A large and varied experience is required for a correct estimate of musical talent in the young. Do not be deceived by the early evidences of talent; for instance, interest in melodies, correct feeling for time, an instinct for accenting the important notes, inclination for some peculiar though often perverted style of performance, quick apprehension, a natural aptitude for playing, a nice hearing, animation, rapid progress, docility, superficial gayety; even if all or a part of these traits are observable in early youth, they must not excite too sanguine hopes. I have often met with such phenomena, and have been called upon to educate such little piano prodigies. They advanced quite rapidly, and understood every thing readily, if I did not make too much demand upon their wavering attention. I dreamed of the extraordinary surprises that these marvellous youths would create at twelve or fourteen years of age; but the fulfilment of my ideal I saw only in my mind's eye, for just then the improvement came to a sudden stand-still,—a fatal moment, when the teacher is perplexed to know what to do next. The musical nature seemed to have exhausted itself, to have out-lived itself. The pupil even felt this: his interest in the piano and in music generally grew feeble, his playing suddenly became careless, powerless, spiritless; he played with evident indifference. Out into the fresh air! into open natural scenes! Now for a journey! I allowed a long vacation to intervene; the pupil was quite contented, and had no desire for the piano, or, if so, only jingled a little. At last we began again, but we spent our time without much result; he was nevertheless still musical, but he finally ranked at best with dozens of other players, and ended as an ordinary piano teacher. Similar halts in progress occur in fact with all pupils, especially with female scholars; but they are not usually so lasting, so discouraging, or so significant of exhaustion. They are surmounted, after a short interval, by the discontinuance of serious musical studies; perhaps by reading at sight for a while; by occupying the pupil for a time with the theory, or with attempts at composition or improvisation; by allowing him to listen to other players better or worse; by giving him interesting books to read; by making him acquainted with Beethoven, or in other ways.
From our observation of such sudden changes, and of the frequent occurrence of unskilful management, we can explain the sudden appearance and equally sudden disappearance of innumerable infant prodigies in our age, who have excited hopes, and have almost all of them been lost, or have passed out of sight, and resulted in nothing of value.
I have always preferred a gradual, even a slow development, step by step, which often made no apparent progress, but which still proceeded with a certain constancy, and with deliberation, and which was combined with dreamy sensibility and a musical instinct, requiring slow awakening, and even with a certain flightiness, one for which the patient labor and perseverance of six years or more was required, and where childishness allowed no encouragement to sordid speculations for the future. In such cases, when my instructions were not disturbed by untoward circumstances, the result has always been a desirable one. But how much patience and perseverance has this required! I have reflected much and have often spoken, both seriously and playfully, of the slow advancement of my pupils. Allow me here to describe five phases or stages of human development.
First Stage. In the first two or three years, man is far behind the animal, whose quick instinct distinguishes the good from the bad, the useful from the injurious. The child, without hesitation, rolls off the table, or knocks his brains out, or destroys himself with poisonous herbs or arsenic. Nevertheless, let him at that age hear plenty of pure sounds, music, singing, &c. He will soon learn to listen, like the little black poodle. He already has a dim suspicion that other things exist which are not evil, besides mamma, papa, the nurse, the doll, and the sound of words.
Second Stage. From the fourth to the seventh year, instinct is developed; which, in the animal, surprises the observer in the first two weeks of life. Now we should begin with the technique, at least with the correct movement of the fingers upon the table. The child should be told that he shall soon produce the pleasant tones, which he has been accustomed to hear from infancy; but that for this a quick and quiet movement of the fingers is necessary, which must be acquired by daily practice. This is entirely in accordance with nature, for man is appointed to learn. Let the child lay his hand upon the table, and knock upon it with the first finger (i.e., the thumb) stretched out, without using the muscles of the arm, then with the second, third, and fourth fingers, in an almost perpendicular position, and with the fifth finger extended. Then let him strike a third with the first and third fingers together; a fourth, with the first and fourth fingers; first with the right hand, then with the left hand, and afterwards with both together, &c.
Third Stage. From the seventh to the twelfth year. At this stage unruliness makes its appearance, and at the same time—the notes; but not Beethoven. That would indeed be an unfortunate musical indulgence. Violent outbreaks of untamed strength; unexpected freaks; alternations of rude instinct and quick intelligence, of lofty fancy and artless simplicity; disobedience; much appetite, &c.,—all these must be shaped, and made subservient to the object we have in view. Do you understand me, gentlemen?
