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Raoul Pugno - The Necessity for Daily Practice

Famous French Pianist Composer
[Editor’s Note.—Raoul Pugno, with the possible exception of Saint-Saens, is the most famous French pianist of the last three or four decades. Few of the great French musicians have entered the virtuoso field. Bizet was known as a very fine performer upon the pianoforte, as indeed was Marmontel. Edouard Risler, who has never visited America, ranks among the world’s great performers, but France is singularly lacking in virtuosos of the type of Paderewski, Rubinstein, Liszt or De Pachmann. M. Pugno was born June 23, 1853, at Montrouge, in the department of the Seine. His father, Stéphane Pugno, was a teacher of music and the boy’s musical education commenced at home (according to the following interview) at the age of three. Later he went to the Paris Conservatoire and studied under Ambroise Thomas, Bénoit, Bazin and Georges Mathias. At the age of seven he appeared in Paris as a solo pianist. He won the first piano prize at the conservatory in 1866, the first solfège prize in 1867, the first organ prize in 1869. In 1872 he became organist of the church of Saint Eugene, and held this position until 1892. In 1874 he became chorus- master at the Théâtre Ventadour. He became professor of Harmony at the conservatory in 1892, and of piano in 1896. It may thus be seen that in addition to gaining a worldwide reputation as a pianist he has had a very broad experience in other lines of musical endeavor. His playing of Mozart has been more admired than that of any other pianist, except possibly Carl Reinecke. Pugno has written several light operas, pantomimes, ballets, an oratorio and many songs and pieces for the piano.]
“It has always been my contention that the student should commence the study of the mechanical part of his piano playing as early as possible. My father took me in hand at the age of three and from that time to this day I have been actively engaged in some one of the many problems of pianoforte playing. Perhaps the age of three may be a trifle young for most, but with this extreme youth one finds a superlatively supple condition of the muscles and finger joints. As the little player’s muscles become stronger through judicious practice he still retains that juvenile suppleness that in after life contributes lightness, vivacity and delicacy to his playing. The main difficulty is to measure the right amount of practice for the particular child. The planning of a course of studies is one of the deepest of all problems of music teaching, because one must first be able to diagnose particular cases with clinical accuracy and then have an almost universal grasp of The Etude literature, so that studies may be accurately and intelligently applied to particular needs.
I have often refused to plan our practice schedules. A tailor can not make a suit of clothes that will fit all of his customers, and no practice schedule is so elastic that it will cover all cases. The scheme of making practice schedules is not practical for all cases. If attempted it is likely to defeat its own purpose. Since no two students are exactly alike in disposition, capacity, ability and efficiency it naturally follows that what is difficult to one will be easy to another and vice-versa.
This does not mean, however, that there may not be a prescribed course in scales, arpeggios, octave playing, trills, etc. In fact, there is a certain amount of technical material which the student must virtually devour before any very great advance can be made. The student must understand the purpose of this work and he must be compelled to see clearly the processes by means of which it may best be accomplished. The teacher can leave nothing in doubt. He must convince himself that the pupil understands and comprehends every step before passing to the next step.
All mechanical exercises must be intelligently regulated. In medicine physicians or this day devote an enormous amount of time to the subject of dosage.
The right amount of the dose is not left to chance. It is accurately and scientifically determined. In some such manner the teacher should apportion the amount and kind of the technical material given. For example, if runs are troublesome give more time to scales and arpeggios. If the difficulty is in rapid chord playing then attention should be given to the arm and fore-arm so that the proper muscular conditions are insured. If the hand is small it must be gradually expanded until the desired object is obtained. The main point is that both the teacher and the pupil should be engaged in working intelligently to accomplish some specific technical or interpretative purpose and not blindly following some cut-and-dried rule of procedure. Of course there must be books of studies graded to suit special purposes, but what teacher would think of giving them without making certain changes to fit particular cases?
Regularity in practice is so important that the teacher is often at loss to know how to be sufficiently insistent upon this point. I believe in practice every day. I believe that the time of practice should be left unlimited and wherever possible should be adjusted to suit the special needs of the pupil by the pupil’s enthusiasm. If the teacher has the real teaching zeal his difficulty will be in curbing his pupil rather than inspiring him to do more practice. The teacher must make a close study of the temperament, vitality, powers of concentration and ambitions of those who come to him for lessons in music. His main thought should be to make the amount and kind of practice fit the particular pupil. Nothing is worse than forcing oneself to continue practice with a tired hand, a tired wrist or a tired mind. The teacher should make this clear to the pupil and advise him strongly against overdoing the matter of practice. The teacher should take it for granted that the pupil will practice all he possibly can until the limits of fatigue are reached. If left to the judgment of the pupil good results are bound to come.
Regular daily progress is the reward of regular daily practice when the practice is done sensibly and not overdone. The pupil who practices until his hand is overtired must not be surprised if little “lumps” or “knots” appear on the joints. Often he worries about these and runs to his physician for a cure. The best cure is never to have them. They may be avoided by interrupting the practice with a short recess the moment fatigue is even suspected. If the pupil finds that he is not making progress in his work despite long hours of practice it is also not at all improbable that he may be overtiring his mind or his eyes. Try the occasional recess plan and good results are bound to follow. The little lumps mentioned are generally looked upon as inflammations of a sac containing a viscid fluid interposed between boney prominences and the tendons. The purpose of this sac (or as it is known in anatomy bursa) is to facilitate motion. The sheathes of the tendons are also known as bursae. Enlargements due to inflammations of this kind are not uncommon and may be avoided by preventing fatigue or overstrain. Some have recommended electricity and radiated heat applied by a competent physician as a cure for these protuberances, but the best way is to avoid getting them.
