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Reasons and Remedies

There is a vast deal of poor piano playing in the musical world of to-day. How shall we account for it? Lack of talent? Incompetent teachers? Yes, these are some of the causes for it; but even with all this it does seem that people might learn to play at least in a pleasing style if no better, and not harrass the ears of the public with meaningless, not to say excruciating, thumping. What are some of the most glaring faults that come to the ears of the discriminating listener?
Lack of Thoughtful Practice.
Few players, upon being questioned, can assign a reason for their mistakes. It is an inevitable sign that they have not practiced thoughtfully. The average pupil is too anxious to play. He plays before he thinks. The fact that a mistake was made and then immediately corrected is evidence that thought was secondary. Had thought been first the mistake would not have occurred.
"Look before you leap; think before you speak," says the old proverb. Musically speaking, this means look, think, then play. Look, that you may see the printed characters; think, that you may make the proper movements of hand, arm, and fingers; and then, when you fully realize what you are to do and how you are to do it, play—and listen.
That there are so many thoughtless players is evidence of the fact that there must be many thoughtless teachers. To teach a pupil to think is one of the most difficult, and, at the same time, one of the most vital problems a teacher has to confront. All pupils make mistakes, and every mistake has its cause. The competent teacher is the one whose insight is keen enough to locate the cause and apply a remedy that will remove it. But he must do more than that. He must train the pupil to criticise and to analyze, himself, every movement he makes and every note he plays.
All careless, sloppy playing results from lack of thought. Pupils so afflicted require a training of the mind, the eye, and the ear. Look, think, and listen must be their watchwords. Place before such a pupil a rather easy composition he is not familiar with, and require him to name orally every note and sign in the first measure before he plays it. Then go on to the second measure, the third, and so on, all this being done with each hand alone. After a phrase, or even a part of a phrase, has been gone over in this style, go back to the beginning and have him play it with both hands together. Such a process is tedious, but it will, in course of time, establish that connection of the mental with the mechanical which pupils of this variety lack.
Teach Pupils How to Practice.
Too many teachers are lax in instructing their pupils how to practice. They are content to map out the course of study and correct the mistakes, and this they call teaching. Meanwhile the pupil flounders about at his home doing all sorts of unnecessary things, wasting many precious moments in thoughtless drudgery, and this he calls practice. Once in a while you will come in contact with a pupil who rises superior to such a training because his musical instinct naturally leads him in the correct path, but the great majority do not.
The experienced teacher knows every sticking point in the compositions he gives his pupils. He knows the reason for pupils' making mistakes at those points and he has, or should have, a remedy, perhaps several, to fit different cases whereby the difficulty can be surmounted and thoroughly conquered. Let the pupil enjoy the benefit of this knowledge. It is here that a teacher shows himself to be a teacher indeed. When he assigns a new piece it should be his duty to give the pupil a bird's- eye view, so to speak, of the work to be done; to point out the difficult passages; and to suggest methods of practice that will lead to their mastery in the easiest manner and in the shortest space of time.
Lack of thoroughness is a reason for much poor piano playing. The present writer finds this a difficult trouble to combat. A professional friend recently, speaking about one of his pupils, said: "Yes; she is talented and what is more she stays with a piece till she gets it. But," he continued, "where you have one of that kind you have ten of the other." It's true and it is questionable whether the pupils are wholly to blame. The system of education now in vogue in many of our public schools is accountable to some extent for this state of affairs. Pupils are rushed through so many studies nowadays that they have not the time thoroughly to comprehend any one of them. And this butterfly manner of taking a sip here and sip there crops out in their music study. They take up a piece and learn to play it tolerably well, and beyond that point it is difficult to carry them. About all the teacher can do is to plead and argue, and insist on review work.
Abuse of the Pedal.
The abuse of the so-called loud pedal is another reason for much poor piano playing. Put down the pedal and blaze away seems to be the motto of many. The idea that the damper pedal is a loud pedal works much evil. Thoughtlessness upon the part of pupils and teachers is the reason for much of this evil. Sometimes it is a habit with the pupil that only sharp reprimanding will correct. Pupils should be forbidden to use the pedals until they can play more or less proficiently, when their use can be explained and a few exercises given, if deemed necessary, demonstrating these explanations. Pupils who have been taught to listen closely to their playing will soon learn the proper use of these mechanical accessories to the instrument.
Now, it appears to the present writer that were these few reasons for poor piano playing successfully removed by the methods suggested, or by other methods, pupils having but a modicum of talent might at least play for us in an acceptable and pleasing manner, and we should all of us, teachers, pupils, and public, be benefited thereby.

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You are reading Reasons and Remedies from the March, 1904 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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