Rectifying A Musical Education
( Originally Published 1922 )
SUGGESTIONS FOR INSTRUMENTALISTS, SINGERS AND COMPOSERS
So far we have only had to consider straightforward guidance of a musical education undertaken normally, and pursued with a precise and clearly defined aim ; side by side with this rational course we have foreseen and admitted irregularities caused by circumstances and by almost inevitable modifications of tastes and aptitudes, though causing, on the whole, deviations of but little importance, slightly prejudicial to the studies as a whole, and merely entailing delays that are more or less to be regretted.
The question that presents itself now is altogether different : it concerns what advantage can be derived from incomplete musical education, ill understood and ill directed at the start, and how it can be rectified, completed, or ameliorated.
Let us say at once that this is the most difficult thing in the world, and that we must not deceive ourselves on this point. We can never hope to derive anything but a relatively modest advantage from studies that have been ill conducted, at least unless they have been pursued only for a very short time. To say or to think otherwise would be the negation of all that we have studied up to this point, and that has shown us the utility of a logical plan in the normal progress of these studies. Save exceptions of extreme rarity, of which we shall speak, however, it must always be remembered that those who have made a false start must suffer the evil consequences and inevitably remain in a state of inferiority ; that a very great amount of tardy and hurried work is not equivalent to work quietly done in its own time; that two mouthfuls at once are not favourable to digestion; that " lost time can never be recovered," and that " There is no advantage in running, it is necessary to start in time."
Let us not bear too heavily, however, upon these demoralizing considerations, but proceed in quest of means by which we can partially remedy this deplorable state of things.
Of course, if it is merely a question of a child that has been badly started, and if this is perceived at the end of one or two months, or even a year or two, the thing is very simple ; we must consider what has been done simply as null and void, try to make him forget it, place him under a serious teacher, and begin again on a new basis.
This is not the question that requires to be studied.
It is the very frequent case of the individual, man or woman, who, having reached the adult age, perceives that his musical education, which he had thought satisfactory, is full of gaps, whether because it was not undertaken in time, or because it has been wrongly directed, or because he himself has not given the necessary attention to it, or because certain circumstances placed obstacles in the way, or because of any other reason whatsoever, regrets that things are as they are, and wants to make up the deficiencies of his previous studies, even at the cost of difficult and bitter toil.
We must not hide from ourselves the fact that this is an extremely difficult thing and one that demands before everything else an energetic and persistent de-termination.
It is enough, however, that there have been manifest examples of success, some of which were even brilliant, to show there is no reason systematically to dissuade those who have the courage and the constancy from again beginning their artistic education.
But here, contrarily to what we have hitherto said, we must distinguish between those who take to music for their simple pleasure and those, on the other hand, who find themselves under the necessity of making their living by the practice of this art.
The latter are indubitably the most interesting, and since the advice that we can offer is not the same for both categories, we will begin with them.
As we cannot dream of making something out of nothing, we will always suppose that there exists a certain basis of knowledge, of ability practically acquired, or, at least, special and well characterized aptitudes. To seek to ameliorate something that does not exist would be sheer folly, and there is no question here of opening the artistic career to those who, recognizing themselves as incapable of practising any other profession, take up this one as a makeshift. Moreover, to tempt them thus would be the worst service that we could render them, and attracting auxiliaries of this kind would be the worst service that we could render to art. No matter how unfinished an artist may be, on account of his defective or insufficient studies, it is rarely that he does not possess some quality, even if it is but slightly developed ; now, it is this quality that must be sought, in order first to cultivate and then to bring it into prominence by surrounding it with others, if there is still time. For the sake of clearness, therefore, we will proceed with types, examining each by itself and endeavouring to discover the particular means, few enough, alas ! that can best serve in this new art of saving the remnants.
The first type that presents itself to the mind, because it is the most frequent one, is that of a person whose sole qualification is that of playing the piano fairly well. (I mean by this that every auxiliary study has been neglected.) One cannot go very far with that. But if, while striving after mechanical perfection, which must certainly not be abandoned, since it is the brightest gem in the crown, we devote only two hours a day to sight-reading, and another to Harmony, for about two years, things will assume quite a different aspect. Thenceforward we may hope to be employed as an accompanist, which, al-though modest enough, sets one foot in the stirrup of the career, and may open many doors later.—The study of reading at sight may perfectly well be carried on in this special case without the aid of a teacher ; to be serious is sufficient. We can take out a reading subscription at a music publisher's, and set ourselves, for example, the task of reading a new score every day, in the manner previously indicated. We must not be afraid to begin with very easy, simple and ingenuous scores, of such old French authors as Monsigny, Dalayrac, Grétry (a Belgian), passing after-wards to Méhul and Gluck. Quite the contrary ; indeed, it would be wise to stick to them for a certain time and then gradually take up more difficult ones, such as Hérold and Auber, before attacking Meyer-beer, Verdi, and finally the modern school.
