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Piano and Song

CHAPTER XII.

THOUGHTS ON PIANO-PLAYING.

My daughters play the music of all the principal composers, and also the best salon music. Limited views of any kind are injurious to art. It is as great a mistake to play only Beethoven's music as to play none of it, or to play either classical or salon music solely. If a teacher confines himself to the study of the first, a good technique, a tolerably sound style of playing, intelligence, and knowledge are generally sufficient to produce an interpretation in most respects satisfactory. The music usually compensates for a style which may be, according to circumstances, either dry, cold, too monotonous or too strongly shaded, and even for an indifferent or careless touch. Interest in the composition frequently diverts the attention of even the best player from a thoroughly correct and delicate mode of execution, and from the effort to enhance the beauty of the composition, and to increase its appreciation with the hearer. In the performance of classical music, inspiration—that is, the revelation of an [145]artistic nature and not empty affectation—can be expected only from an artist, and not from a pupil. Therefore, with more advanced pupils, I take up in my lessons, in connection with a sonata by Beethoven, a nocturne or waltz by Chopin, and a piece by St. Heller or Schulhoff, Henselt, C. Meyer, &c. Elegance and polish, a certain coquetry, nicety, delicacy, and fine shading cannot be perfected in the study of a sonata by Beethoven; for which, however, the latter pieces present much greater opportunities. Besides this, variety is much more sustaining to the learner; it excites his interest; he does not so soon become weary, and is guarded from carelessness; his artistic knowledge is increased, and he is agreeably surprised to find himself able to perform three pieces so distinct in character.


"Expression cannot be taught, it must come of itself." But when are we to look for it? When the stiff fingers are fifty or sixty years old, and the expression is imprisoned in them, so that nothing is ever to be heard of it? This is a wide-spread delusion. Let us look at a few of those to whom expression has come of itself. X. plays skilfully and correctly, but his expression continues [146]crude, cold, monotonous; he shows too pedantic a solicitude about mechanical execution and strict time; he never ventures on a pp., uses too little shading in piano, and plays the forte too heavily, and without regard to the instrument; his crescendi and diminuendi are inappropriate, often coarse and brought in at unsuitable places; and—his ritardandi! they are tedious indeed! "But Miss Z. plays differently and more finely." Truly, she plays differently; but is it more finely? Do you like this gentle violet blue, this sickly paleness, these rouged falsehoods, at the expense of all integrity of character? this sweet, embellished, languishing style, this rubato and dismembering of the musical phrases, this want of time, and this sentimental trash? They both have talent, but their expression was allowed to be developed of itself. They both would have been very good players; but now they have lost all taste for the ideal, which manifests itself in the domain of truth, beauty, and simplicity. If pupils are left to themselves, they imitate the improper and erroneous easily and skilfully; the right and suitable with difficulty, and certainly unskilfully. Even the little fellow who can hardly speak learns to use naughty, abusive words more quickly and [147]easily than fine, noble expressions. What school-master has not been surprised at this facility, and what good old aunt has not laughed at it? But you say, "It is not right to force the feelings of others!" That is quite unnecessary; but it is possible to rouse the feelings of others, to guide and educate them, without prejudicing their individuality of feeling, and without restraining or disturbing them, unless they are on the wrong path. Who has not listened to performers and singers who were otherwise musical, but whose sentiment was either ridiculous or lamentable?


It is generally acknowledged that, among other things, I have succeeded more or less with all my scholars in the attainment of a fine touch. People desire to obtain from me the requisite exercises for the development of this; but not much can be gained from these. The important thing is how and when they are to be used; and that most careful attention shall be paid in the selection of other études and pieces, in order that nothing shall be played which shall endanger the confirmation of the correct touch already acquired, or shall undo what has been accomplished in the lessons. As I have said before, it does not depend upon much [148]practising, but upon correct practising; and that the pupils shall not be allowed to fall into errors. I am constantly asked, "How many hours a day do your daughters practise?" If the number of hours spent in practising gives the measure of the standing of a virtuoso, then my daughters are among the most insignificant, or in fact should not belong to the order at all.

