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The First Finger Exercises

Teacher's Round Table
Editor of The Etude:
You have asked me to write what I think about the finger exercises to be given in the beginning of piano study. It is your wish, and it is mine, too, that discussion of the topic may be provoked. I imagine the best way to do this will be to state my own convictions without reference to what I suspect may be the views of anybody else. It is quite true that I do not approve in the least of the method according to which the early study of the piano has, so far as I have seen, commonly proceeded.
Only the other day a friend asked me to take charge of her little daughter's musical education. The little girl hated music, she longed to make a bonfire of the piano, she hated her teacher—she used to add to her devotions on the night preceding lesson day the prayer that in the morning it would rain or snow or hail hard enough to keep her away. It is but a month now since her emancipation, and she looks forward with pleasure to her lesson and spends more or less time at the piano over and above the hour of practice prescribed. She is doing the detested five-finger exercises, but they are now in organic connection with her pieces—the pretty tunes she is learning to play; they help her the sooner and the more perfectly to play them. And these pieces are largely of her own choice; at least her preference is always consulted and respected.
It goes without saying that this indicates what I believe about one aspect of the present topic. A finger exercise pure and simple is an abomination to the child. You may fracture your ribs demonstrating to him the utility of them. It is like telling him that when he is grown up he will be sorry that he has acted thus and so; very well, but if you please he will wait and see, and meantime have the fun! You will command the child's interest when you show him some immediate advantage to be reaped from his effort. If you have his interest the enterprise is safe, just as it is already bankrupt if you have it not.
Now the interest of the music student must be roused in music. It is worse than useless to carry music study on upon any other basis. Taking it for granted then that the young pupil has a genuine interest of some kind in music, I say that the finger exercise must be extracted at that point where the interest is deepest. I am not here talking about hand culture or gymnastics, but about a substitute for the macadamized pages of Schmitt, Plaidy, and the like. Premising, once more, that, as all agree, it is not so much what is done as how it is done that counts, a teacher of any competency can get out of the "Jugend Album" piece, or any other, a little exercise which will serve just as good a technical purpose as those above mentioned, and—what is of the first importance—commend itself to the young player as something of very palpable advantage to him. I am perfectly sure that precisely here is to come one of the most radical changes in current methods of dealing with this business, both at the beginning of study and in all its later stages. But your question has another bearing. It includes this: What are the very first things to be done in the way of exercises for the fingers? I myself use simple gymnastics, away from the piano. At the piano the child's experience must be musical from the very first moment; he plays, therefore, for me, tunes by ear, with one finger (I am no slave to the idea that the piano must be played legato "except as otherwise indicated"). From this point on to the end the pupil never, with my consent, takes to the instrument anything that has not been fully memorized. There must be, especially at first, abundant doing of things that are perfectly easy to do; the knack of handling the keyboard must first be arrived at in a very elementary way, before anything is undertaken which will lead to the slightest confusion in thought and movement.
My way of getting a good position of the hand and fingers is to call attention to the sense of touch in the finger-tips; the effort to feel the keys, to bring the most sensitive spot on the finger-tip in contact with them, invariably results in that pose of the hand which brings the weaker fingers into strong, advantageous relation to the keyboard. It is a device like that of Mr. William Mason, which he says has never failed to bring up the outside of the hand and fortify the fifth finger knuckle.
One thing I use, the principle of which I got from Chopin through a pupil of his, and which I have never seen in the system of other teachers. It is inaudible practice of a set of five-finger exercises by Adolph Kullak, which I have an impression were brought to Boston about 1880 by Mr. Otto Bendix. They are done slowly, with the fingers in uninterrupted contact with the keys. I do not think of them as the very earliest exercises for children, but for rather mature and serious pupils. But when well practiced they surpass everything else I know for bringing the fingers into a fine, responsive obedience. Among other things they particularly promote the rare, almost unknown art of playing pianissimo. But they also stimulate the nerve to so exact discriminating action as to give it unexpected power; economy, skilful use of power is almost the same thing as accession of power.
I want to add one more thing. I used to take the greatest pains to develop in young pupils a very precise pose and action of hand and fingers. I thought I knew just how these ought to be, and I recognized no differences in this respect between one pupil and another. Now, I go at it otherwise, and my chief care is that position and movement should be perfectly unconstrained and natural. I keep a close watch to detect and to root out any violation of freedom or normality, but aside from this I constantly direct my pupil's attention to the effect and away from the mécanisme, which in fact is best when unconscious. At the same time I want the pupil to have a pride in making it look well, "pretty," as Deppe used to say, when, as he said also, it is sure to be good.—E. D. Hale.
[The Editor of The Etude hopes that many teachers will take up the topic discussed by Mr. Hale. Address correspondence to The Etude, 1712 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, Teachers' Round Table. Let us know the results of your experiments in this line.]

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