Concurrently, and in proportion as we feel ourselves capable, we should read works for the piano at sight, the pure classics at first, and then a little of every school, carefully setting aside light and mere showy compositions that are of a nature to hurt the taste. In a case such as the one under consideration, we must possess enough judgment and good sense to repair our own education. In pursuing this study methodically and intelligently, we shall also give ourselves a slight superficial view of the History of Music, and become a good reader at the piano, which, to a certain extent, will supply the place of solfeggio.
Of elementary Theory, we shall learn only what is strictly necessary in order to undertake Harmony : some ideas of the intervals, scales and keys. With regard to Harmony, a teacher is indispensable, even if we intend to restrict ourselves to a simple knowledge of its rules, which can be acquired in eighteen months or two years of work ; but it is probable that once started, we shall not stop there, but will appreciate the necessity of carrying this study to the very end. Here, there would be no great harm done, beyond the last years, and the consequent almost impossibility of becoming a veritable virtuoso, which is very important, since Harmony, being a science as much as an art, can be studied at nearly any age.
Let us now imagine an entirely opposite case : a very good reader, but a bad piano player, which annuls his talent, by preventing it from revealing itself. Hem, naturally, it is the mechanism that must 'be worked for, but the first thing will be completely to suppress reading at sight, for the practice of it can only tend to maintain and develop the faults. In doing this, there need be no fear that the quality of sight-reading will be atrophied : this faculty is never lost ; whether it is natural or acquired, it can be very rapidly recovered even after a cessation of cultivation for several years, unlike most of the other studies. —As for the study of mechanism, it must be resumed very far back, from the very first exercises, and with a scrupulous conscientiousness, devoting to it as many hours a day as patience can bear, and obstinately insisting upon each difficulty that arises before going on to another, and constantly returning to those that seem to have been vanquished. In order to acquire at a late period a certain mechanism, an excellent and curious work is the Rhythm des doights, by Stamaty, who, I believe, was the only teacher of Saint-Saëns, which may suffice for his posthumous glory. We may use many others, but always choosing them among those, which like the above, contain inexhaustible combinations of exercises upon all possible and imaginable difficulties, from the most elementary to the most transcendent. For exercises, keep to those of Cramer and the Gradus of Clementi, having the perseverance to devote to each all the time that is necessary to play it irreproachably, with flexibility and without any difficulty whatever. It is absolutely useless to study pieces : if, however, you must do so, choose them among those that demand qualities of style and interpretation rather than virtuosity ; do not select difficult ones, and then push their study to the highest degree of perfection attainable, just like the studies, upon which it would be wiser to concentrate your efforts entirely. But above all, I insist that there should be no return to reading at sight for a long time, that the desire should not be indulged even for amusement though only for a few pages ; this would be opening the door again to the bad habit and to lose in a few moments the good work of many days.
What we have just said of a pianist who is a very good reader and a very mediocre executant applies naturally, in the works cited here, to every instrumentalist who finds himself in the same condition. A distinction must always be made between an execution that is simply insufficient because it is unskilful, resulting most frequently either from lack of study or studies carelessly performed, and a more profoundly defective execution. The latter is the result of false principles received, which are more deeply rooted the longer and more confidently they have been cultivated. Such are, for the violinist, a wrong holding of the body, the violin and the bow ; for the player of a wind instrument, a bad embouchure; for the pianist, the habit, that certain teachers still commend, of holding the wrists low and the fingers elongated, etc. We are confronted here with veritable vices of execution which must be eradicated. One means that is often successful is to leave the instrument alone and never touch it at all for several months, and upon resuming the studies, give almost exclusive attention to correcting the vicious habits and to carrying the opposite qualities even to exaggeration. For pianists and those who play instruments of strings and bow, one excellent thing, during these months of suspension, is to practice every day some gymnastics for the arms, dumbbells,-the trapeze, and still better, fencing with both hands. From these exercises, the effect of which is to make them forget the old habits up to a certain point, the arms and wrists are strengthened, and the muscles, having become more vigorous and supple, are in a better condition to accommodate themselves to the new and more normal use to which we want to train them; and if any stiffness remains in the joints of the fingers, the sole inconvenience that is to be feared, it will rapidly disappear.
