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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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The First Music Lessons.

By Mrs. J. Spencer Curwen
Volume 1, 1890/91, pg. 607


A music-seller in a country town told me a few days ago that a gentleman (a clever amateur pianist) recently said to him: -- "Mr. ----, my little lad is old enough now to learn the piano, and I should like to teach him, but am at my wit's end as to how to begin. Have you any books that will help me? The child is musically inclined, I think ; he sings, and will stand by the piano and listen while I play to him, and I dread seeing this love for music killed by the drudgery of the first lessons."

To this point comes every parent, sooner or later. You have done your best to create a musical atmosphere in the nursery. You have sung the babies to sleep with quaint folk-song or tender lullaby; you have dandled them, waking, to reel or rondo. Beginning with "Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker's man," they have gone through the baby curriculum of nursery songs to music new and old. You have sent them to the Kindergarten, or, if you lived where that was not possible, you have adopted Kindergarten plans at home; and the action songs, if slightly fatiguing to the elders, were very delightful to the little ones. You have, in fact, done all that you have been told to do, to the end of that your children may be "musical." And they are. They love singing. They are never tired of illustrating musically how "the peasant reaps his barley and corn," or "the cobbler mends a shoe." Their little voices are sweet and well in tune, and their sense of rhythm is perfect. Ethel tries to pick out tunes on the piano, and Jack has announced his determination to "play the 'cello, like father." You begin to think about regular music lessons. Surely these children will take to them like ducks to water, and make rapid progress.

Your friend Mrs. M.'s children have been brought up in the same way, and are equally musical. They are slightly older than yours, and have been learning music for a couple of terms. You inquire. Your friend's face clouds, and she says: "I am a little disappointed about the music. The children do not enjoy the lessons as I expected they would, and I fancy a few tears are shed now and then. Miss Jones says May has too good an ear and will not look at her notes, and time is a difficulty to Horace; yet we used to think that his ear for time was particularly good. But Miss Jones is an excellent teacher, and I suppose it will all come right when they get over the drudgery. It always is drudgery at first, you know.

You feel discouraged. "Too good on ear!" Have we then been mistaken in striving to develop the children's musical ear? We have been rather proud of their quickness in picking up tunes; will that quickness prove a stumbling-block when they begin serious study? And must music always be a drudgery at first? If the first lessons in arithmetic, geography, and even grammar, have been made so interesting and delightful, why should the first piano lessons still be "drudgery," as no doubt they used to be when we were children?

Courage young mothers; you have made no mistake. You have broken up the ground and prepared it for the seed in the best manner possible. A musical ear is a precious gift, and cannot be too highly trained. It is the musician's surest guide, the chief source of his delight, and, rightly used, it must help and not hinder progress. The mistake is not in your preliminary training but in the teaching that follows, in which no appeal is made to the ear to verify a musical fact.

It is true, alas! that in nine cases out of ten the first lessons are still dry and uninteresting but it is by no means necessary that they should be so. Music, if taught on truly educational lines, can be made as interesting to a little child as drawing, or modelling, or any other "lesson" in which he takes delight.

But -- and this is a very big "but" -- the teaching process must be quite different from that which prevailed when we were children -- nay, which still prevails; for instrumental music has only recently been touched by the hand of the educationist, and those of us who have attained to any solid knowledge have done so "more by good luck than good management." We have somehow felt our way to the light, and owe more to our instincts than to our teachers. This history is repeating itself daily. The love of music, when once thoroughly awakened, is hard to kill, even by uninteresting methods; but musical talent is sometimes late in developing, and may be lost altogether if interest in it is not aroused by intelligent and rational teaching.

Many of the difficulties of the little pianist are due to mistakes on the part of the teacher, but some at least arise from mistakes on the parts of the parents, and I would first say a word about these.

The first error is haste. We are in too great a hurry to begin, and we are in far too great a hurry to "get on," i.e., to hear the children play a number of little pieces.

The piano lessons should not be begun before six years old, and for some children seven, or even eight, is better still. The reason is twofold -- mental and physical. If the little fingers are weak and gristly, the inevitable result is playing from the arm, a fault most difficult to cure; and if the little mind is unable to grasp the amount of theoretical knowledge which is absolutely necessary to the intelligent rendering of the very simplest melodies, the result will be mere rote-playing, which, though it may not be utterly valueless, is of no more use as mental training than rote-singing.

And how impatient we are as to results. Few of us realize what a complex subject instrumental music is, and how many faculties it calls into play simultaneously. These faculties should be cultivated separately at first, because in no case (or in very rare cases) do we find them equally balanced. This all-round development takes time, and it is not until the independent powers of eye, ear, and finger begin to work together that we should look for rapid progress; therefore the best teacher may be hindered in her work by the obligation to produce speedy "results" in the shape of tunes, to please the impatient parent.

