Music Education - Musical Talent In Young Children
( Originally Published 1922 )
How then can we satisfy ourselves that a predisposition for music exists?
To speak the truth, I do not believe that there are any absolutely certain and infallible signs ; but there are numerous indications which rarely deceive. And here are a few of them :
The child (I am not speaking of an infant, but of a child of from four to six years, and perhaps older), manifests an evident pleasure in listening to music. He walks up to the piano. He loves to hear singing. He asks not to be sent to bed in the evening when there is music. That is a good sign already.
A child, who allowed to choose between an evening at the circus and a concert of serious music, selects the concert, deserves that this should be noticed ; if he does this again, so much the more reason.
He drums on the table, or upon the window-panes, with a ruler or his fingers, with a clearly-marked rhythm, reproducing the recognizable swing of a waltz or a march,—that is also of good augury.
If he easily retains the simple airs that he has heard sung, children's tunes, popular songs and hymns, and enjoys singing them to himself for his own pleasure,—that is a serious indication. If he really sings them in tune and in time, that is an excel-lent sign, which must be taken into consideration.
If, of his own initiative, without the suggestion of any one, he has the idea of picking out those airs upon the piano with one finger, that is still better ; and if' he should happen to succeed, that is almost conclusive.
One may then proceed to a few little experiments with the object of proving if he possesses those two precious qualities : the sense of the imitation of tones, and the memory of tones, which are not the same thing at all.
One should make him listen, from any instrument whatever, or still better from the voice, to one note first, just one, asking him to sing it,. If he should succeed, then, try another note, but be careful not to exceed the limits of his little voice, so that you may not demand anything beyond his powers, nor confuse, nor trouble him. Then you can make him listen to and repeat two consecutive notes,—a major second and a minor second, third, fourth, or fifth, but always intervals easy to grasp, taking care always to give them sometimes ascending and sometimes descending. If he satisfies these tests, which need not be carried beyond three notes, he certainly possesses the instinctive sense of the imitation of tones, a very precious thing, because it is acquired with great difficulty and thorough study by those who are not naturally gifted with it.
With regard to the memory of tones, one must proceed differently. After having made him listen intently to any note whatever, for example la of the scale, to which you very strongly call his attention, and which you make him sing and repeat, you play for him the scale of C major very slowly, asking him to recognize la as you play it. You can modify the experiment by playing the tones out of their regular order in the scale. You can make it still more difficult and more of a test by talking of something or other, by telling a story, or by clapping your hands, or knocking on the table, making noises which have no musical character whatever, between the moment his attention is called to the note and that when you ask him to recognize it among several others. He who stands this second test, may be truly considered as having a correct ear, and is very probably apt to profit by musical instruction.
It must be well understood that these divers tests, which are easy enough to vary, should always be undertaken in familiar play, and without any solemnity that might produce the intimidating appearance of an examination.
Moreover, if this is not successful one day, there is nothing to prevent one from trying it again a month or a year later, without despairing in the least; for the musical temperament is far from manifesting itself at the same age in every individual, and extreme precocity is not always an indispensable ad-vantage.
I will quote here, however, a very interesting example that I have found in a volume by Camille Saint-Saëns, which will show in what manner the musical sense is revealed during the earliest years among those who are veritably well organized, as well as the proper way a child should be put through the divers experimental tests of which we have just spoken.
" In my childhood, I had a very delicate ear, and people often used to amuse themselves by making me name the note produced by any object that would give out a tone,—candlestick, glass, or sconce. I could always tell the note without any hesitation. When they asked me what note a bell produced, I always replied : ` It does not make one note it makes several.' This seemed to astonish people greatly."
And I wager that this will still greatly astonish many persons, because the multiple resonance of bells, which really do produce several tones—despite the proverb " qui n'entend qu'une cloche n'entend qu'un son "—there is always one tone so strongly prominent that it absorbs the attention to such a degree as to render the others completely unnoticeable. And it was in hearing these that the young Saint-Saëns exhibited a remarkable sagacity, and a truly rare delicacy of hearing.
Saint-Saëns was a prodigy of precocity ; Mozart was another; at the age of four years he already composed little minuets ; Haydn, at five, manifested the pleasure he would have in taking part in a family concert by imitating the playing of the violin by means of a small stick upon a piece of wood. This was less striking, but shortly afterwards, he really played, and with taste, upon a real violin. We might cite several others who became very great artists, but this is far from being a necessary condition; one might almost assert the contrary, that in general the little prodigies, hectic blossoms of a hothouse, do not enjoy long careers. All these unfortunate violinists, pianists, and others, of six and four years, products of unnatural forcing, whom we see some Barnum exhibiting throughout the world, are most frequently destined to become very ordinary musicians, or to disappear early from the artistic horizon, where they have no longer the slightest reason to attract attention.
Beethoven was not an infant prodigy; far from it; it was necessary to beat him in order to make him work at his piano : so says Fétis, to whom I leave the responsibility of this bad treatment. Even if it did succeed so well in his case, there is no reason to make beating a rule for teaching the arts of pleasure.
Rubinstein expresses a very interesting opinion upon this subject : " Most of our great masters were infant prodigies, but the number of great masters is very small in comparison with the great mass of musically-gifted children we admire every year, and who, later, fulfil none of their promises. Ordinarily, musical talent manifests itself in children at the tenderest age; but there comes a time (with boys from fifteen to twenty, and girls from fourteen to seventeen) when this musical talent suffers a crisis, is weakened, or goes to sleep forever ; only those who are capable of passing this Rubicon, become great artists, their number is very limited."