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Teresa Carreño - Observations in Piano Playing

An Interview Obtained Especially for THE ETUDE by  G. Mark Wilson with the Distinguished Pianist MME. TERESA CARREÑO    
[EDITOR’s NOTE:—Reviews of the interesting life of Teresa Carreño have frequently appeared in THE ETUDE, but we may be excused for reminding our readers of some of the accomplishments which make this famous pianist one of the most significant figures in the history of the music of the new world. When we think of musical history in America it is difficult for us to include that of South America with the musical achievements of North America. We do not realize the fact that cities with comparatively small populations support opera houses finer in many respects than those of European cities twice as large. Among composers and artists of South American origin Carreño easily ranks at the front. Not even the talented Gomez, or the clever Hahn, can approach her. Born at Carracas, December 22, 1853, she was fortunate in coming into the world as a member of a rich and influential family, long connected with important political matters in Venezuela. Later, as a pupil of Gottschalk, Mathias and Rubinstein, she commenced to attract the attention of the whole world of music. For over half a century her fame as an artist has continually grown, until at this time her services are more in public demand than at any time in her career. The world has known but one Carreño. The following interview indicates Mme. Carreño’s successful method of training the mind to observe acutely in connection with the study of the pianoforte.]
world is constantly calling for success and longing for some secret talisman which will bring success. Every one gives a different formula, with different elements, which, with the chemistry of time, is supposed to make that talisman. Let me give you mine. I do not claim that it is infallible, but I believe it to be a good one:
Genuine Talent.
Ambition to Excel.
Strength to Work Hard.
Keen Musical Observation.

Of these elements, keen musical observation has probably received less attention than any other and consequently we shall consider that first.

It is possible for any student to cultivate keen powers of observation but few do so, and still fewer apply these powers to their every day needs. The keen, get-ahead student is the one who profits by his own experiences or by the experiences of others. He is the only one who takes the only known short cut to success. He notes the how and why of things and applies the lessons he has learned to his own practical advantage. He does not pass the pitfalls into which others have fallen without taking good notice of them.
We live in a world filled with wonderful and interesting things but our eyes rarely penetrate below the surface. It is a splendid plan to cultivate our powers of observation so that we may discover new and stimulating vistas every day. I have had occasion to travel over a certain railroad route dozens of times. Yet each trip revealed things to me that I had failed to notice on previous journeys. It may have been a quaint little house set up on a hill-top, it may have been a ruined barn with an old fence leaning up against it, perhaps it was a little stream swollen by a recent rain, or it might have been some clump of foliage colored by the season of the year. When I discovered these new marks I rejoiced within myself, for it was then that I realized that my powers of observation were becoming more and more acute. Strange to say, a friend who traveled with me never seemed to find any additional charm in the fleeting landscape. To her it was the same old thing. It bored her dreadfully. Therein laid the difference between us. She was a bright and thoughtful companion but she had permitted her powers of observation to become dormant.
The same idea applies to my work at the piano. No matter how often I go over a composition I see new charm, new delight, new fascination, new poetry in each repetition. What a glorious opportunity for artistic experiment each practice hour may become. There is no interpretation that can be called a good interpretation if it is fixed and immobile. Machine interpretations may become that, but no matter how hard we try it is quite impossible to play a composition twice exactly the same. There is an enormous area for variation. It is this which gives such infinite charm to hand playing at the keyboard. Every interpretation cannot fail to be influenced by the mood of the player and here again are new opportunities for observation. Some new defect may arise, or better still, some new beauty, and all of these should be carefully noted and unconsciously catalogued by the player. A great accumulation of these impressions or experiences or observations, as you choose to call them, leads to artistic ability. In fact, the pianist’s assets are nothing more. Every student can train himself to observe in this manner and his playing commences to improve the moment he does so.
Observation is, of course, not confined to the observation of one’s own work. At the lesson the student must learn to concentrate his attention so that nothing that has been said by the master has not been comprehended and the significance of his advice observed. While he is playing do not sit idly by and let him play as though he were a kind of piano-playing instrument. Observe him as acutely as though he were the pupil and you were the teacher. Try to divine how he does it—how he gets his effects. You may not have the great arcanum revealed to you at first but by keeping your mind open through prolonged observation it is far more likely to come to you than if you did not observe.