In addition to regular daily practice the student should demand of himself regular daily progress. That is, he should not expect to go ahead by leaps and bounds. He will find that if he attempts such a course he may be obliged to go back and recover much ground that he has passed over too insecurely.
In insuring regular progress, the metronome is of immense value, not so much in the sense of pushing the pupil ahead as in that of keeping him from making unconscious and ill advised spurts of speed.
The rule for regulating the tempo with the metronome is very, very simple and one that all teachers and students should consider carefully. It is simply this. Do not set the metronome one point faster than the speed that will enable you to place your fingers upon the correct piano keys, with the correct hand position, the correct touch, the correct phrasing, the correct pedaling without the least sensation of hurry or uneasiness. If you feel uncomfortable with playing at any speed,— that is if you can not play with perfect repose and security,—set the metronome back a few points. If you are confident of success advance it gradually. Learn to walk before you try to run. Some pupils insist upon staggering ahead over rocky technical paths in a manner that points to absolute ruin. It is far better to wait, and progress in the manner which accompanies all normal growth.
Few pupils have any idea how readily velocity may be secured through the systematic use of the metronome in daily work. The only thing that defeats the attempts of some is over-ambition and lack of the proper patience. One must wait for results but one must work while waiting. Simply take your scales and arpeggios and play them very carefully at a slow metronomic rate, say Quarter-Note=60. Advance the metronomic speed every day or every other day, or if needs be every week, and if your hand conditions are right you may depend upon regular progress in velocity. The same may be accomplished with any composition in which velocity is essential, as for instance the famous Minute Valse of Chopin (Opus 64 No. 1.) The main point is to be able to play the exercise or piece through thoroughly to one’s entire satisfaction and play it through so many times at a given tempo that you feel perfectly comfortable and unrestrained in it before you consent to advance the metronome one point. All the time you must listen intently to the tone, phrasing, dynamics, etc., for if you practice without a purpose, just as though you were filling in time, your practice will be wasted. If the metronome is used as a mechanical regulator like the escapement in a watch or the governor in a steam engine, you in the meantime playing like a machine, of course your playing can be nothing but horribly mechanical.
Your playing will never be mechanical if you use the metronome right. The criticism that the metronome makes for mechanical playing is due to the abuse of the instrument. When used right it insures regularity, of course, and the moment its use is discontinued in playing a piece the performer can not help following his impulses to such an extent that a human or artistic elasticity of interpretation results. It is impossible to bring about stiffness, or artificiality unless the metronome is abused. It corrects many faults if properly used, the worst among them being that common fault of striking a note in one hand before the note designed to accompany it in the other hand has been struck. The pupil should by means of the most careful listening school himself to have both tones in thirds, sixths, etc., sound at exactly the same time. Many are guilty of this who would resent being accused of it. In fact some very experienced players find themselves culpable very greatly to their own surprise. It is a fine thing to examine one’s own playing every now and then and find whether the faults we criticise in others are not present in ourselves.
Evenness in scale playing is greatly to be desired. This means evenness in tone as well as evenness in time. Here again the ear must accustom itself to weighing tonal quantity very minutely. Just as the artist must be able to draw a straight line, without wavering, or without having it uneven in shading so must the pianist possess the ability to draw a straight scale line or a straight arpeggio line. This gives him the power to make his accents properly, to make his crescendos and diminuendos in the right manner. Ragged scale playing is no more or less than an evidence of poor schooling. Even scale playing is not easy to attain but the teacher with ability, patience and enthusiasm, coupled with the power of recognizing weaknesses, as a good medical diagnostician would recognize a pathological change in the course of a disease, should have no great trouble in insuring evenness in playing, unless he permits the pupil to advance too rapidly.
Piano technic, if the word is construed to mean the mechanism of piano playing has reached its height. The compositions that only a few virtuosos dared attempt fifty years ago are now played by hundreds. This simply means that the world of music teaching has found newer, better and more systematic means of insuring progress. However, there is an effort in all branches of art at this day to make technic overrule the aesthetic requirements. Sonority and grace are being sacrificed for agility and great power. The object of music should not be eternally to astonish or to shock. The virtuoso must not turn his heavenly mission into that of a race horse. High mechanical skill is necessary but it is not one hundredth part of the real work which the great artist has to do.
The artist must seek to affect the intellect and the emotions of his audience through an appeal to the intelligence. Astonishment leaves nothing behind it. Anything may astonish,—an extraordinary acrobat or the lion tamer who put’s (sic) his head in Leo’s mouth may thrill much more than the virtuoso thundering away at the Erl King of Liszt or the Saint-Saens Concerto. The artist should elevate the soul, charm the intellect and give rise to nobler and higher feelings.
All of the foregoing points to the fact that every composition an artist plays in public has behind it a long career of careful, painstaking preparation. The artist must grasp the musical understanding of the piece completely and must then reveal it to his audience plus his own artistic refinements and aesthetic ideas. Paderewski has the gift of doing this in an altogether splendid manner. The artist is an alchemist who transforms notes of ink into tones of soul compelling beauty.

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