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The Psychology of Blunders

By Mary G. Martin
From the beginning of history nothing has been less disputed than the fact that offenses are bound to come. It is also true that there is "Woe to him by whom the offense cometh." We may make especial application of that scriptural saying to our own professional work as teachers, for who does not recall the face of some sensitive child; quivering under the impatient correction of an irascible teacher—who knows just enough to detect the fact of error, but not enough to point out its causes or the means leading to correction.
It is a question whether we have a claim to the title of teacher before we have made a reasonably careful study of the ills likely to hinder our pupil's progress as well as of his normal course of development. 'The physician finds pathology as needful as physiology and as interesting, but our sensitive ears will not endure the presence of discord, and we sometimes blame the patients whom we should try to cure. So many serious defects are wholly preventable, so many egregious blunders may be the result of one slight misapprehension that it is almost criminal carelessness on the part of the teacher not to place his own mature powers of thought and analysis completely at the service of the struggling beginner. The pupil does not enter your studio to be blamed for not curing himself, but to receive the benefit of whatever knowledge and skill you may chance to possess.
Many teachers of piano, while having a good understanding of the subject matter of their work, have so vague a conception of the art of instruction and so vast an ignorance of psychology that they would not be tolerated for a month in a well- managed public school. It is small wonder that a discriminating student sometimes holds the piano teacher somewhat in contempt, as he contrasts more manual dexterity with clear thought and logical statement.
Far be it from me to make the charge that the great majority of musicians are narrow and ill- equipped, but it is undeniable that too many teachers such as I have described are still in the profession. Still, no matter how thoughtful and conscientious the training, I suspect that we all have our moments of discouragement when we ask, almost in despair, why our pupils falter and hesitate, work havoc with notes and rhythm, and, after hours of practice, make the same old blunders in the same old way.
It seems to me that one of the most serious difficulties lies in the apparent complexity of the pupil's task. He sees his teacher's facile and brilliant execution and is dazzled by it. Thus the countryman, in a great city for the first time, sees only confusion and feels only bewilderment. Little by little he discovers that all things are moving with system and regularity. He becomes familiar with locations, customs and usages, when he discovers at length that living has grown simpler and easier in the midst of convention than it could be on the prairie or in the forest.
To render the maze less intricate, to direct the wavering eye toward some one clearly defined object, is the first duty of the teacher. To make one simple statement clearly and to see that one simple thing is done accurately is enough at first. As more is added connect it with the simple thing already known or done. No matter how far he may progress, if the training has been sound and substantial, every inch he travels should be on solid ground. No matter how difficult the passage, some one slight thing is the key to the situation. It may be a turn of the wrist; it may be the shifting of a finger; it may be the perception of a harmonic change. Your pupil cannot see it. If you can, you may save him hours of baffling effect. If you cannot, you have no business to take his money.
With one class of pupils the defect seems to be visual. These are usually the children whose progress in reading is slow, who have little memory for form or position. The defect may be purely physical and require only the oculist; it may be physico-mental and disappear with the adenoids which caused it; while on the other hand it may be chiefly moral—the outgrowth of sheer laziness—or wholly mental, a heritage from ancestors too weary for thought. In all such cases give much practice in writing notes and naming them aloud. Let them count the A's or B's in a given score to see if their result agrees with your own; occasionally name notes for them, warning in advance that you will at times make intentional mistakes for them to correct; in short, insist upon their seeing the score as Agassiz's students saw the fish—both as a whole and with cognizance of every detail.
In another class the ear is at fault. Pupils may be rapid and correct readers, and yet, in extreme cases, so little sensitive to sound as to strike F with the left hand and F# with the right—all with the most complete unconcern, provided that they do not literally see their mistake. Under such conditions, train the ear, first of all, to recognize the difference between harmony and discord. In doing this I customarily use at the beginning the harshest dissonances in contrast with the most unmistakable harmonies; later, with this first vantage gained try contrasts not so sharp. Follow by discrimination between major and minor chords. Drill upon the recognition of intervals—at first, the larger, proceeding to the smaller. Where there are several children in a family, the study of absolute pitch may even become a fascinating game, the successful guesser taking his place at the piano and selecting tones for the others to recognize, either blindfolded or with backs turned. The pupil lacking in rhythmic perception seems less hopeful than one in whom only the tonal perceptions are undeveloped, but the remedies lie all about him, from the rhythmic clapping of hands and tapping of pencils to the stirring beat of drums.
In some pupils, correct both of eye and ear, the result almost wholly from a faulty muscular sense— such a one will begin an arpeggio with the air of one
''Who falters, trembling, on the brink And fears to launch away.'
He will regard the playing of a long skip as an unskilled swimmer does a high dive, not with the courage and security necessary to success. He will bungle the passing of the thumb and strike the narrow black keys at a slippery, precarious angle. He will play waltz and nocturne with the same unvarying monotony of awkward touch. It is needless to say that what he requires is gymnastics for the hand. When you see what army discipline does for the bearing of the raw recruit you will realize that such a case is not hopeless. Train both by table and piano exercises until the simpler finger and thumb movements are done with precision and ease; later add work for wrist and arm. Require many variations of speed and force in all your technical training. Insist upon the pupil's observing the amount of hand extension required for the different intervals beginning with the smaller ones, and see that he plays them both with and without the help of the eye. Put especial time and effort on the widely separated ones. The difficulty with arpeggios is often caused by the fact that too prolonged practice of finger exercises and scales has induced a close and contracted position of the hand, making the extension needed in arpeggios an entirely new thing. Introduce arpeggios earlier and precede by the study both of simultaneous and broken chords.