To the average concertgoer the piano recital is simply a delightful means of passing away time, but to the student with trained powers of concentration every recital is a lesson and one of the very best kinds of a lesson. Instead of hearing a conglomerate mass of alluring sounds he hears in every piece played all the attention to accent, dynamics phrasing, etc., which the artist has been working for years to perfect.

Later in his own home the enthusiastic student tries out the various things he has observed. A new way of phrasing involved passages, a new way of bringing out the leading themes by means of some particularly appropriate touch. In fact, you may measure the capacity of your own brain by the acuteness with which you have observed and the manner in which you have been able to apply these observations. A brain with limited capacity can only take in a little.

There is one danger, however, in the slavish adherence to what one observes. That danger is blind imitation. The student who does not employ his stock of observations as an artist would his colors and mould them according to his own judgment, taste and will is making a very serious mistake. Be yourself in all that you do at the keyboard. Feel that there is a thought behind every stroke of your finger. Observation is energy. Practical application is power. Your character, originality and temperament may mould your observations into a great distinctive work of interpretative art. This applies quite as much to new compositions to which you apply yourself as to old works which are frequently played, such as the Chopin Valses, the Mendelssohn Songs without words or the Liszt Rhapsodies.

Teach the child to observe. Do not weaken it by doing all the work for the little pupil. It is the province of the teacher to lead out the child’s musical intelligence, not by forcing rules upon him but by making him do his own thinking. Interrogative teaching is sometimes far better than indicative teaching. Through questions, stories, similes, patiently cause the tender mind to observe. The truth will then come as a revelation—as a discovery. Lead thechild to find out the joy of a new rhythm. In a race the child that wins is the one who runs because of his own initiative—not the one who is continually prodded ahead or the one who goes limping along on unnecessary crutches.

TERESA_CARRENO_AS_A_CHILD_P.jpgSuch a course as I have outlined is especially desirable in teaching the rudiments of music, at which time great patience, intelligent direction and the joy of teaching far outweigh the practice of losing one’s temper over mistakes, no matter how annoying or how numerous the mistakes may be.

Wonders may be worked through the imagination of the child. In teaching a piece every effort should be made to see that something is set going in the little brain that will make the child find a joy in every note. Youth does not take kindly to work unless there is an element of fun in it. Make every lesson a pleasure and you will find the little one working a great deal harder than if it had been made work. I remember a little story I heard once which seems to illustrate this important point very nicely. A fond mother desired her young son to clear the garden of a quantity of stones. After running the whole gamut of excuses from a sore eye to a stubbed toe he finally rebelled entirely. The mother was a tactful woman, however. She saw that something was needed to engage the mind of the boy and she placed a tin can on the fence rail enclosing a vacant lot across the street. She offered him a prize for every time that he could knock down the can five times in succession. In a short time he had cleaned up all the available ammunition in the garden, and was searching for more.

The more observing a teacher is the more effective the product. The teacher should see everything—take nothing for granted. Do not, however, make the mistake of trying to correct all the faults you observe at once. Remember that no person excels in all departments of technic. The best you can do in your observing is to observe the good points and throw them up in strong relief in your teaching. If a pupil fails to secure velocity in scale playing and does nevertheless possess acommendable technique, do not let her leave the lesson with the impression that her scale playing is wholly bad because she has failed to excel in one point. Let her know that you have observed her fine legato playing and that you appreciate it. It is much the same with a piece. Because one measure is bad or one run weak or irregular do not condemn the whole piece. Let the pupil see the promise of better results through her accomplishments in other directions. I do not mean that errors or lack of ability should be completely glossed over, but if a student deserves credit for a certain achievement give it to him freely and ungrudgingly.

The artist soon learns from the audience whether he is in artistic communication with it. He observes various little things which all become a part of his professional capital. It is impossible to outline these things in a talk; the artist must go through the experiences which lead up to them. For instance, he learns by observation of himself and others how to offset that ogre of the auditorium, “stage fright.” Some virtuosi lie down before the concert and relax all the muscles.. They go to the stage limp and tensionless. Others read a book or strive to keep the mind off the coming performance. Another way is to center the mind on the content of the music and forget the audience; but every student and performer finds out the best way by closely regarding his own case. Most of us possess within ourselves the remedies for most of our ills if we only knew it. The main thing is to hold our minds continually alert and open so that we may become acquainted with these marvelous intellectual correctives and learn to apply them every day.

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