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The Secret of Public Appearance

[Editor’s Note.—The following is from an interview secured expressly for The Etude and is designed to assist pupils and teachers who are confronted with the perplexing problems leading to public appearance. Coming from one of the reigning virtuosos of the day who is thoroughly familiar with musical educational work in America the article has especial weight. After this season Mme. Bloomfield- Zeisler will tour Europe for several years.]
fannie_bloomfield-zeisler.jpgThe secret of success in the career of a virtuoso is not easily defined. Many elements have to be considered. Given great talent, success is not by any means assured. Many seemingly extraneous qualities must be cultivated; many mistakes must be avoided.
Let me start out with a caution. No greater mistake could possibly be made than to assume that frequent public appearances or extended concert touring in early youth is essential to a great career as a virtuoso. On the contrary, I would say that such a course is positively harmful. The “experience” of frequent playing in public is essential if one would get rid of stage fright, or undue nervousness and would gain that repose and self-confidence without which success is impossible. But such experience should be had only after the attainment of physical and mental maturity. A young boy or girl, though ever so much of a prodigy, if taken on an extensive concert tour, not only becomes unduly self- conscious, conceited, vain and easily satisfied with his or her work, but—and this is the all-important point—runs the risk of undermining his or her health. The precious days of youth should be devoted primarily to the storing up of health without which lasting success is impossible. Nothing is more harmful to sound physical development and mental growth than the strain of extensive tours. It is true that one great virtuoso now before the public played frequently before large audiences as an infant prodigy. But, happily, wise and efficient influences served to check this mad career. The young artist was placed in the hands of a great teacher and given a chance to reach full physical maturity and artistic stature before resuming public appearances. Had it been otherwise, it is a matter of common belief that this great talent would have fizzled out.
By this I do not mean that the pupil should be prevented from playing at recitals in the home city. Playing of this kind gives the pupil confidence and smooths the way for his work as a mature artist. These performances should be rare, except in the case of performances given in the home of the pupil or at the teacher’s home. What I object to is the exploitation on a large scale of the infant prodigy.
One of the real secrets of success in public appearance is thorough preparation. In fact there is no talisman, no secret that one can pass over to another and say, “Here is my secret, go thou and do likewise.” What a valuable secret it would be—the mysterious secret processes of the Krupp Gun Works in Germany would be trifling in comparison. Genuine worth is after all the great essential and thorough preparation leads to genuine worth. For instance, I have long felt that the mental technic that the study of Bach’s inventions and fugues afford could not be supplied by any other means. The peculiar polyphonic character of these works trains the mind to recognize the separate themes so ingeniously and beautifully interwoven and at the same time the fingers receive a kind of discipline which hardly any other study can secure.
The layman can hardly conceive how difficult it is to play at the same time two themes different in character and running in opposite directions. The student fully realizes this difficulty when he finds that it takes years to master it. These separate themes must be individualized; they must be conceived as separate, but their bearing upon the work as a whole must never be overlooked.
The purity of style to be found in Bach, in connection with his marvelous contrapuntal designs, should be expounded to the student at as early an age as his intellectual development will permit. It may take some time to create a taste for Bach, but the teacher will be rewarded with results so substantial and permanent that all the trouble and time will seem well worth while.
There is also a refining influence about which I would like to speak. The practice of Bach seems to fairly grind off the rough edges, and instead of a raw, bungling technic the student acquires a kind of finish from the study of the old master of Eisenach that nothing else can give him.
I do not mean to be understood that the study of Bach, even if it be ever so thorough, suffices in itself to give one a perfect technique. Vastly more is necessary. The student who would fit himself for a concert career must have the advice of a great teacher and must work incessantly and conscientiously under his guidance. I emphasize the study of Bach merely because I find it is not pursued as much as it deserves. That technical finish is of the very essence of success in public appearance, goes without saying. It is not only indispensable for a creditable performance, but the consciousness of possessing it contributes to that confidence of the player without which he cannot hope to make an impression upon his audience.