Aside from these physical causes of error, there are numerous mental ones, chief among which we may reckon absence of foresight and lack of concentration. The latter must be conquered from within; the former may be approached from without. For instance, most errors in fingering are quite preventable. The hand is in a certain position—convenient for the present. Presently a total change is necessary, after which the keys will lie under the fingers as naturally as before. Does the average pupil grasp the situation in advance and make one clever dexterous change of base, or does he accomplish the transition by several makeshift movements which merely render the next note accessible? It has been my experience that if you can only get him to look far enough ahead to understand the complete requirements of the new position he can usually tell you both when and how to make the change. To insist upon intelligent foresight is your particular province.
Lack of concentration, however, is often under the student's own control, arising too often simply from a slack-twisted will-fibre. It is the mental laziness which makes a boy prefer whittling a stick on the south side of a building to getting his arithmetic lesson. Personally I have found ten students who were willing to agitate their fingers to one willing to use his mind, although fifty sleepy repetitions of a passage may leave it worse than before, while sixty seconds of observation and reasoning would show both why the mistake was made and how to correct it. While it is doubtless true that we learn to do by doing, it by no means follows that we learn to play the piano correctly by repeatedly playing it incorrectly. When the machinery does not run smoothly, simply stop it, until the cause of friction is discovered and removed. It is not without bearing upon the pupil's mental attitude that he begins his practice with the idea of playing the piano rather than working at music. Even the faultily played entire piece has an attraction for him lacked by the small difficult fragment, which should have his attention. Consequently we hear it over and over again—the taxing phrase always as different from its less exacting neighbors as a slum tenement is from a boulevard palace. With country children, I have never failed to find an effective simile in the improvement of the highway— where sand is not spread evenly over an uneven road, but used to fill up the mud-holes.
The story goes that upon three walls of an Eastern prince's chamber was emblazoned the motto, "Be bold," but on the fourth, "Be not too bold!" Have you heard the playing which goes with surprising dash and bravura in spite of a spray of false notes apparently inseparable from the rushing of the torrent? It will be an effort to check that excess of boldness, but it will be well worth your while. A stream uncontrolled tears away its banks; controlled, it furnishes power for the industries of a city. If neither persuasion nor argument secures a slow, careful work in your absence, it is at least possible to insist upon it in your class-room.
Quite different is the case of the over-cautious one, who proceeds as if fording a dangerous river on stepping-stones. His feet may secure safety, but not music. If his eyes are glued to the last note that he has played, try the simple expedient of covering with a card the measure upon which he is engaged, and note the real, even, though irritated, quickening of the pace. Give many velocity forms, beginning with the very simplest. Try mental suggestion, if necessary, but at all odds secure for him some sense of freedom and power. Play strongly rhythmic music for him. Encourage him to read aloud poems like Macaulay's "Lays of Ancient Rome" and to carry their swing and sweep over into his playing. He will probably prefer an adagio to a rondo—but do not allow the adagio habit to become chronic.
Do not ask anything which he cannot easily perform, but see to it that the last vestige of hesitation disappears before the piece is dropped.
It is sometimes true that progress is retarded by the premature assignment of difficult music to an ambitious student, to his preliminary joy and subsequent grief. Of course, it means either prolonged study or inadequate playing. All depends upon individual temperament whether it result in discouragement, disgust or greatly enlarged technical and interperative powers. If great patience and industry are present, well and good; otherwise, beware, except in the rare case where the possibility of mastering music really great appeals to the imagination of the gifted but indolent student. Such find no more effective sleeping-powders than a succession of pieces entirely within their powers. It is only in the tread-mill and the class-room that we "keep stepping all the time and not going anywhere," to use the small boy's accurate description.
We must not forget, however, that the majority of our students do not fall in this category, and that it may be a little short of cruel to insist upon Gobelin tapestries from girls whose tastes and abilities point in the direction of tumbler doilies. What if one product does belong on dinner-tables and the other on palace walls? The world has many tables and it is worth much not to have them bare of their modest adornments. That the teacher prefers to listen to a certain grade of music has very little to do with the case. That you are fond of oatmeal has no bearing upon your forcing me to eat it. There are many wholesome foods and there is no reason why each food should not have that which meets his taste as well as his necessities. The economical —and unimaginative house-mother may set a monotonous table because luxuries are beyond her reach;: (sic) the frugal Frenchwoman will accomplish wonders with a bit of meat and a handful of sweet herbs. Be content with the skillful use of the simple things within the grasp of all and there will be less complaint that Helen's playing gives no pleasure to her father and brothers.
Of blunders and their psychology there is no end. If, as some one claims, there are no two grass-blades without their individual differences, there are certainly no two human beings whom we may absolutely class together. We must deal with each individual as if he stood alone.

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