Fathers are the chief sinners in this respect. Mothers, even the unmusical ones, have a recollection of the musical struggles of their own early childhood, and are not so likely to expect too much; but the average father has not this experience to look back upon. He feels the money going out and he does not hear the tunes coming in, and the whole affair seems to him a commercial failure. Now on purely commercial grounds I would appeal to the fathers, reminding them that "quick returns" are always associated with "small profits," and assuring them that nothing does this apply more aptly than to their children's music lessons. A little story will illustrate what I mean. Some time ago I was staying in a boarding-house at a fashionable watering-place where ladies' schools abound. One of my fellow-lodgers was a mother whose only daughter was a boarder at one of these schools, and she had come there to be near her child for the half-term holiday. Our conversation turning upon schools and lessons, she told me this: --

Her daughter, to her great pleasure, had taken a prize for pianoforte playing, and had come home with flying colors. A visitor calls. The girl is asked to" play something," and she plays a piece -- the piece for which she took her prize -- very nicely indeed. Another visitor; the same request; the same piece. Next day ditto; "until," said the mother, "at the end of a week I became rather tired of hearing this one piece, and asked for something else." "But I can't play anything else, mother; we have not time at school to keep up old pieces, and I have quite forgotten those of last term." "Then learn a new one." "By myself! Oh, I couldn't be sure whether I were doing it right or not!" This girl was sixteen, and had presumably been learning music -- no, learning to play piano -- for about ten years. Any father can make a calculation as to how much money had been invested in the thirty terms of music lessons, the "return" for which was one piece well played, and the probability that the girl (having no independent power whatever) would give up her music when she left the school-room. This is no uncommon case, and it is by no means altogether the fault of the teachers. They will tell you, one and all, that they would fain do more thorough work if they had not to "get up" pieces for the school concerts, which the principle insists upon, "to please the parents." School concerts, like examinations, may be good and helpful, but the multiplication of these is killing culture.

Another error is, taking pains to provide a specially bad piano for the schoolroom. Touch and tone should be cultivated from the very beginning, and how can they be cultivated upon an instrument whose touch and tone have long departed? The rattling keyboard with a worn-out action behind it -- that familiar instrument of torture -- is inexcusable, now-a-days, when a very good little piano of foreign make can be had for a small sum.

But, except for convenience, there is no reason why the children should not have their lessons, and practice too, upon the treasured "drawing room pianos." Their little fingers cannot harm it if they are not allowed to thump or play from the arm. My children were taught when babies to "be kind to the piano which made such pretty music." They have "strummed" freely upon it but never injured it, and as a consequence they are keenly alive to the difference between an instrument with tone and one without.

Another mistake still made by parents and schoolmistresses (in spite of all that educationists have said) is that of supposing that anybody who knows a little music can teach "the rudiments." Enough has been written on this point, but will parents who are not convinced read once more the quotation from Dr. James Martineau in the July number of the Parent's Review (pp 476-7), and try to believe that "of all educational errors, this is the gravest." The elementary teacher need not be a brilliant performer, but her technique, as far as it goes, must be good, and she must, above all, know how to present the necessary musical facts in educational order -- "one fact at a time, and the most necessary fact first." To do this she must know something of educational principles and the "Art of Teaching" ; and as our Musical Colleges do not equip their students with this kind of knowledge, it would be well for mothers to know something about it that they may be able to detect radical errors in teaching and to discern between real and apparent progress.

The most common mistakes in teaching can be traced by observing the most common faults and difficulties of little pianists. There are faults so common that the experienced professor quite expects to find them in every new pupil; faults so common that when he does not find them he is astonished, and asks, "Who taught you?" Some of these are defects of technique, which it is not possible to discuss fully in a paper like the present, but which can all be avoided by good training. Others are difficulties arising partly from want of proper balance of the mental and physical powers; partly, and chiefly, from erroneous first impressions. For the approach to a subject is half the battle, and if the presentation of a fact be not perfectly clear, a false idea is likely to be formed in the child's mind; and this wrong first impression will often stand for years like a cloud between him and the right understanding of this fact and of many others which depend upon it. For instance, which of us does not remember the time when, having learnt with ease the lines and spaces of the treble staff, and played a number of first exercises and tunes, and pretty duets -- all written upon these five lines -- we were shown five lines which looked just like the others (except that they had a different sign at the beginning) and were told that we had a new set of lines to learn. It was no longer E, G, B, D, and F for the lines, and F, A, C, E (which spelt face) for the spaces, but the lines were now G, B, D, F, A, and the spaces wouldn't spell anything at all. Our ideas were upset. A note placed just above the staff had always been G to us, and now it had to be called B, all because of that horrid little sign at the beginning of the staff, which was surely put there for no reason at all but just to puzzle us. And we did not, in our childish way, wonder why these five lines should not have the same names as the other five, which would make it all quite easy.