This is the place for me to explain myself more fully with regard to playing with a loose wrist, in order that I shall not be misunderstood. The tones which are produced with a loose wrist are always more tender and more attractive, have a fuller sound, and permit more delicate shading than the sharp tones, without body, which are thrown or fired off or tapped out with unendurable rigidity by the aid of the arm and fore-arm. A superior technique can with few exceptions be more quickly and favorably acquired in this way than when the elbows are required to contribute their power. I do not, however, censure the performance of many virtuosos, who execute rapid octave passages with a stiff wrist; they often do it with great precision, in the most rapid tempo, forcibly and effectively. It must, after all, depend upon individual peculiarities whether the pupil can learn better and more quickly [149]to play such passages thus or with a loose wrist. The present style of bravoura playing for virtuosos cannot dispense with facility in octave passages; it is a necessary part of it.

I will now consider the use of loose and independent fingers, in playing generally; i.e., in that of more advanced pupils who have already acquired the necessary elementary knowledge. The fingers must be set upon the keys with a certain decision, firmness, quickness, and vigor, and must obtain a command over the key-board; otherwise, the result is only a tame, colorless, uncertain, immature style of playing, in which no fine portamento, no poignant staccato, or sprightly accentuation can be produced. Every thoughtful teacher, striving for the best result, must, however, take care that this shall only be acquired gradually, and must teach it with a constant regard to individual peculiarities, and not at the expense of beauty of performance, and of a tender, agreeable touch.


It is a mortifying fact for many critics, artists, composers, and teachers, that the general public show much more correct judgment and appreciation of a fine, noble piano performance, and of a simple, pure, well-taught style of singing, and also understand [150]the characteristics of the performer, much more quickly than they do. The sensibility and appreciation of beauty with the public is less prejudiced, less spurious, more receptive, and more artless. Its perceptions are not disturbed by theories, by a desire to criticise, and many other secondary matters. The public do not take a biassed or stilted view. The admiration for Jenny Lind is a striking proof of this, as is also the appreciation of many piano-players.


The age of progress announces, in piano-playing also, "a higher beauty" than has hitherto existed. Now, I demand of all the defenders of this new style, wherein is this superior beauty supposed to consist? It is useless to talk, in a vague way, about a beauty which no one can explain. I have listened to the playing—no, the thrumming and stamping—of many of these champions of the modern style of beauty; and I have come to the conclusion, according to my way of reasoning, that it ought to be called a higher,—quite different, inverted beauty,—a deformed beauty, repugnant to the sensibilities of all mankind. But our gifted "age of the future" protests against such cold conservatism. The period of piano fury which I have lived [151]to see, and which I have just described, was the introduction to this new essay, only a feeble attempt, and a preliminary to this piano future. Should this senseless raging and storming upon the piano, where not one idea can be intelligently expressed in a half-hour, this abhorrent and rude treatment of a grand concert piano, combined with frightful misuse of both pedals, which puts the hearer into agonies of horror and spasms of terror, ever be regarded as any thing but a return to barbarism, devoid of feeling and reason? This is to be called music! music of the future! the beauty of the future style! Truly, for this style of music, the ears must be differently constructed, the feelings must be differently constituted, and a different nervous system must be created! For this again we shall need surgeons, who lie in wait in the background with the throat improvers. What a new and grand field of operations lies open to them! Our age produces monsters, who are insensible to the plainest truths, and who fill humanity with horror. Political excesses have hardly ceased, when still greater ones must be repeated in the world of music. But comfort yourselves, my readers: these isolated instances of madness, these last convulsions of musical insanity, with however much arrogance they [152]may be proclaimed, will not take the world by storm. The time will come when no audience, not even eager possessors of complimentary tickets, but only a few needy hirelings, will venture to endure such concert performances of "the future."


I ought to express myself more fully with regard to expression in piano-playing. It is difficult to perform this task, at least in writing; for it can more easily be practically explained to individual learners. Intelligent teachers, who are inclined to understand my meaning, will find abundant material, as well as all necessary explanations, in the preceding chapters; and I will merely say that a teacher who is endowed with the qualities which I have designated as "the three trifles" will seek to excite the same in his pupils; will refine and cultivate them, according to his ability, with disinterestedness, with energy, and with perseverance; and truth and beauty will everywhere be the result. Thus he will remain in the present, where there is so much remaining to be accomplished. These three trifles certainly do not have their root in folly, want of talent, and hare-brained madness; therefore the possessors of the latter must look to the "future," and proclaim a "higher," that is, an "inverted beauty."

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Rules for Piano Pupils.

You must never begin to learn a second piece until you have entirely conquered the first.