Let us pass on to another frequent case, that of a singer endowed with a good voice (without this, it is useless to concern ourselves with him), who already knows how to use it well, but is ignorant of everything else in music because it was thought quite sufficient to teach him to sing. Sooner or later, there always comes a moment, and let us hope for his own sake that it will come as soon as possible, when he will be sensible of the embarrassment caused by this lack of instruction in musical technique, and will seek for the means of remedying it. Given an age when we will suppose that he already has a voice, not only formed, but trained, the means to be employed for him are exactly contrary to those that suit the child. With the child, we can count upon intuition, instinct, memory and the spirit of imitation, and reasoning has very little to do with the case ; but here it is the reason that stands before everything else ; and, in consequence, the order of studies has to be inverted.—The intelligent pupil should therefore, first of all, without giving up any of his vocal work, set himself to work courageously on the Theory of Music, not in an abridgment, nor in any other book intended for infantile schools, reduced to a kind of catechism by questions and answers in which he would not learn anything, but in a serious and analytical work, of which, moreover, there are many good ones, that contain questions and problems to be solved at the end of a complete account of the principles of music. This is the hardest of all, and cannot be well accomplished without the aid of a teacher; for on the one hand there is no time to lose, and on the other, the question is not one of acquiring superficial or illusory ideas, which amount to almost nothing, but a complete knowledge of Theory as a whole and in its smallest details, that permits no gap to remain in the mind.—The same teacher can, very probably, initiate his pupil at the same time into a summary knowledge of the keyboard, so that without actually being able to play the piano he may help himself in his studies of singing, and not have to be perpetually dependent upon and at the mercy of his accompanist. It is in this way that he will first feel the benefits of his tardy instruction. But he must not stop there; it will now be fitting to devote himself to solfeggio, to reading in every key, to reading at sight melodies with words, etc.; and all those exercises that we have presented as elementary in the case of a study conducted normally and progressively will become for the singer, being given inversely, complementary and perfecting exercises that present no serious difficulties and are very pleasant. He should however keep watch, and his teacher with him, against anything that might be of a nature to displace his voice or fatigue it, which is al-ways easy to avoid either by singing softly or by trans-posing an octave higher or lower those low or high notes that are beyond his compass. Moreover, every singer who really desires to perfect his artistic education, with regard to his ear and his musical intelligence, should eagerly seek every opportunity of taking part in ensembles, or choruses. This is just as useful for him, and he must understand it if he is really artistic at heart, as it is for the instrumentalist to participate in orchestral performances. One cannot truly call oneself a musician without having done this, more or less frequently, but the oftener the better. Not to' squander the voice but to manage it carefully, if it is precious or fragile, is merely legitimate prudence ; but to know how to act as a musician and to be considered as such, taking a part in Duos, Trios, or Quartets and also ensembles is indispensable ; and this is the thing that will always be most appreciated by true artists.—If he intends to be a teacher, he will do well to read very attentively and without prejudice a great number of methods, first the most celebrated ones, and then the others; for even in those which at first sight seem the most insignificant, and even ridiculous, one is often surprised to find a sensible idea or a new procedure which may be employed in some rare case. Notes should be taken of all this, so as to be able, when occasion requires, to turn without hesitation to the work in which one has seen such or such an ingenious exercise, or practical counsel to apply at the proper time. This is the basis of the experience which alone makes real teachers.
A young violinist who, although playing his instrument pretty well, has not the qualities of brio and communicative warmth so necessary to a soloist, or one who although having a very complete talent, loses command of his instrument when he plays in public, can first endeavour to make a specialty of the more sober and at least as elevated class of chamber-music ; and certainly there is nothing derogatory in this. Here, particularly if he begins by playing the second violin, which is less in evidence, he-will have opportunities of getting accustomed to the public and of losing his timidity. If this does not suffice, he can take up the viola, good players of which are rarer and always in great demand. This will not be in the least hurtful to his talents as a violinist, for, as we have already said, the best study for a viola player is to cultivate the violin and the viola simultaneously. From that time, his career will be as follows: viola in the Quartet and Orchestra, and the violin in lessons of accompaniment. For these lessons, it will be useful for him to know thoroughly the entire classic repertory of Sonatas for the Violin and Piano, as also to become familiar with fine contemporary works, not only by working over his part if he has not already acquired this in the course of his studies, but by hearing them played as often as possible by great artists, so as to be able to transmit their spirit and traditions as purely as possible to his pupils.
