Suggestions for Amateurs
( Originally Published 1922 )
All the same types of defective or incomplete preliminary instruction, begun too late or badly directed, that we have passed in review in studying the most proper means that can be employed for some profit to be gained, all these same types, we repeat, are necessarily and still more frequently found among the amateurs. It is very natural that they should be more pronounced with the latter, and with more characteristic faults ; for, originally at least and with rare exceptions, the study of amateurs must have been, by the very logic of things, more neglected. Particularly in the case of young people, they have been forced to give precedence to the principal studies, being justly considered as accessories and luxuries, to be undertaken at odd times, in moments of rest and recreation. Now, unless there is some precocious and extraordinarily pronounced inclination, encouraged and approved by the parents, it is very seldom that a young boy, having to choose between a game of football and a music lesson, will not give the former the preference. My opinion is that he is right. It is a little different with regard to young girls, in whose general education a much larger part is given to what are called " accomplishments," and who have to learn with good will or by force a little music, drawing and dancing. But in the Lycées, Colleges, Convents, and other educational establishments, it is seldom that one can find the necessary time at one's disposal under the existing conditions, and also seldom that well-trained teachers are to be found, or those who have the necessary means of training at their disposal. The so-called accomplishments are therefore drudgery and it is only on holidays that one could indulge in them. And on those days, one would much rather take a walk or visit friends.—This again is a very natural thing. In reality, only the child who is educated by teachers and tutors under the paternal roof, who, if his instinct leads him to it and it is the wish of his parents, can devote himself at an early age to the serious and profitable cultivation of the art of music, and have the necessary guides for this purpose.
This explains the practical state of inferiority in which even the most highly endowed amateurs find themselves, in comparison with professionals of a very ordinary grade. They totter at the base; they lack the elementary instruction, or they have treated it too lightly, attaching no importance to it, except in the cases described above, which require a rare combination of happy circumstances.
It is here also that may be found, putting aside all idea of a career, the veritable line of demarcation between the professional artist and the amateur artist, the line that seemed to us difficult to define clearly at the beginning of the first chapter: the one has to make art his constant preoccupation, since he must live by it; while the other is only bound to it in an intermittent fashion and according to his caprices; whence it results that, intelligence, gifts and all things being equal, the advantage and superiority will remain with the professional.
To return to our subject, from which I have intentionally wandered a little, it is important to consider, and this will now appear clear, that the advice that I have given above, having in mind unfinished artists, who feel the need of improving themselves, cannot be addressed to amateurs who find themselves in the same case unless they would be pleased to treat themselves as rigorously as those who have to seek their means of existence in this art. In my opinion, if they want to continue to cultivate music in the quality of amateurs, they can do better and otherwise.
The amateur instrumentalist seeks only pleasure in art, his own pleasure first and then, by extension, the pleasure that he can give to those around him. Now, unless he possesses a great talent and a complete virtuosity, which puts him outside the category which we are studying here, and, moreover, necessitates a considerable discussion, there does not exist, either for him or for those with whom he is pleased to share his pleasures, any artistic satisfaction comparable to that, or to all those, that may be derived from a veritable skill in reading, I mean here expert reading, intrepid reading, that is frightened by nothing.
For every society man or woman, who already plays the piano fairly well, particularly the women, the men having generally less leisure, this so desirable talent can be obtained much more easily than may be imagined. It is quite sufficient to pursue this with a perseverance pushed to obstinacy, setting aside all other aims. By this means, one may be certain of succeeding, in a greater or less amount of time, in accordance with the degree of individual natural capacity, but success is always infallibly attained, and of this it is well to be thoroughly convinced. As for the means, they are extremely simple, demanding not more than three hours a day of very agreeable work, which however must be regular and uninterrupted; this is an almost indispensable condition of success. First of all, a special arrangement must be made with, I do not say a professor, but simply a young artist who is a good reader, in whose company the student should read at sight every day for two consecutive (important) hours, first four-hands, then on two pianos. This work should be performed even more scrupulously than ever, according to the principles that I have already laid down in detail in the chapter on the Study of Instruments, and of which I will repeat a summary of the principal points : slowly, strictly in time, with the shadings, and never stopping. For each four-hand piece, the first part should be played first and then the second ; this is better than the converse, as it al-lows the melodic memory less chance of coming into play. The repertory for sight-reading should consist principally of classical String Quartets transcribed for four hands, the Symphonies of Haydn and Mozart and later those of Beethoven and Mendelssohn, and, all the classical works of these composers or others written or arranged by them for four hands; collections of classics or modern études for four hands; then pieces of any style and period whatsoever, even entire scores of Operas or Opéras-comiques, transcribed for four hands without the vocal parts (the old Italian and German ones particularly are pro-curable, nowadays such transcriptions are no longer made) ; finally, anything that may be desired, provided that it is good music and that it is not too difficult to be read at sight correctly without any great effort.
