Music Education - Natural Aptitudes
( Originally Published 1922 )
This very naturally leads me to point out the too frequent fault that, from the point of view of aptitude, consists in regarding the child as a sort of continuation of ourselves, and determining his career in accordance with that which we should like to have embraced and which we regret that we did not follow. Most certainly there exist cases of heredity in artistic disposition as in everything else : from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century we have been enabled to see the tribe of the Bachs peopling Thuringia, Saxony and Franconia with a host of artists of the first order, who, in order to preserve a kind of patriarchal bond among themselves, assembled once a year, some-times at Erfurt, sometimes at Eisenach or Arnstadt, to the number of a hundred or a hundred and fifty. We may cite from antiquity the Hortensius, Curio, and Lysius families, in which the art of oratory was transmitted, even among the women ; Aeschylus, in whose family eight tragic poets are counted ; and nearer our own time, the Vernets, painters, father and son, for three generations; Mozart, whose father played the violin; and Rossini, whose father played the horn,—at fairs !
Certainly we might cite others, but it would be just as easy to find contrary examples of children, entirely destitute of all artistic sentiment, whose father and mother were musicians ; and, inversely, artists of genius whose parents had never manifested the slightest inclination towards music. Moreover, there are a great number of great artists who pursued their musical studies against the will of their family : Berlioz, whose father, a doctor, wanted him to be-come a doctor like himself ; Wagner, of whom his family had decided to make a painter, and who could only give himself up to music to the great distress of his family who did not believe in his vocation ; * Han-del, who was forced to work in secret; and Nicolo, Dalayrac and Chabrier were of this class.
Therefore, we must not make any rules at all; and it is distressing when people say to you : " Oh, if I ever have a son, I will make a musician of him, I should so much have liked to be one myself ! " This most frequently ends (obstinacy entering into it) in imposing upon the poor little creature months and years of work for which he does not feel the slightest attraction, and which is to him a veritable torture. This can even be carried so far as to make him abhor music.
On the other hand, one thing which is of enormous importance in the future development of the intelligence of the child, in the present meaning, is his surroundings during his early childhood, the atmosphere which he breathes and the degree of musical cultivation possessed by those who are continually with him. At the risk of seeming paradoxical, I have no hesitation in saying that a nurse who cannot sing in tune, can spoil his ear forever; and what I advance here is not so very extraordinary, if people will only notice that a child acquires and preserves, sometimes for his whole life, and always for a very long time, the characteristic accent of the country in which he was born, or the persons by whom he was brought up ; and if after many years it happens that he loses it, there will always remain with him a propensity to recover it on the shortest stay in his native country.
" The Romans have taught us, by their application to the study of their language, what we should do to instruct ourselves in our own. With them, the children from the cradle were trained in the purity of language. This was regarded as the first and the most important care, after that of morals. This was particularly recommended to the mothers themselves, the nurses and the servants. They were warned to watch as far as it was possible, lest any vicious expression or pronunciation escape them, for fear that their first impressions might become a second nature to them which would be almost impossible to change afterwards."
What therefore is there astonishing in the fact that the same phenomenon should be produced with regard to musical sounds? The baby who has never heard anybody sing in tune, will not be able to form an idea how to sing himself, so he will begin by singing out of tune ; his ear, still in a state of formation, will become accustomed to and in some measure attuned to that way of singing. Later, he will continue in this way, having no reason to do differently ; and that is how false voices are produced.
" Man's education begins at his birth," said J. J. Rousseau ; " the first habits are the strongest," writes Fénelon. Now, what are the first habits that a child can acquire? To walk badly, or to pronounce badly, since these are the first two things that he learns ; and I add to sing badly, because he amuses himself quite as much with humming as in babbling syllables. Montaigne was of the same opinion, and was even more explicit. This is what he says : " I find that our greatest vices take their bent from our most tender infancy, and our chief government is in the hands of a nurse." I believe that this is sufficiently clear, at least unless one wishes to admit that to sing falsely, or to hear falsely, denotes a defect of conformation.
On this subject, I find a charming anecdote in Gounod's Mémoires and reproduce it textually : " My mother, who was my nurse, certainly made me swallow as much music as milk. She never fed me without singing, and I may say that I took my first lessons unwittingly and without having to pay that attention that is so painful in early years and so difficult to obtain from children. Unconsciously, I had already had a very clear and precise notion of the intonations and the intervals that they represent, of all the first elements that constitute modulation and of the characteristic difference between the major and minor modes, even before I could speak, because one day hearing a street singer (some beggar doubtless), singing a song in the minor, I cried out : ` Mama, why does he sing in do when he is crying?'
" I had therefore a perfectly trained ear, and I could with advantage already have held my place as a pupil in a course of solfeggio, or I could even have been the teacher."
By a strange concordance of ideas, the celebrated Professor Zimmermann who was destined to become the father-in-law of Gounod, frequently used this expression : " It is necessary to inoculate a child with music."
J. J. Rousseau relates that when he was quite little, one of his aunts sang popular songs to him while rocking him asleep; " I am persuaded," he adds, " that I owe to her my taste, or rather my passion, for music, which was not developed in me until long after-wards." f
From all this, we may regard it as settled and sufficiently demonstrated that long before the period when it is proper to undertake musical instruction, properly so-called, it is not a matter of indifference to prepare the soil for this culture by rooting out ill and hurtful weeds, that is to say by removing from the baby all disturbing causes of the sense of hearing, violent noises, trepidations, shrill or discordant voices, and instruments that are too blatant, with the same care that will be employed later in preventing his hearing anything that might develop bad taste.
A father, who cherishes for his daughter, who is still in her cradle (this is a simple supposition), the ambition that she shall shine one day as a dancer at the opera, probably would not be very much surprised if one of his friends should advise him to watch her from her first steps so that she might not have crooked legs. He perhaps might even have thought of it him-self.
At bottom, it is exactly the same thing as that of which we have been talking. The only difference is that the legs are visible, and if they are crooked we can see it at once; while if any deformity is produced in the apparatus of hearing, mysteriously fitted as it is into the skull cavity, nobody can detect it until it is too late to apply any possible remedy. And the harm remains. Later, it is asked why this child hears false, and sings false, while his parents heard and sang so true, and it is often merely because his ear has been brutalized or led ill at an age when it would have been easy to care for it, as is done for the visible organs, the developments of which are easy to follow day by day.
Now, if the ear is defective, it would be better to renounce at once all thought of making music, first because such a one can never be anything but a detestable musician of the lowest order, a musician who is far too numerous, and then because he can never experience any pleasure in it. And since music is ranked among the arts that give delight, it would be simply absurd to undertake the study of it with the half certainty that one would never extract from it the slightest enjoyment, that one would never arrive at anything but pitiful results, in default of the natural taste and the special aptitude that are so necessary, and, finally, that in pursuing a chimerical aim, precious time is lost that might be utilized in a thousand agreeable and profitable ways. Therefore, I hold those parents very guilty, who, simply for the sake of conforming to the present stupid fashion that demands that everybody shall be more or less of a musician, exact such efforts from their children without having assured themselves beforehand that they have at least strong chances of success.