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Josef Hofmann on Piano Practice and Technic

JANUARY, 1902.
A CLOSER knowledge of Josef Hofmann proves two things: his possession of an extraordinary alertness of mind and of concentration,—qualities of eminent importance to the pianist, and an idea is conveyed to him sufficiently by a suggestion, and his opinion on subjects connected with his art appears always ready for immediate expression. There is in him an odd combination of the boy and the man. In some respects his mental development is that of a man of forty, judging from his expression of opinion along certain lines. Again, in selecting illustrations to enforce his point of view he is the boy.

During our conversation a number of other persons were in the room, and there was considerable confusion in consequence ; several times there were interruptions. But Hofmann held fast to his theme of the moment, returning to it without deviation, and taking it up exactly where it had been left off.

His cast of countenance is more Russian than Polish, strongly marked, not quick in repose, but varying in expression in conversation. His muscular power is highly developed, though his frame is slight. From his manner this one point (and a most important one in the development of talent) is to be learned: he has been carefully trained without meddling with his individuality, and he has been restrained without depriving him of a full sense of freedom.

Madame Nordica once said to me that self-consciousness with people of riper years was due oftener than not to constantly dinning into the ears of the child: “You must not do this or that, for, if you do, what will people think of you? ”
But a worse point yet is the destruction of individuality by the constant assertion: “You must do this or that in my way, which is the only way.”

The precocious development of Hofmann set aside in great measure this danger at the outset; but later, in the intermediate, the critical, stage of his training he had a greater one to face. To bring his talent within bounds of stricter restraint, and to set him well on the thorny path of the artist after adulation of audiences and praise of critics was no light task. It could only have been attained by sound judgment and tact, and it has been done well. As a man, he thinks for himself with excellent reasoning powers; he is developed mentally beyond his years, in certain directions, and that too, in face of the fact that music has claimed so great a share of his time.

The individuality of an artist makes always a fascinating study. The broader the mind, the broader the art. But one thing impresses itself strongly in the majority of instances, and that is that a great degree of cultivation in the case of artists comes from highly-developed powers of observation and natural receptivity rather than from the actual amount of time devoted to the study of books. Josef Hofmann is an interesting example of this class, the more so because he is of an analytical turn of mind. He enjoys the reasoning out of how he does things. For instance, in beginning this conversation for THE ETUDE and speaking of his acquirement of languages (and he is master of five: Polish, French, German, Russian, and English), he said: “The first year I went to Russia I learned nothing of the language; the second I did better, and the third it came quite natural to me to speak it. But this I observed, I learned most of the language after I had left the country and during vacations, when I had quiet time for thoughts. I did not study it then, but I thought things over and settled them in my mind. The things that I had heard came to me, and then it was that the language grew clearer and clearer. That which I had learned but not assimilated became a part of my mental equipment, and this is exactly the case in playing the piano. The longer you know a piece before you play it in public, the more you have thought it out and fixed it in your mind, the better will be your performance. You must get it settled in your mind; it must become part of you. But, after all, the playing of a piece in public is what makes it fireproof. That is the pre-eminent source of its development and finish; therefore, the oftener you play a piece in public, the better will be your development of it.
“Personally I find it a bad plan to practice a piece on the day I play it in public. One or two days be- fore a concert it is all well and good to practice it, but never later. Then, when you come before your audience your mind is fresh, and the interpretation will consequently be better.

“In the division of practice during the important period of acquiring technic, in the earlier days three or four hours daily are necessary for the study of it, but never more than four. In the middle period of study I practiced six hours a day, and of that time I devoted from an hour and a half to two hours to technic pure and simple, the rest of the time I gave to the study of dynamic effects and composition. During the time that I am concertizing I practice only as much as is necessary.

“The great danger in the acquiring of technic is overtraining, and that stiffens the muscles instead of developing them. Stop before you are tired. Of course, you may play octaves from the wrist until you are tired, but never finger-work; that stiffens. The sensibility of the muscles is lost when you get cramps. Every finger is an individual; it has eyes. The wrist is a single man; the fingers, ten. But, if you can play finger-work until you are tired, those ten become as one.