Again, in the music we saw there was a great gap between the bass and treble staves, and, without consciously reasoning about it, did we not fancy that there must be a similar gap somewhere on the keyboard; and did not a few of us from up to years of discretion before we became aware of the enlightening fact of the great staff?

Yet children are still taught the treble staff first, and alone.

And do we not all know the child whom you cannot puzzle about the lines and spaces (on paper), but who fails to grasp the connection between the staff and the keyboard, who will see F on the fifth line in the treble, and strike F on the first space, or any other F, with perfect equanimity?

Or the child who knows all about the relative value of notes, and rests, and dots, and double dots, and yet does not realise at sight the rhythm of a very simple tune; who can calculate arithmetically the number of notes and rests in a bar or a beat, but is utterly floored in playing a syncopated passage.

We all know the child, too, who is always losing her place, because when she has read the note she is obliged to look down at the key-board to find it.

These little shortcomings -- shall I say this lack of intelligent grasp of the very elements of musical knowledge? -- may be recognised in nine children out of ten; and yet by a different method of approaching the subject, all the difficulties, all the fogginess, can be avoided.

Do we ever stop to think what is the object of all the music lessons which we seem to consider a necessary part of our children's education? Have we any definite aim or do we only set them to learn the pianoforte because "everybody learns it"? And why does everybody learn it? Do we expect that each little child now toiling at five-finger exercises will one day be a Bulow or a Clara Schumann? Surely not; any more than we should (as Mrs. Steinthal says) expect every child who learns drawing to prove a Leighton or a Herkomer. Though there is always a chance of discovering a talent worth cultivating to the highest point, we know that there are nine chances the other way; and if our children develop only an average musical power we are not going to be disappointed about it. But some definite goal we must have, or else we cannot judge whether the methods that are being used are likely to produce the desired results. Our goal need not be brilliant performance, but, if our children's gifts are worth cultivating at all, we should expect them to be appreciative listeners. A person whose executive powers are not great may yet be an intelligent musician, and the keenness of his enjoyment in listening to music will be in direct proportion to his musicianship. Our aim ought to be to produce musicians, and when we have considered what goes to make a musician, we shall have some idea of what the music-lessons ought to be like which are to develop systemically so many different faculties.

A musician's technical powers are developed to a greater or lesser degree.

He is a good reader; can accompany at sight, and transpose.

His studies have included musical form, harmony, counterpoint, composition.

He can see with his ears; i.e., when he hears a piece of music, its notation comes before his mental vision. This naturally includes the power of writing down the music he hears.

He can hear with his eyes; i.e., when he looks at a piece of music he hears it with his mental ear. We have heard of the old German pastor who was found bathed in tears of the score of the Messiah.

"This," you will say, "is a high standard; only the musically gifted can attain to it." Not so. The highest development of these powers may be possible only to those of exceptional talent, but a certain measure of each of them is necessary to anyone who lays claim to musicianship. More than that. To the musically "gifted" many of these powers seem to come by instinct, but in persons of average musical power each and all of them may be cultivated to a very high degree. But every faculty must be trained from the beginning, and not expected to develop "somehow."

Of technical training I shall not say much, because the subject has been well and exhaustively treated by others; * but on one point a word of caution is necessary. Scale-playing is almost invariably begun too soon. To quote from Mr. Beringer, "The student should have acquired complete command over the knuckle joints of the hand by the practice of five-finger studies, and studies with progressive movement of the hand, before he can derive any benefit from the practice of scale passages." Every lesson should begin with a finger exercise.

The sine qua non of reading music is a quick recognition of the written notes. This quick recognition can only come by practice, therefore every lesson should include an exercise in naming the notes without and consideration of time or fingering, and also in writing the notes when struck by the teacher. This "dictation" exercise is the only sure means of avoiding the common fault which I mentioned before -- haziness as to the locality of a note on a keyboard.

But reading means more than this. There must be an unhesitating and instantaneous obedience of the finger to the eye, and the finger must know where to find its note without the eye quitting the music; therefore every lesson should include an exercise on interval, and these exercises should be graded, beginning with seconds.