You ought to fix your eyes very carefully on the notes, and not to trust to memory; otherwise, you will never learn to play at sight.

In order to avoid the habit of false fingering, you should not play any piece which is not marked for the proper fingers.

You should learn to play chords and skipping notes, without looking at the keys, as this interferes with a prompt reading of the notes.

You must learn to count nicely in playing, in order always to keep strict time.

To use for once the language of the times, which boldly proclaims, "Such things as these belong to a stand-point which we have already reached," I wish that the musicians of "the future" may as happily reach their "stand-point," not by hollow phrases and flourishes, and the threshing of empty straws, but by practical, successful efforts, and striving for that which is better.


"What is the value of your method, in the instruction of pupils who have for years played [154]many pieces from notes, but have played them badly, and whom we are called upon to lead into a better way of playing?"

A reply to this frequent inquiry can be found in my first chapter. Above all things, let the notes which have already been played be laid aside for a long time; for a mistaken style of playing these has become so confirmed that to improve them is hopeless, and the tottering edifice must fall to the ground. First, improve the touch; help to acquire a better and more connected scale; teach the formation of different cadences on the dominant and sub-dominant; and the construction of various passages on the chord of the diminished seventh, to be played with correct, even, and quiet fingering, legato and staccato, piano, and forte; pay strict attention to the use of loose fingers and a loose wrist; and allow no inattentive playing. You may soon take up, with these studies, some entirely unfamiliar piece of music, suited to the capacity of the pupil. It is not possible or desirable to attempt to make a sudden and thorough change with such pupils, even if they should show the best intentions and docility. You should select a light, easy piece of salon music, but of a nature well adapted to the piano, which shall not be wearisome to the pupil, and in the improved [155]performance of which he will take pleasure. But, if you still find that he falls into the old, faulty manner of playing, and that the recently acquired technique, which has not yet become habitual, is endangered by it, lay this too aside, and take instead some appropriate étude, or perhaps a little prelude by Bach. If, in the place of these, you choose for instruction a ponderous sonata, in which the music would distract the attention of the pupil from the improved technique, you give up the most important aim of your instruction, and occupy yourself with secondary matters; you will censure and instruct in vain, and will never attain success. You must consider, reflect, and give your mind to the peculiar needs of the pupil, and you must teach in accordance with the laws of psychology. You will succeed after a while, but precipitation, compulsion, and disputes are useless. The improvement of a soprano voice, ruined by over-screaming, requires prudence, patience, calmness, and modesty, and a character of a high type generally. It is also a very thankless task, and success is rare; while on the piano a fair result may always be accomplished.


I return once more to the subject so frequently [156]discussed, that I may try to relieve the universal difficulty of our lady pianists. I have heard much playing of late, in parties both small and large, on well-tuned and on ill-tuned pianos, on those with which the performer was familiar, and on those to which she was unaccustomed; from the timid and the self-possessed; from ladies of various ages, possessed of more or of less talent, and in various cities: the result was always the same.

We hear from the ladies that they could play their pieces at home before their parents or their teachers; but this is never sufficient to enable them to save their hearers from weariness, anxiety, and all sorts of embarrassment. My honored ladies, you play over and over again two mazourkas, two waltzes, two nocturnes, and the Funeral March of Chopin, the Mazourka and other pieces by Schulhoff, the Trill-Etude, and the Tremolo by Carl Meyer, &c.: "it makes no difference to you which." You might be able to master these pieces pretty well, but, instead of this, you yourselves are mastered. You become embarrassed, and your hearers still more so: the affair ends with apologies on both sides, with equivocal compliments, with encouragement to continue in the same course, with acknowledgment of fine hands for the piano, [157]with uneasy, forced congratulations to the parents and teacher; but it is always a happy moment when the fatal soirée is over. The next day I am forced to sigh again over the same, miserable, poorly and tediously performed Funeral March of Chopin, and over the timorous B major Mazourka by Schulhoff. The left hand is always left in the lurch in the difficult, skipping basses of this piece, and in others of the present style, which are rich in harmony and modulations. The bass part in this piece is apt to suffer from timid and false tones; frequently the fundamental tone is omitted, or the little finger remains resting upon it, instead of giving the eighth note with a crisp, elastic, and sprightly touch, and the chords are tame and incomplete. You do not give them their full value; you leave them too quickly, because you are afraid of not striking the next low note quickly enough; but, on the other hand, you do not strike it at all, and one missing tone brings another one after it. The right hand, being the most skilful, is supposed to play with expression, and really does so; but this only makes the performance the worse. The fundamental tone is wanting, and you are led to make a mistake in the skip, and strike the wrong key. Finally, the whole thing is ended in terror. [158]I have an uneasy night; I dream of your fine hands, but the false and the weak notes start up between like strange spectres or will o' the wisps, and I wake with the headache, instead of with pleasant memories.