Another type : a musician who is irresistibly attracted to composition, but who has not been through the necessary studies. This is exactly the case in which Dalayrac found himself. He had felt his vocation from his earliest years, but he was opposed and pre-vented from following it for a long time by his family, particularly his father, who had decided at first to make him a magistrate, and then an officer, systematically suppressing every inclination for musical study, even as an amateur. There is no doubt but that he would have risen infinitely higher without these grievous obstacles, considering his astonishing facility of melodic creation, his exquisite taste, his excellent dramatic instinct and an imagination as varied as abundant. What saved him was his good sense; having reached an age when at last he had the right to direct his life as he pleased, he took his lack of knowledge and erudition into account and knew how to limit himself to works of an amiable, light, gracious and easy style, in which his genius shines not-withstanding all kinds of awkward writing, against which he would have been broken if he had ventured to attempt works of more elevated character and higher flight. In this, he set a noble and good ex-ample, worthy of imitation, but which few are sufficiantly modest to follow. We may remark, in fact, that intuitive composers who lack technical instruction, never forming an exact idea of the difficulties, in their unreflecting ardour are nearly always carried away with the desire to begin with some long work, such as an Opera, or, at least, a Symphony, some work in fact that is absolutely impossible to achieve with-out long preliminary studies. In this they resemble the students who in their desk, between a paper of Mayflies and a box of silkworms, produce a tragedy in five acts and who would never dream of properly balancing a quatrain of cross rhymes. This is the fearless and sympathetic courage of one who is ignorant of danger.
The best advice to give these is to read carefully the very complete (I believe) plan that we have traced of studies that are desirable for the erudition of composers, eliminating from it what seems to them superfluous, or, with greater reason, what they find that they have already studied with some other end in view, and to make choice, according to the degree of their knowledge or ignorance, of the branches in which it is advisable to make their first efforts. To be sure, they must choose branches which are within their reach, and beware of putting the cart before the horse; for example, by studying Orchestration with-out first knowing something about Harmony, to which we often see them singularly inclined, doubtless not understanding that in order to orchestrate something, that something must exist, and be normally built, and that it is in the parts of Harmony or Counterpoint that the embryo of the orchestral designs is found. If they should commit any such indiscretion, it would be disastrous, for it would be simply starting again on a wrong road. Therefore it is a very good thing to commit oneself, if it is possible, to the direction of some musician well instructed in all of these things, a composer or Kapelmeister, who would always be more apt and in a better position than ourselves to judge sanely of our own situation. If circumstances do not permit of consulting one, then act prudently and distrust the- very natural and easily explicable propensity that one always has of going too fast, a dangerous propensity against which one has to struggle energetically, while regarding it as a symptom of excellent augury in itself.—If the student-composer has need of going back to the very sources of technical instruction, of pure theory and notation, it is very probable that he can do this by himself by means of some full and methodical work. But for the study of Harmony or Counterpoint, he will not be able to dispense with a teacher any better because he is already behind, quite the contrary. It is otherwise with all that concerns Instrumentation and the study of forms, for which the reading of strongly written works and special Treatises will suffice for a mind open to ideas of analysis and accustomed to reflection.
During the time that these studies last, the student is not forbidden to compose ; that would be putting his patience to a too severe and useless trial. But he would act wisely in knowing how to limit himself provisionally to productions of restricted length and generally of slight development, in which he can apply his new science in proportion as it grows ; or again, if he is forced by his temperament, throwing off on paper simple sketches and rough draughts, postponing their complete extension and definite form till the day when he will have acquired the necessary talent and skilfulness in writing.
Let us add, however, that it is in Composition that the most unforeseen exceptions may present them-selves ; a veritable vocation, allied with an energetic character and an iron will, can triumph over all obstacles. There are several examples that show that Genius can sometimes divine or invent what it has not learned. Therefore we must never despair and abandon what has once been begun.
Another way of being led astray is to have accomplished all the laborious studies of a composer from beginning to end and to perceive finally that the inspiration is defective, that there is a lack of originality and that all the talent acquired can never end in anything but the production of estimable works, doubtless also honourable and well-written, but with-out the slightest trace of personal genius. Let us say first that the mere fact of realizing this situation of relative impotence, after having devoted many years to an absorbing work and having nursed ourselves with ideas of glory, denotes an extraordinary intelligence and self-knowledge. When one is endowed with such great judgment, one may, while renouncing totally or partially the seductive career dreamed of, see another one opening out before one, which though shining with less splendour, is neither less beautiful nor less worthy of everybody's respect : one can de-vote oneself to teaching, and become a professor of the first order. In the evolution of art, one will play the part of an organ of transmission. All the knowledge acquired, all the materials collected, all the riches of art which one has accumulated in and for oneself, one transmits, refined and amplified by the work of the mind, to a new generation of young artists full of ardour, among whom will be found a few privileged ones, who, more happy, profiting by them, will realize the dream. Unable to be the flower that unfolds in the sunshine, one will be the branch that supports and nourishes flowers and fruits.