Reading also means a complete mastery of the notation of Time. The various time-forms travel through the eye to the brain, conveying with them a sense of their rhythm, which is translated by the fingers into sound without a conscious mental effort. To arrive at this point we must begin low down, and every lesson should include an exercise on reading Time apart from Tune, the notes being grouped into various rhythms, beginning with the simplest.

Musical Form sounds a very big subject for a small child, and yet it is the subject all others which give life to the small child's music-lesson.

Ear-training has been entirely neglected by pianoforte teachers, and though ear-tests now form a part of some examinations, their simplicity shows that this is a tentative measure and that the standard at present is low. The ability to write music by ear has been looked upon as a "gift," and it is only now dawning upon the musical profession that the faculty may be cultivated. Perhaps the only logical way of cultivating it may dawn upon them ere long. It is just possible. In its elementary stage ear-training has two departments, and every lesson should include an ear-exercise in Tune and an ear-exercise in Time.

I have left the consideration of this topic till the last, because its initial stage is sight-singing, and this sends me back to a point between the rote-singing of the nursery and the pianoforte lessons. The first regular music-lesson should be those of the singing class. At the risk of being twitted with "nothing like leather," I must strongly advise that when it is possible children should have a year of Tonic Sol-fa (under a properly qualified teacher) before beginning the piano. Here eye and ear are trained while the child is using the simplest of all instruments, his own little voice, and during this period the band can receive its preliminary training by wrist and finger gymnastics apart from the piano.

With regard to the usefulness of Tonic Sol-fa to the instrumentalist, I speak as a staff-notationist whose first experience of beginning the piano with children who were already Sol-faists has been in the teaching of my own children. I have been astonished at the difference which that preliminary training has made in the children's attitude towards music, and the immense help it is to both the teacher and pupil if the teacher can appeal to the knowledge which the child has gained in his singing class. The little Tonic Sol-faist starts with a stock in-trade of real musical knowledge, which he quickly learns to apply to his new study. The training in time alone is of great value to him. He knows what pulse, accent, and measure mean; his "time-names" fit the crochets and quavers as well as the letter-notation, and he has only to learn some new signs which represent facts he already knows. Accustomed to write ear-exercises in the simple letter-notation, he readily learns to write upon the staff in all keys; and later on, scale formation, chords and their inversions, key-relationship, &c., are greatly simplified by being put into Sol-fa language. It is the key to transposition -- a subject which also has its elementary stage, and should be introduced very much earlier than it is. As an illustration of this, I may mention a little incident which occurred a day or two ago. My little girl, aged nine and a-half, had been taught by a playmate the accompaniment of a German folk-song. Hearing a rather prolonged practicing of this ditty, I asked, "What are you trying to do, Mary?" "I am trying how many keys I can put this into, mother." "How are you setting about it?" "Oh, I am sol-faing it."

To those who affect to despise Tonic Sol-fa notation -- of course without enderstanding the method in the least -- I would quote the words of Saint Augustine, "A golden key which does not fit the lock is useless; a wooden key which does, is everything." To which Thring adds "Despise not the wooden key because it is wooden." To which I add again, "Apply the Tonic Sol-fa notation to the highest problems of harmony, and you will call it the golden key, unlocking all the difficulties."

One thing more. You will ask "Is it possible, in the time usually allotted to a music lesson, to attend to so many topics?" I think so. If the child is taught at home, a short lesson of a quarter of an hour daily -- increasing by and by to half an hour -- will produce the best results. Let five minutes be given to finger exercises, taught at first by pattern, and five minutes each to two of the other topics, the lesson being varied from day to day. If there is a visiting teacher, the usual lesson is an hour a week. The constant change from one topic to another prevents the long lesson from being wearisome, and it is a better arrangement than two half-hours. I have divided it thus in my pianoforte method ["The Child Pianist," with Teacher's Guide (J. Curwen & Son). ]:--

Finger exercises . . . . . . . . . 10 minutes
Naming notes . . . . . . . . . 5 "
Writing notes from dictation . . . . . . . . . 5 "
Reading intervals . . . . . . . . . 5 "
Ear Exercise in Time . . . . . . . . . 5 "
Reading Time . . . . . . . . . 5 "
Ear Exercise in Time . . . . . . . . . 5 "
Reading Time and Tune combined 5 "
                                       45 minutes.

Leaving a quarter of an hour for the recreative music, which should come last, as a sugar plum.

If the child has a weekly lesson from a visiting teacher, it is absolutely necessary that either mother of governess should be present, and should superintend a short daily practice, giving five minutes to finger work, and taking the other topics in rotation day by day. I know several children who are being taught very successfully on this plan; the music lessons being a pleasure both to teacher and pupils, and the results a delight to the parents.



Typed by River B., March, 2016