After some time at this exercise and still continuing it, it will be indispensable to procure a second piano for the new study that follows : having two scores, vocal and piano, absolutely identical (same edition) of any Opera, we should read at sight the piano part, that is to say the transcription of the orchestral score, on one of the instruments, while on the other piano the artist-tutor plays the vocal parts, which, by the way, is far more difficult than it appears to be, particularly in the ensembles; it is understood that he must play the tenor-part in the real octave, not the notes written. Here the repertory is inexhaustible, as it embraces all the operas of the past, present and future. In the Overtures, Entr'actes or Airs de Ballet, where there are no vocal parts, the tutor must not be idle ; he should double the bass or the principal melodic designs, improvize any part of reinforcement, or beat the time like an orchestral conductor; in fact, preserve in some manner his part of commander. At first, the scores should be selected, naturally, from those that are clearest and easiest, and the greatest care should be taken that the progressive difficulty of them should be perfectly graduated, not letting ourselves be carried away by the temptation to read prematurely more attractive but too difficult works, from which floundering would result.
Of course, when the student is capable of it, these pleasures may be varied ; pieces specially written for two pianos may be even read at sight ; but it must be remembered that they are generally written for virtuosi. For works for two pianos, one should first read the second piano part, and afterwards the first, inversely to what we have said for the pieces for four hands. Reasons for acting otherwise do not exist here, for generally the first piano part contains more difficulties.
As I have already said, four-hand sight-reading should not be abandoned. One of the two consecutive hours may be reserved for the latter, and the other devoted to the reading of two piano scores. The third hour, which should be separated from the others, will be devoted to mechanical work: scales, exercises and studies of medium difficulty, which can even be always the same if desired. It is no less necessary than the two others.
The basis of the system, be it understood, is never to read at sight alone ; to have always a solid support, which never allows the slightest time for stopping or beginning again. It is therefore necessary to choose for these functions of a clockwork pendulum only an artist who is an excellent musician and endowed with an impeccable feeling for rhythm.
By proceeding thus conscientiously and not neglecting the slightest detail, not even the hour of mechanical work, I maintain that any amateur will rapidly become a perfect reader. By rapidly, I mean in a few years.
We must not be astonished nor discouraged if at first progress is slow and almost inappreciable. It is generally thus. On the other hand, when once the gear is well started, progress marches with giant's strides, astonishing even to ourselves.
An excellent auxiliary, be it understood, would be Chamber-Music and the ensemble lesson ; but not at the beginning,—only when a certain sureness has been acquired.
The kind of talent thus acquired, I repeat, is certainly by far the most agreeable of all for an amateur pianist of intelligence. What would be the use of his aiming at high perfection and an irreproachable finish and what great pleasure would he gain from it? On the contrary, the study of sight-reading, so seductive in itself, since it bestows the knowledge of so many things, brings everything within our reach in every class of music, for, outside of the profusion of great and beautiful things inspired by the piano, there does not exist a single masterpiece, so to speak, that has not. been transcribed for it, often indeed in many different ways. Moreover, this is the most sociable species of talent, the one that will always be most appreciated in society, the one that best enables us to make ourselves agreeable to everybody. Still further, and this is an eminently precious thing, it is the one species of talent that is never lost; even after several years of interruption, we shall recover it in-tact, since a few weeks of training at most is demanded to get it all back.
He who has become a brilliant reader by employing the procedure that I have indicated, will find that he has acquired at the same time a good share of the qualities that constitute the best accompanist ; a little custom will do the rest. If it pleases him to add to this the study of transposition, the principles of which may be learned in a few hours, and afterwards require only practice, he will thereby acquire considerable prestige among singers. And if he has a sufficiently perspicacious mind to know how to use his ability as a reader, by keeping abreast with all that appears, with the new opera, and has a good enough memory to retain by heart its principal fragments, and the ballet, if he does all this simply and without pretension, with grace and good humour, he will soon become the favourite of the drawing-rooms where music is held in honour.
In the same order of ideas, every amateur who has some little voice, should, if this voice is true, consider it a duty to cultivate it, not with a view to singing grand arias, which does not always escape ridicule, but to be able on every occasion to take a part without singing out of tune in a vocal ensemble, to read a score at sight in company with a pianist who is a good reader, and all without awkwardness in seeking the notes by picking with one finger in the treble of the piano, but with such ease and certainty that the result is as great a pleasure for himself as for his partner and for an audience of intimate friends. This is a result that is easily attainable by any young girl who has some notions of music, and one that will often find its application.
The amateur who plays any other instrument than the piano should also always set highest the qualities of a reader but less absolutely, because he cannot hope for the same intellectual enjoyments; a score cannot be read on the violin. In compensation, it is just to consider that the effort is infinitely less for him and only exacts a little will and perseverance.
Nevertheless, if he wishes to work seriously and specially at sight-reading, he can procure an accompanist, whose mission will be never to allow him to stop or hesitate, and with whom he will proceed very nearly as we have indicated above for the pianist. But this is not at all indispensable for him. He would do far better to initiate himself into the mysteries of the String-Quartet, in which, after having passed the inevitable trials and liberated himself from the awkwardness that must always be gone through at the beginning, he will find one of the noblest and most delightful pleasures that the cultivation of the art of music can afford.