music. Do you remember how, in Edmund Rostand’s classic “L’Aiglon,” the son of Napoleon, by means of his chart and his wooden soldiers, follows in imagination and with the most ardent enthusiasm his great father through the mag­nificent series of battles he had won, and, by these simple means, saw a whole continent as a field of war, learned his father’s tactics and maneuvers, and applauded his victories? So may we humble ones, by means of harmony, enjoy the wonderful workings of the masters. There is nothing in their compositions you may not understand. They knew no more of the six-four chord or of the progressions of the dominant seventh than you may know, and you may follow them in their splendid usage and manipulation of our musical materials with as exquisite a pleasure as one feels in following Walter Pater through the de­licious essays he has wrought out of our common­place language.

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