AmblesideOnline AO Parents' Review Articles

The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
About Music Teaching.

by Barbara Davenport.
Volume 14, 1903, pgs. 296-299

When we take into consideration the vast number of children in almost every station of life, who are learning music, and especially how to play the piano, it is astonishing how few of the number ever turn out musicians, in any sense of the word. One hears, on all sides, of children who look forward to being able to "drop music" as one of the advantages of growing up; children to whom the hour given to practising or music lesson is merely so much wearisome annoyance; but to whom, in apparent contradiction, the string band on the end of the pier, or Auntie's song in the drawing-room after dinner, are the magic entrances to a wonderland of undefined happiness. Strange that, to an apparently musical and imaginative child, the learning should be such an effort. Strange, too, that the result is often but poor; so poor, indeed, that among one's many acquaintances who play the piano, the few who can play an accompaniment without spoiling the solo stand out in one's memory, and must be conciliated at all costs if one plays the violin.

All these facts seem to point to some want or mistake in the teaching of music to beginners. Scarcely so much to any special fault, as to a certain failure, amongst teachers, to make music at all interesting to a child's mind. A great many people, however, in these enlightened days, have the very best musicians to teach their children from the beginning, and to these this article does not in any way apply. For a truly good musician can generally manage to interest the child he is teaching; and even if he cannot awaken a great interest, his teaching is so eminently the right teaching, that the knowledge acquired in childhood is there ready for use, if the interest comes later on in life. But it is a very usual thing to see in the advertising columns that a governess is wanted for general knowledge, who must also be "musical," that is, capable of giving the children their music lessons. And the result of this often is that the children will be "so glad to drop music" when they are "grown-up."

Music is, taken in a certain way, a very dull study. It is a dreadful thing for a child to have to sit at the piano for an hour, first trying to get the fingering of its scales right, then stumbling through what is known as a "study" (often an apparently meaningless jingle of notes), and finally going on to the "piece," only to drag through it time after time in the vain hope of getting it "perfect." To a sensitive child, the irritation of playing the same thing over and over again for hours becomes maddening, and the remembrance of the boredom of learning that piece will take away all the pleasure of playing it when at last the notes have been mastered. Now the idea that a child must keep on playing a piece until it is "perfect," is really one of the greatest mistakes in ordinary teaching. It is much better to put it aside after a certain point of correctness has been reached, for a week or two, and go on with something else. On going back to re-study it after the little interval, no one will be more delighted than the child itself to find how much easier it has become. And talking of pieces, by which it is generally meant something rather light and pretty, it is very advisable to select those that have a distinct little melody running through them; something that the child can remember when away from the piano, and hum over or whistle to itself. For one of the most essential points of piano playing is the realisation of melody and accompaniment, a fact that children's pieces seem scarcely to emphasize enough. The teacher should choose alternately pieces in which the left hand takes the melody and the right hand the accompaniment, and vice versa, to get independent action of either hand.

Many children find the greatest difficulty in reading music. This is very much due to the fact that they are kept so long over one piece that they really very seldom see new music. A very good plan to interest children and make them quick readers is to give them a quarter of an hour's reading every day, of every variety of music,—songs, theatre music, hymns,—anything does, so long as it is absolutely new to them, and they never read the same thing twice. A child who is made to do this often becomes greatly interested in spelling out tunes, as it were, and sometimes even gets a habit of trying over the new music it sees about, for its own pleasure.

Here again a great point should be made of allowing the left hand equal chances with the right, and the reading of bass music insisted on.

Above all, children should be taught to remember music. If more attention was paid to the strengthening of memory in childhood, what a lot of trouble it would save in later life! It is a terrible drawback not to be able to remember music, and it is really a most unnecessary one. Some people of course are not so clever at remembering music as others, and it is these people who have started the idea about having "no memory for music." There is really no such thing as not having a memory for music. Music is no harder to remember than anything else. It is only because people do not go the right way to learn by heart, but think that after playing a piece a great number of times their fingers will mechanically play it for them without any thought from their brains. It is owing to this mistaken idea that people so often allow children, after having hammered away at a piece eternally, to sit down and go off into a sort of dream whilst they play it without their notes. Often enough a child gets through its piece all right this way, but woe betide it if nervous or suddenly interrupted!

Now, this is no way of teaching children to remember music. They should be taught to remember a piece line by line, just as they would a piece of poetry; really to have it in their minds, and not to trust to finger memory. A short time every day spent in learning by heart in this way (at first only a few bars at a time) will so strengthen the memory that, before long, the habit of recollecting becomes perfectly simple.

The cultivation of a good ear is perhaps the most important thing in all music, whether pianoforte or any other instrument. A splendid way to cultivate the ear in childhood—a way that is sure to amuse, so strongly does it resemble the magic of a "game,"—is to send the child away from the piano whilst you strike single notes one after the other, making it guess each time what note you are playing. Very soon an intelligent pupil gets used to recognising the different notes; begins to be able to judge distances of tone, semitone, major and minor thirds, and so on; and the exercise of ear becomes the greatest delight.

Among the many bad ways that children are somehow allowed to fall into, there is the very droll one of what they themselves call "playing with expression." Now playing with expression truly is a very very wonderful thing, and hard indeed are the hearts that are not infinitely moved, "attendu," as the French put it, by beautiful music played with beautiful expression. but what children are often allowed to do to make a piece sound expressive is to emphasise notes that are not intended to be emphasised, to put their feet on the pedals, and, alas, leave them there, confusing harmonies and giving the whole piece a blurred effect; and last, but not least, to spread their chords and sound each hand almost separately. All this certainly varies the proceedings, but to a musician it is no longer music. It is chaos, incorrect, inharmonious, and without charm.

Never let a child get into these habits; always insist that the feet are taken off the pedals at the different chords; persuade them that the composer marked all the notes that he wanted emphasised; and insist too that both hands strike the keyboard absolutely simultaneously, and that all the notes in each chord are sounded together.

Technique and expression are almost too nearly allied for a child to distinguish between them. If the melody is singing sweetly, clearly, and sustainedly in one hand, and the other is accompanying firmly, quietly, and in perfect time, let that be enough. In the after years when life has opened out in all directions, and the mind is full of the mystery of human life, and the heart is full of love, and maybe sorrow, then expression will come.

But first must come a love of every detail of the learning; an unwearying devotion; and an honest determination to spare no trouble in the attaining. Did not a great man [Thomas Carlyle] once say that even genius was only "an infinite capacity for taking pains"?

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, December 2008