The greatest joy of a teacher, when he possesses the real love of teaching, is to see his pupils surpass himself ; it is like that of the happy father of a family who has succeeded in creating for his children a superior position to his own. The pupils are the professor's artistic descendants ; and, although most frequently he reaps nothing but ingratitude, his heart beats and rejoices at the success of each one.—Outside of teaching, or by its side, an erudite and non-producing artist can also assume a very responsible and very often badly-filled post,—that of a critic ; we will even say that he seems made for this. " An excellent critic should be an artist who has much knowledge and taste, without prejudice and without envy," Voltaire has said. Is not this exactly the case with him of whom we are speaking? The knowledge and the sentiment of the beautiful he must have acquired in the course of his studies ; and he has no reason to have prejudices, nor jealousy, as he is not producing himself. Is Voltaire alone in this opinion? It seems not. This is what Villemain thinks: " To be a good critic, one should be capable of being a good author." This is what Proudhon thinks : " The mission of a critic does not imply the obligation to produce masterpieces and discover the truth." This is what La Bruyère thinks : " A critic is not formed until after many years of observation and study." And I could cite many others. What are these observations and studies of which La Bruyère speaks?
If we are only thinking of musical critics, they are exactly the same as those through which the composer-student has had to pass. Here then is a way entirely open. In saying above that this post is often badly filled, I was thinking of those occasional critics, who are not really scarce, and who, by the single fact that they can hold a pen, think they have the right to judge everything and to speak of everything ex cathedra; who would be just as ready to accept literary criticism tomorrow; and, the day after that, of the picture galleries, provided they kept their pen, which is generally a goose-quill. It is to them, and to them alone, that we may apply the famous line of Destouches : " Criticism is easy and art is hard,"
so often attributed to Boileau, doubtless on account of its conciseness and incisive form. For in truth, criticism, as it should always be practised, and as it is practised in our days by those who are masters of it, is not such an easy thing. First of all, it demands a very broad general culture joined to complete technical knowledge of the special subject under treatment: " There are many kinds of ignorance, the worst of all is that of the critics "; it is again Voltaire who says this. It next demands a somewhat large amount of eclecticism, permitting one to choose, select and recognize what there is of good in every system, and to reject nothing on account of a preconceived idea ; broad ideas are necessary. Finally, it demands a literary turn exempt from pedantry, and a certain dose of amenity and indulgence which should attract, if he has a well-constructed mind, him who has good reasons to know the difficulties of art, and which will permit him, when necessary, to coat the too bitter pills with a little sugar. A critic is not a reporter; he is an initiator and a guide, an educator and a professor ; his pupil is the public. This is why the two professions can join forces and mutually complete one another so well.
A pupil who has had the misfortune to lose his time in studying an instrument which is not suitable to his conformation, and upon which he cannot hope to attain the desired skill, can go back to one of those instruments which we have mentioned as capable of being taken up at the adult age, the double-bass, for example, or the brasses. The benefit of the anterior studies will not be entirely lost, and more than once he will be able to turn some of this acquired knowledge to advantage. It is the same with a singer who has lost his voice; if he is a good musician, he can look for an instrument that suits him.
There is no quality so trifling that one cannot de-rive from it, if not a profession of an artistic character, at least a more or less lucrative occupation bordering upon and indirectly allied with art. A good reader, who is something of a harmonist, can make himself useful as a proof-reader for a music-publisher ; even he who can do nothing but write a beautiful manuscript can become a copyist. More-over, he can perfect himself, learn to transpose and correct the careless mistakes in the manuscript of amateurs. There are some who have even succeeded in creating veritable bureaux of copying, with numerous employees, and have built up a good business. Many composers like to have duplicate copies of their work before sending it to press, and keep a regular copyist for this. Rossini had one who wrote a beautiful hand, but who had a mania for adding flats. He called him and said : " Tell me, my friend, why have you again put in this flat? " " I don't know, Master," stammered the other, somewhat disconcerted, " but it seemed sweeter to me that way!!! " Rossini did not get angry; he took up a great eraser and scratched out the flat.
We feel that this chapter might be indefinitely pro-longed by introducing new cases that are much easier to imagine than the numerous examples that present themselves daily, alas ! But what is the use? They would only be variants of the preceding ones, and it would be better for us to occupy ourselves with the amateurs.