(A Letter addressed to the Father of a Piano Pupil).
It is a pity that you have no sons, for a father takes great delight in his sons; but I agree with you, when you say that, if you had one, you would rather he should break stones than pound the piano. You say you have many friends who rejoice in that paternal felicity, and whose sons, great and small, bright and dull, have been learning the piano for three years or more, and still can do nothing. You are doubtless right; and, further, they never will learn any thing. You ask, Of what use is it to man or boy to be able to stammer through this or that waltz, or polonaise or mazurka, with stiff arms, weak fingers, a stupid face, and lounging figure? What gain is it to art? You say, Is not time worth gold, and yet we are offered lead? And the poor teachers torment themselves and the boys, abuse art and the piano; and at the end of the evening, in despair, torment their own wives, after they have all day long been scolding, cuffing, and lamenting, without success or consolation. You speak the truth. I have had the same experience myself, though not to the same degree, and though I did not bring home to my wife a dreary face, but only a good appetite. But I did not give myself up to lamentation over piano-teaching. I gathered up courage and rose above mere drudgery. I reflected and considered and studied, and tried whether I could not manage better, as I found I could not succeed with the boys; and I have managed better and succeeded better, because I have hit upon a different way, and one more in accordance with nature than that used in the piano schools. I laid down, as the first and most important principle, the necessity for "the formation of a fine touch," just as singing-teachers rely upon the culture of a fine tone, in order to teach singing well. I endeavored, without notes, to make the necessary exercises so interesting that the attention of the pupils always increased; and that they even, after a short time, took great pleasure in a sound, tender, full, singing tone; an acquirement which, unfortunately, even many virtuosos do not possess. In this way, we made an opening at the beginning, not in the middle: we harnessed the horse before the wagon. The pupil now obtained a firm footing, and had something to enjoy, without being tormented at every lesson with dry matters to be learned, the advantage of which was not obvious to him, and the final aim of which he did not perceive. Until a correct touch has been acquired, it is of no use to talk about a fine singing tone. How can we expect to arouse an interest by mere toneless tinkling, while stiff, inflexible fingers are struggling with the notes; while the pupil sees only his inability to do any thing right, and receives nothing but blame from the teacher; while, at the same time, so much is to be kept in mind, and he must be required to observe the time, and to use the right fingers? Poor, stupid children! Later, after teaching the notes, I did not fall into the universal error of selecting pieces which were either too difficult, or such as, though purely musical, were not well adapted to the piano; but I chose short, easy pieces, without prominent difficulties, in the correct and skilful performance of which the pupil might take pleasure. Consequently, they were studied carefully, slowly, willingly, and with interest, which last is a great thing gained; for the pupil rejoiced in the anticipation of success. The struggle over single difficult places destroys all pleasure, palsies talent, creates disgust, and, what is worse, it tends to render uncertain the confirmation of the faculty already partially acquired,—of bringing out a fine legato tone, with loose and quiet fingers and a yielding, movable wrist, without the assistance of the arm.
You suppose that talent is especially wanting, and not merely good teachers; for otherwise, with the zealous pursuit of piano-playing in Saxony, we should produce hundreds who could, at least, play correctly and with facility, if not finely. Here you are mistaken: we have, on the contrary, a great deal of musical talent. There are, also, even in the provincial cities, teachers who are not only musical, but who also possess so much zeal and talent for teaching that many of their pupils are able to play tolerably well. I will add further, that the taste for music is much more cultivated and improved, even in small places, by singing-societies and by public and private concerts, than was formerly the case. We also have much better aids in instruction books, études, and suitable piano pieces; but still we find everywhere "jingling" and "piano-banging," as you express it, and yet no piano-playing.
Let us consider this aspect of the subject a little more closely. In the first place, the proper basis for a firm structure is wanting. The knowledge of the notes cannot afford a proper basis, except in so far as it is of service in the execution of a piece. Of what use are the notes to a singer, if he has no attack, and does not understand the management of the voice? of what use to the piano-learner, if he has no touch, no tone on the piano-forte. Is this to be acquired by playing the notes? But how then is it to be learned?
One thing more. Owing to an over-zeal for education, children are kept in school from seven to ten hours in a day, and then they are required to work and commit to memory in their free hours, when they ought to be enjoying the fresh air. But when are they then to have their piano lessons? After they have escaped from the school-room, and consequently when the children are exhausted and their nerves unstrung. What cruelty! Instead of bread and butter and fresh air, piano lessons! The piano ought to be studied with unimpaired vigor, and with great attention and interest, otherwise no success is to be expected. Besides this, much writing, in itself, makes stiff, inflexible fingers. But when is the child to find time for the necessary practice of the piano lessons? Well, in the evening, after ten o'clock for refreshment, while papa and mamma are in bed! And now, after the school-days are happily over, and the children have possibly retained their red cheeks, then their occupations in life lay claim to their time; or, if they are girls, they are expected to busy themselves with embroidery, knitting, sewing, crochet, making clothes, house-work, tea parties, and alas! with balls; and now, too, comes the time for lovers. Do you imagine that the fingers of pupils sixteen years old can learn mechanical movements as easily as those of children nine years old? In order to satisfy the present demands in any degree, the technique should be settled at sixteen. Under all these circumstances, we find the best teachers become discouraged, and fall into a dull routine, which truly can lead to no success.
In conclusion, I beg you to invite the piano teacher, Mr. Strict, to whom you have confided the instruction of your only daughter, Rosalie, to pay me a visit, and I will give him particular directions for a gradual development in piano-playing, up to Beethoven's op. 109 or Chopin's F minor concerto. But I shall find him too fixed in his own theories, too much of a composer, too conceited and dogmatic, and not sufficiently practical, to be a good teacher, or to exert much influence; and, indeed, he has himself a stiff, restless, clumsy touch, that expends half its efforts in the air. He talks bravely of études, scales, &c.; but the question with regard to these is how they are taught. The so-called practising of exercises, without having previously formed a sure touch, and carefully and skilfully fostering it is not much more useful than playing pieces. But I hear him reply, with proud and learned self-consciousness: "Music, music! Classical, classical! Spirit! Expression! Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn!" That is just the difficulty. Look at his pupils, at his pianists! See how his children are musically stifled, and hear his daughter sing the classical arias composed by himself! However, it is all musical! Farewell.