Speaking about teachers reminds me to put forth this caution: Do not pin your faith to a method. There is good, and alas, some bad in most methods. We hear a great deal these days about the Leschetizsky method. During the five years I was with Leschetizsky, he made it very plain that he had no fixed method in the ordinary sense of the word. Like every good teacher, he studied the individuality of each pupil and taught him accordingly to that individuality. It might almost be said that he had a different method for each pupil, and I have often said that Leschetizsky’s method is to have no fixed method. Of course there are certain preparatory exercises which with slight variations he wants all his pupils to go through. But it is not so much the exercises in themselves as the patience and painful persistence in executing them to which they owe their virtue. Of course, Leschetizsky has his preference for certain works for their great educational value. He has his convictions as to the true interpretation to be given to the various compositions, but those do not form what may properly be called a method. Personally, I am rather skeptical when anybody announces that he teaches any particular method. Leschetizsky, without any particular method, is a great force by virtue of his tremendously interesting personality and his great qualities as an artist. He is himself a never-ending source of inspiration. At 78 he is still a youth, full of vitality and enthusiasm. Some pupil who is diffident but has merit, he will encourage; another he will incite by sarcasm; still another he will scold outright. Practical illustration on the piano, showing “how not to do it,” telling of pertinent stories to elucidate a point, are among the means which he constantly employs to bring out the best that is in his pupils. A good teacher cannot insure success and Leschetizsky has naturally had many pupils who will never become great virtuosos. It was never in the pupils and no matter how great the teacher he cannot create talent that does not exist.
The many books published upon the Leschetizsky system by his assistants have merit, but they by no means constitute a Leschetizsky system. They simply give some very rational preparatory exercise that the assistants give in preparing pupils for the master. Leschetizsky himself laughs when one speaks of his “method” or “system.”
Success in public appearance will never come through any system or method except that which works toward the end of making a mature and genuine artist.
Skill in the arrangement of an artist’s programs has much to do with his success. This matter has two distinct aspects. Firstly, the program must look attractive, and secondly, it must sound well in the rendition. When I say the program must look attractive, I mean that it must contain works which interest concert-goers. It should be neither entirely conventional, nor should it contain novelties exclusively. The classics should be represented, because the large army of students expect to be especially benefited by hearing these performed by a great artist. Novelties must be placed on the program to make it attractive to the maturer habitués of the concert room.
But more important, to my mind, is the other aspect of program making which I have mentioned. There must be contrasts in the character and tonal nature of the compositions played. They must be so grouped that the interest of the hearers will be not only sustained to the end, but will gradually increase. It goes without saying that each composition should have merit and worth as musical literature. But beyond that, there should be variety in the character of the different compositions, the classic, the romantic, and the modern compositions should all be given representation. To play several slow movements or several vivacious movements in succession would tend to tire the listener. Anticlimaxes should be avoided.
It may truly be said that program making is in itself a high art. It is difficult to give advice on this subject by any general statement. Generalizations are too often misleading. I would advise the young artist to carefully study the programs of the most successful artists and to attempt to discover the principle underlying their arrangement.
One thing which should never be forgotten is that the object of a concert is not merely to show off the skill of the performer, but to instruct, entertain and elevate the audience. The bulk of the program should be composed of standard works, but novelties of genuine worth should be given a place on the program.
The player’s personality is of inestimable importance in winning the approval of the public. I do not refer particularly to personal beauty, although it cannot be doubted that a pleasing appearance is helpful in conquering an audience. What I mean is sincerity, individuality, temperament. What we vaguely describe as magnetism is often possessed by players who can lay no particular claim to personal beauty. Some players seem to fairly hypnotize their audiences—yes, hypnotize them. This is not done by practicing any species of black art, or by consciously following any psychological formula, but by the sheer intensity of feeling of the artist at the moment of performance. The great performer in such moments of passion forgets himself entirely. He is in a sort of artistic trance. Technical mastery of the composition being pre-supposed, the artist need not and does not give thought to the matter of playing the notes correctly, but re-creating in himself what he feels to have been the mood of the composer, re-creates the composition itself. It is this kind of playing which establishes an invisible chord, connecting the player’s and the hearers’ hearts, and swayed himself by the feelings of the moment, he sways his audience. He makes the music he draws from the instrument supreme in every soul in the audience; his feeling and passion are contagious and carry the audience away. These are the moments, not only of the greatest triumph, but of the greatest exultation for the artist. He who cannot thus sway audiences will never rise above mediocrity.
