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Mme. Ernestine Schumann-Heink - The Mother's Part in the Child's Musical Training

The Mother’s Part in the Child’s Musical Training

By Mme. Ernestine Schumann-Heink

[Editor’s Note.—It is not generally known that Mme. Schumann-Heink’s father was a Czech and that her mother was an Italian. Her interest in the participation of America in the great world war entirely apart from her residence and citizenship in this country since 1904 is a natural one. She has given her services unreservedly to almost every patriotic cause where she has been called. She has sung in camps for the boys from ocean to ocean, and has been obliged to live down all manner of ridiculous and false allegations as to her loyalty.]

schumann-heink.jpgIt has been my good fortune to traverse my beloved adopted land innumerable times from coast to coast and I have met countless American children and American mothers. As I think of their bright and happy faces, their American eagerness to do the best in all things, it seems a little presumptuous upon my part to affect an attitude of giving advice. True, I am pretty much of a mother, if the size of my family is considered. With all the hardships that come with motherhood, I still feel strongly that there is a reward which the large family brings to the right kind of mother that nothing else can possibly give.

The position of the busy concert singer is often unfortunate, as there is very little time to give to the details of the home. Strange to say, some of my children showed no great musical inclination. In such cases I did not force them to study. Now, I regard this as a mistake, as it seems to me that many children will not study unless they have very strong inducements. If the inducements can be made delightful—and if the pupil responds to delightful inducements, all well and good—but if the pupil shows the least possible chance of musical ability and fails to respond to favorable conditions, the trouble is probably downright laziness and this demand’s copious doses of the old-fashioned household remedy that does not come in bottles.

I am sure that many American mothers will agree with me that what some term lack of musical ability, or lack of musical inclination, is nothing but pure indolence, mixed with juvenile “cussedness.” Oh, the Michiavellian diplomacy that some children will resort to in order to avoid a few minutes practice! The average child will think of more excuses for evading practice than all the politicians of Europe have trumped up for the starting of the European war when it is perfectly plain to everybody that the real reason was the light to maintain militarism.

In my own experience, the great blunder comes when the mother makes the first concession to the child. Children have an uncanny sense of reading the mother’s mind. The mother does not have to speak: the bond is so close between the child and the mother that it has often seemed to me that all the mother has to do is to think and the child gets the meaning. If the little one has the least idea that there is a chance to evade practice, then it is “all up.” The child will use that chance as a lever until the practice period is over.

The ideal is, of course, to make the practice period so pleasant that the child will want to practice. That is the ideal. With some children it works and with others it is a flat failure. Of the brightest children, many are often the most indolent. Gain the child’s enthusiasm—his love interest if you possibly can, but if you can not, severe discipline may be necessary. Never mind what people write in books. I would not give one hour of practical experience that I have had with my children all about me for a whole library of books upon bringing up children, written by some anaemic spinster who hadn’t strength enough to give a rebellious boy a good spanking, even if she realized that he needed it. To reason with a boy, at some stages of his moral and spiritual upbringing, is about as useful as to reason with a machine gun in the hands of an enemy. The only thing to do is to administer a good spanking and administer it so quickly and effectively that the boy will have something to guide his future thoughts upon respecting his parents’ advice and judgment. Of course, this does not apply to those few angels who never seem to need discipline—but one does not spank angels. One of the reasons why some musicians have a good technic is that their mothers have had a better technic with a slipper.

Don’t Spoil Initiative

Please don’t imagine that I am of the opinion that the American child should be punished because it does not practice, and punished in such a way that its initiative is spoiled. Unjust punishment is worse than none at all. It is not in keeping with the spirit of the American child to let unjust punishments repress him and repress him until all the ambition and life is taken out of him. Some countries that boast of their severe discipline in music study have so squeezed out all of the natural talent of many of their brightest students that only the husks remain. Thorough training is one thing and severe training is another. If the mothers of America were to make the practice hours of their pupils disagreeable through nagging, they must not be surprised if the pupils lose interest. The trouble is more likely to be that American mothers will be over-indulgent. The pupil has a sonata and calls for a piece of cheap ragtime. Mother is soft and when the teacher comes the sonata is ill-prepared and the ragtime bungled. Nothing is accomplished. It seems to me that if there is one thing upon which the mother must insist, it is that the pupil do the real work at the keyboard, or with the voice, or with the violin before there is any of the nonsense or fooling that all children seem inclined to do. I know American children—they all like dessert. Let them have the dessert first and they lose their appetites for the wholesome fare which makes strong bones and muscles and red cheeks. Mothers, beware!

Musical Mothers

In the cases of most of the masters it will be found that a strong and ofttimes repressed musical ambition in the mother finds life in the career of the son. What the mother was unable to do, the sons have done, to the everlasting gratification of the mother. In many notable cases mothers have been the teasers of their sons and daughters. Grieg, Gounod, Mendelssohn, Busoni, Max Bruch and others are shining examples.

On the whole, however, it does not seem to be a good plan for the mother to attempt to teach her own child. There are some notable exceptions but there are very few mothers who have the regularity and persistence to carry out a course of study covering several years. If the mother simply applies her persuasive powers to the coöperation with a good teacher she is doing all that she should do.

I remember the notable case of Cosima Wagner and her son, Siegfried Wagner. The boy was first intended to be an architect. He showed some ability in that direction, but after the death of Richard Wagner, Cosima conceived the need for a conductor from the Wagner family. Accordingly she placed the son under Humperdinck, Richter and others, with the result that after two years of very hard labor he became one of the finest Wagnerian conductors in the world—as good as the best—and all due to his mother’s insatiable ambition. If it had not been for Cosima, Siegfried would still be only a famous architect. Here was a case where forcing proved successful. He is a wonder as an architect. That’s what makes him the grandest stage director in scenery and electric light effects. He is an artist.

American Families and Music

There is not the least doubt that American families pay more attention to music than the families of any other country. Strangely enough they do not realize this. In no other country of the world could I possibly have reaped such splendid rewards as in America. Do you wonder that I am grateful to it—that I paid a small fortune of 37,000 marks in 1904 to be released from my German contracts in order that I might make America my home; that I took out naturalization papers years ago? My father, as is not generally known, was a Czech (I was born in Prague), and my mother was an Italian. I have lived in most of the civilized countries of the world and when I say that the interest in music in the American family is greater than that to be found in any other country in the world, it is not an idle statement. America is the great art field of the twentieth century. There is no question about it. European nations discover a few crude Americans and then take the measure of our artistic stature. They forget about the millions and millions of peasants in Europe whose musical and art interest is of the most primitive kind. Taken as a whole, Americans hear far more good music during the year than do the other countries of the world. The number of pianos and talking machines in American homes in proportion to those of Europe is infinitely greater. Liberty of thought and action, and initiative plus opportunity has given America the lead in these matters. American ideals and principles are for the most part very unselfish, inspiring and exalting. Do you wonder that I am proud that four of my boys are fighting for Uncle Sam? And I am ready to give my life for our Country and our U. S. A. noble, great Army, Navy, Aviator Boys, our Boys!


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