Fourth Stage. Excellent parents, who desire to see the ripe fruits of your care and labor, have patience! First there comes the foreshadowing of manhood,—a very interesting period. The youth steps out of the animal into the human kingdom, and often is unable to forget his earlier condition, but revels in sweet remembrance of it. Try now, gently and timidly, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, and the like. This extraordinary being, "one-fourth animal and three-fourths human," requires to be awakened, excited, and to have the imagination aroused; and, above all, requires the most careful guidance. It is necessary to stir and agitate the nature, in order that reflection, conscience, the sensibilities of the soul, feeling, creative power, and all inward conditions shall be developed; and that out of this chaos shall be brought a clear and beautiful order.
Fifth Stage. The adult man in his eighteenth year. The year, however, varies with individuals, and can be modified at will. If I should enter into details of the four earlier stages of humanity, and treat in addition of the adult man, I should be obliged to write a philosophical work on the subject, and that might not be entertaining. I should be obliged to beg your indulgence for a tedious book, and my daughters certainly would not thank me for it; they are very sensitive. But I must, nevertheless, secretly whisper in your ear that "my daughters, like the daughters of many others, have been carried through these five stages in the most careful and thorough manner." I ought to know that best. Here you have the answer to many strange questions.
I warn pianists, and others also, in playing:
1. Against any showy and unsuitable display. Why should you wish to attract attention, and to create an effect by foppishness and all sorts of grimaces, or by curious and marvellous exhibitions of virtuoso-ship? You have only to play musically and beautifully, and to deport yourselves with modesty and propriety. Direct your whole attention to the business in hand,—that is, to your performance; and endeavor to secure for it the interest of the public, who are so easily rendered inattentive. We want no more public performances from eccentric geniuses.
2. Do not devote yourself exclusively to pieces calculated to show the skill of the performer. Why desire always to show off your power in octave passages, your trills, your facility in skips, your unprecedented stretches, or other fantastic feats? You only produce weariness, satiety, and disgust, or, at least, you make yourselves ridiculous.
3. Play good music in a musical and rational manner. The public are tired of hearing Potpourris, made up of odds and ends, tedious Etudes, Rhapsodies, Fantasias without fancy, dismal monotonies and endless, cheap, silly cadences that mean nothing. Learn to understand the age, and the world in which you live.
4. Do not make yourselves ridiculous by new inventions in piano-playing. I mention, for example, one of the most foolish affectations of modern times. You try to quiver on a note, just as violin and 'cello players are unfortunately too much inclined to do. Do not expose yourselves to the derision of every apprentice in piano manufacture. Have you no understanding of the construction of the piano? You have played upon it, or have, some of you, stormed upon it, for the last ten years; and yet you have not taken pains to obtain even a superficial acquaintance with its mechanism. The hammer, which by its stroke upon the string has produced the sound, falls immediately when the tone resounds; and after that you may caress the key which has set the hammer in motion, fidget round on it as much as you please, and stagger up and down over it, in your intoxicated passion,—no more sound is to be brought out from it, with all your trembling and quivering. It is only the public who are quivering with laughter at your absurdity.
5. Give up the practice of extreme stretches. Widely dispersed harmonies may sometimes produce a good effect, but not by too frequent and too eager an employment of them at every opportunity. Even the greatest beauties in art can lead to mannerism, and this again to one-sidedness. Art should be many-sided, and you must never produce the impression that you are inclined to make the means an end. I beg you to reflect that too much practice of very wide stretches enfeebles the muscles and the power of the hand and fingers, endangers an even, sound touch, and makes the best style of playing a doubtful acquisition. Teachers ought therefore to use great prudence, and only gradually to permit their pupils, especially young girls, to practise great extensions and wide stretches. To learn to be able to strike ten notes is quite enough.
6. Before you perform a piece, play a few suitable chords, and a few appropriate passages or scales up and down (but play no stupid trash, such as I have heard from many virtuosos), in order to try whether the condition of the instrument presents any unexpected difficulties. Try carefully also the unavoidable pedal. A creaking, rattling, grating pedal is a frightful annoyance; I wonder if the piano of "the future" is to suffer from this also. Chopin's Funeral March, with obligato accompaniment of a squeaking pedal sentiment, even although the omissions and mistakes in the bass do not occur,—alas! who can describe the effect of this melancholy march?
7. I have written a special article on the manner of sitting at the piano, and I will refer you once more to that.
8. Use no mechanical aids in practising, not even the dumb key-board; although, with very careful use, that is not without value. Strength will come with time; do not try to hurry nature. The table is the best "dumb key-board," as I have already explained. The "hand-guide" is also unnecessary: its value is compensated by its disadvantages.
9. Do not let your hearers crowd too near while you are playing. Do not play the same piece da capo. You may be justified in breaking off in the midst of a piece, if there is loud and continuous talking, &c.
I hope you will give me the honor of your company again at my soirées: I am no writer of comedies, but I can tell you a great deal that is interesting and amusing which I have myself experienced.