To those who are still in the preparatory stage of development I am glad to give one word of advice. Do not play pieces that are away beyond your grasp. This is the greatest fault in our American musical educational systems of to-day. Pupils are permitted to play works that are technically impossible for them to hope to execute without years of preparation. What a huge blunder this is!
The pupil comes to the teacher, let us say, with the Second Hungarian Rhapsody of Liszt. It takes some fortitude for the conscientious teacher to tell the pupil that she should work with the C Major Sonata of Haydn instead. The pupil with a kind of confidence that is, to say the least, dangerous, imagines that the teacher is trying to keep her back, and often goes to another teacher who will gratify her whim.
American girls think that they can do everything. Nothing is beyond them. This is a country of great accomplishment, and they do not realize that in music “Art is long.” The virtuoso comes to a great metropolis and plays a Moskowski concerto of great difficulty. The next day the music stores exhaust their stocks of this work, and a dozen misses, who might with difficulty play a Mendelssohn “Song With Words,” are buried in the avalanche of technical impossibilities that the alluring concerto provides.
Unfortunately, a foreign début seems to be necessary for the artist who would court the favor of the American public. Foreign pianists get engagements long before their managers in America ever hear them. In the present state of affairs, if an American pianist were to have the ability of three Liszts and three Rubinsteins in one person, he could only hope for meagre reward if he did not have a great European reputation behind him.
The condition is absurd and regrettable, but nevertheless true. We have many splendid teachers in America—as fine as there are in the world.
We have in our larger cities musical audiences whose judgment is as discriminating as that of the best European audiences. Many an artist with a great European reputation has come to this country, and failing “to make good” in the judgment of our critics and audiences, went back with his reputation seriously impaired. Nevertheless, as I have stated, the American artist without an European reputation, has no drawing power and therefore does not interest the managers and the piano manufacturers who nowadays have largely supplanted the managers. This being so, I can only advise the American artist to do as others had to do. Go to Europe, give a few concerts in Berlin, London, Vienna or Paris. Let the concert director who arranges your concerts paper the house, but be sure you get a few critics in the audience. Have your criticisms translated, and get them republished in American papers. Then, if you have real merit, you may get a chance.
The interest in music in the United States at the present time is phenomenal. European peoples have no conception of it. Nowhere in the world can such interest be found. Audiences in different parts of the country do not differ very greatly from the standpoint of intelligent appreciation. When we consider the great uncultured masses of peasants in Europe and the conditions of our own farmers, especially in the West, there is no basis of comparison. America is already a musical country, a very musical country. It is only in its failure to properly support native musicians that we are subject to criticism.
To the young man or woman who would learn “The Secret of Public Appearance” I would say:
1. Look deeply into your natural qualifications. Use every morsel of judgment you possess to endeavor to determine whether you are talented or simply “clever” at music. Court the advice of unbiased professional musicians and meditate upon the difficulties leading to a successful career, and do not decide to add one more musician to the world until you are confident of your suitability for the work. Remember that this moment of decision is a very important time and that you may be upon the threshold of a dangerous mistake. Remember that there are thousands of successful and happy teachers for one successful virtuoso.
2. After you have determined to undertake the career of the concert performer let nothing stand in the way of study, except the consideration of your health. Success with a broken-down body and a shattered mind is a worthless conquest. Remember that if you wish a permanent position you must be thoroughly trained in all branches of your art.
3. Avoid charlatanism and the kind of advertisement that will bring you notoriety at the sacrifice of your self-respect and the respect of your best friends. Remember that real worth is, after all, the thing that brings enduring fame.
4. Study the public. Seek to find out what pleases it, but never lower the standards of your art. Read the best literature. Study pictures. Travel. Broaden your mind. Acquire general culture.
5. Be careful of your stage deportment. Endeavor to do nothing at the keyboard that will emphasize any personal eccentricity. Always be sincere and true to your own nature, but within these limits try to make a pleasing impression.
6. Always be your own severest critic. Be not easily satisfied with yourself. Hitch your wagon to a star. Let your standard of perfection be the very highest. Always strive to reach that standard. Never play in public a piece that you have not thoroughly mastered. There is nothing more valuable than public confidence. Once secured, it is the greatest asset an artist can possess.

Fannie Bloomfield-Zeisler, pianist

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