“One should not become accustomed to practicing at a fixed time every day. Practicing at a certain hour becomes a fixed habit, and as a result hampers the performer, who should be able to play at any time. Practice at different times in the day instead of at fixed ones, and then the muscles will always be ready to act.

“An artist must be able to play whenever he is called upon. For an artist, and for one who wishes to become an artist, it is, therefore, most important to be indifferent to the time at which he plays, and to accomplish this practice should be done at different hours, and not at set ones. The development of the muscles is important for a pianist ; but without nervous power muscle is of no use. Muscle is the machinery, but the brain and nervous power are the motor. Without this power the muscles lose their elasticity; the nerves control the blood, keeping the muscles elastic. When I am playing I never feel ill. Even when I was injured by falling from my bicycle I could play in concerts when the physician pronounced me unable. Once at Tiflis I played with a high fever on me, but that did not affect my work.

“Everything is possible if one has developed the nervous power of one’s own body.
“I have found rowing at the sea-side and the handling of a heavy boat in getting it into and out of the water excellent for developing the muscles. The same may be said of almost any hard work requiring half an hour.

“Tiring work that makes the muscles stiff is bad, unless the elasticity is gotten back at once. If the muscles are ruined by overexertion, that elasticity is never regained; but the risk is necessary in order that muscular development may be obtained.

“The reason why many young pianists are heard of only to disappear when the time of their full development should have arrived is that they are told that they are great when they are not. I have experienced development, and I know what I am talking about. In those cases where pianists appear only to disappear, precocity has been mistaken for talent. Precocity has its value, but it does not make an artist. The question deciding the matter in such cases is the quality that characterizes the gift. Whether real talent exists alongside of precocity is a matter which a musician, and not the parents, must settle.

“The pianist who is a specialist gets less out of music than the one who is interested in all good coin- posers. In certain professions it is well to be a specialist, but not in music, for music is not so vast a science as some others. The man whose mind is big enough to understand one composer can understand others.

“The necessity that exists for specialization in some branches does not exist in music. A physician may be an oculist, but he must know as well about everything else in medicine. You would not go to a physician who was not a practical one, although he might be able to do one thing better than another.
“In music every player plays one composer best, but that is no reason why he should make a specialty of that composer. The musician who gets the most out of music is the one who plays all composers.
Rubinstein never made any generalization of the interpretation of Chopin during my study with him, for the reason that Chopin is different in every single one of his compositions. You cannot speak of him as appearing in them as the same individual, for in each thing that he has given out he is different.
Schumann is more of a composer who sticks to a certain rhythm; you recognize him for ten miles ahead.
“With Chopin there is a certain nimbus, but he is always different.
“During the two years that I studied with Rubinstein I lived in Berlin, and would go to him wherever he was to play to him. It was not practical to move to the city where the great pianist happened at the time to be living, for more likely than not he would suddenly say: ‘I am sorry, but I feel that I must leave Dresden for Leipzig next week.’ The next week I would simply journey to Leipzig instead of to Dresden. During the interim of a week he would give me a great deal to accomplish: a Beethoven sonata, a larger Chopin work, and other things. I can say it, I think, without vanity, that had I not learned very rapidly it would have taken me a month instead of a week to prepare for those lessons. To play before him was a far more difficult task than to play before the most critical audience. At first his interruptions were constant, but by degrees they became fewer until the last time I played before him, and after he had told me that I was ready to return to the concert-room, I think there was no interruption at all.
“One sad event clouded my reappearance after a retirement of seven years. Rubinstein died on that day. As a tribute to him I had included in my program his ‘Souvenir of Dresden,’ which he had dedicated to me. By an odd coincidence, the composition is of tragic meaning and funereal, although written in polonaise form.”

IT is a relief to work out our ideals. We should not hold to the same ideal too long; each has its day, and should give way to others, born, in fact, from itself.

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