Allow me to give you a piece of advice. Play and practise the bass part a great deal and very often, first slowly, then quicker, during one or two weeks, before playing the right hand with it, in order that you may give your whole attention to playing the bass correctly, delicately, and surely. Even when you can get through the mazourka tolerably well, you must not think, on that account, that you will be able to play it in company, under trying circumstances. You ought to be able to play the piece by yourself with ease, very frequently, perfectly, and distinctly, and in very rapid tempo, before you trust yourself to perform it even slowly in company. At least, practise the more difficult passages for the right hand very frequently, particularly the difficult and bold conclusion, that it may not strike the hearer as rough, weak, tame, or hurried. It is an old rule, "If you begin well and end well, all is well." You ought to practise the skipping bass over and over again by itself, otherwise it will not go. An incorrect [159]or deficient bass, without depth of tone and without accentuation, ruins every thing, even the good temper of the hearer. One thing more: you know very well Chopin's Nocturne in E flat, and have played it, among other things, for the last four weeks. Suddenly you are called upon to play in company. You choose this Nocturne because you have played it nearly every day for four weeks. But alas! the piano fiends have come to confuse you! You strike a false bass note, and at the modulation the weak little finger touches too feebly: bah! the fundamental tone is wanting. You are frightened, and grow still more so; your musical aunt is frightened also; the blood rushes to your teacher's face, and I mutter to myself, "C'est toujours la même." The present style of skipping basses requires a great deal of practice and perfect security; it is necessary for you to know the piece by heart, in order to give your whole attention to the left hand. It is also essential that you shall have acquired a clear, sound touch; otherwise, you cannot give a delicate accent and shading. You must never allow yourself, without previous preparation, to play those pieces of music in company, in which an elegant mode of execution is all-important; otherwise, you will be taken by surprise [160]by unexpected difficulties. You must always pay special attention to the fundamental tones, even if there should be imperfections elsewhere. Where one fault is less important than another, of two evils choose the least. You have been playing now for six or eight years: are you repaid for the trouble, if it only enables you to prepare embarrassments for others? You are not willing to play easy, insignificant pieces; and such pieces as you choose require industry, earnestness, and perseverance.


Young ladies, it is easy to discover the character of a person from his manner of standing, walking, moving, and speaking, from the way he bows, puts on and takes off his hat, or the arrangements of the household; and we seldom are in error about it. It is also possible to infer beforehand how you will play and what sort of a performance you will give, from the manner in which you take your seat at the piano. You sidle up to the piano lazily, bent over in a constrained manner; in your embarrassment, you place yourself before the one-lined or two-lined c, instead of before f; you sit unsteadily, either too high or too low, only half on the seat, leaning either too much to the right [161]or to the left; in a word, as if you did not belong to the fatal music-stool. Your manner awakens no confidence, and in this way announces that you have none yourself. How do you expect to exercise control over a grand seven octave piano, if you do not sit exactly in the middle, with the body erect and the feet on the two pedals? You are not willing to look the friend straight in the face, with whom you are to carry on a friendly, confidential discourse! Even if your attitude and bearing were not so injurious and dangerous for the performer as it is, still propriety and good sense would require that you should excite the confidence of your hearers in you and in your playing by a correct position of the body, and by a certain decision and resolution, and should prepare him to form a good opinion of you.

There are, indeed, many virtuosos who think they give evidence of genius, by throwing themselves on to the music-stool in a slovenly, lounging manner, and try to show in this way their superiority to a painstaking performance, and to make up by a showy nonchalance for what is wanting in their playing. You are, however, a stranger to such assertion of superior genius, and to such an expression of intensity of feeling; you do it only [162]from embarrassment, and from a modest want of confidence in your own powers, which is quite unnecessary. Our great masters, such as Field, Hummel, Moscheles, Mendelssohn, and others, had no taste for such improprieties, for such manifestations of genius. They applied themselves to their task with earnest devotion, and with respect for the public.


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