Music: Proper Age To Begin Study Of An Instrument

Although realizing that I hold a contrary opinion to the greater number of teachers of special instruments, I shall never advise allowing a child, that is not to be exhibited as a phenomenon at shows and circuses, to study any musical instrument whatever before the age of six at the earliest. It seems to me a most barbarous practice, and I will not be a party to it. Solfeggio, if you like ; an instrument, never. This does not prevent allowing little children to amuse themselves by drumming upon the piano if such is their pleasure (and this is something that should be forbidden later), but to impose any study upon them seems to me monstrous, and, moreover, absolutely useless.

There is always here, slight as it may be, a certain amount of physical fatigue, of force expended in an abnormal way, detrimental to growth, and also a concentration of the mind which they ought to be spared since it is not absolutely necessary and might be hurtful to them. Before making artists, you must make men and women, that is to say just now, little boys and little girls, who are well constituted, sound and capable of supporting the notable increase of physical and mental efforts that will inevitably be imposed upon their general education, without the latter thereby either suffering or being weakened.—I insist upon this point—by the addition of an artistic education, musical or otherwise, together with the different studies involved.

They have quite enough to do up to this time if they learn to read, to write a little, to count upon their little fingers and to commit to memory such short fables or little verses as are within their infantile reach. To demand more of them would be bad judgment. It would be compromising.

This being said, let us see first in a general way what is the best means of producing a good instrumentalist.

When a young artist is about to make his choice of an instrument, or when we intend to help him in this choice, it is advisable to take into account not only his tastes and sympathies, but also his physical aptitudes, and still other considerations, such as the amount of time it is possible for him to devote every day to his musical studies; his definite purpose, which may quite as likely be that of acquiring simply what is called an ” amateur talent,” aiming at the virtuosity of an artist; his social position, which may be of a kind to favour his studies, or to impede them, etc., etc. All this is very delicate and also very important, and should not be left to the chance of an unreflecting impulse ; by doing the latter we expose ourselves to mistakes that we shall have cause to regret later, when there will be no time to retrace our steps.

The aim of this chapter is precisely to caution the pupil, or his natural advisers, parents or teachers, against the temptations and errors of this kind, by making them acquainted in advance and with a certain exactness, with the special exigences of such or such a study.

It is clear that he who desires to cultivate the art merely for his pleasure, or as a luxury, may very well allow himself to be guided solely by his inclinations or predilections for one instrument or another; the worst that can happen to him, is that he may attain perfection, which is really not a necessity for him. But it is entirely different with him who intends to snake art his career, for he is compelled by that very fact to take into consideration first of all the natural qualities with which he is gifted and which he can use to the best advantage. In a word, everybody should know exactly what he wants and what he can do, and this is not an insurmountable difficulty, since it is merely necessary to know, before embarking upon the study of any instrument, how well it suits him, the amount of work that it will impose upon him, and the result that he can confidently hope for.

When once the choice of the instrument is made, it remains to find out what is the best and most profitable way to undertake and pursue the study of it. Now, since a number of fundamental principles may be applied without distinction to the study of all instruments, we shall first endeavour to collect them here, in order to avoid repetition, reserving for the subdivisions of this chapter the treatment of whatever is peculiar to each family of instruments, or to each of its members considered separately.

1.—The first thing to take note of, is that the study of an instrument, whatever it may be, should be be-gun very quietly, serenely and without any violence, proceeding by very short periods, short enough never to allow of fatigue. I state this more precisely, so as to make myself thoroughly understood : the advent of fatigue must not be taken as a sign for the momentary cessation of work ; this would be too late ; you must have a presentiment of it and know when to stop even before it makes itself felt.—This is of capital importance.

Then, little by little, very gradually indeed, one will increase the duration of these periods of study, but always carefully avoiding prolonging them until the moment when the appearance of lassitude is to be feared.

It is not until after one is fully disciplined in the practice of one’s instrument that one may venture to brave fatigue, making an extra effort from time to time ; and then, frequently, this mode of proceeding, exceptionally employed, may result in rapid progress. But in elementary studies, it is of no value, and is the worst of all methods. Work should be regular and moderate.

Hence arises the necessity of breaking it up and distributing it wisely among the different periods of the day.

All the instructions that we shall give in the following pages—study for a quarter of an hour, half an hour, or an hour—remain subordinate therefore to this invariable rule, that during the first months, at least, work must never be pushed to the point of fatigue, but the student must stop in time, rest and begin afresh.

2.—Acquire at once the habit of studying slowly, never giving way to the pleasure of flinging off scales or “rapid passages ; by so doing, you only learn to jumble. Always listen to yourself and try to get the best quality of tone.

Never work, even for a few minutes, without thinking of what you are doing, the end to be attained ; if the attention has wandered, if you find yourself thinking of something else, which is another indication of fatigue, it is better to break off and begin again later. Even for the most elementary work, that of scales, for example, this condition is indispensable ; work done with a wandering mind is of no profit ; it is a waste of time.

3.—While working at anything whatsoever, elementary or more advanced exercises, études, pieces, as also when reading, the time should always be marked in some way ; the singer or solfeggist should beat time with the right hand, as the conductor of an orchestra does with his baton, without the slightest violence or stiffness, but with ease ; the player of a wind or stringed instrument, by an imperceptible movement of the toes ; and the pianist or harpist, who can spare the use of neither foot nor hand, by counting the time or its subdivisions in a low tone. The singer should not mark the time with his foot, for this always produces a slight trembling in the voice. Neither should the pianist, because then he would acquire the habit of beating it on the pedals, which would produce the most disastrous effects.

4.-Even in the primary studies, you should be careful never to play anything but good music; at least, music that is healthful and well written, ” Healthy men are not made by bringing children up on sweets. The nourishment of the mind ought to be as simple and substantial as that of the body. The masters have taken care to supply us abundantly with the former. Let us keep to it.”

For certain instruments, the piano and stringed instruments, this judicious advice will be very easy to follow. For others, such as the wood-wind and brass, it will be infinitely more difficult, their repertory being unfortunately so very much smaller, and some-what mediocre in quality.

5.-In the study of every instrument, there are two things to work for: technique, or mechanical study, which varies with each instrument ; and style, which is the same for all. At the beginning, it is always necessary to give the precedence to the mechanism, although it is the least pleasurable. Afterwards, the two may be developed side by side ; you can even ac-custom yourself to shade with intelligence and thus render those exercises that permit of such treatment a little more interesting. The most agreeable moment of study, beyond any doubt, is that when we have become sufficiently master of our mechanism to be able to give all our attention to style,—the art of phrasing well, of shading and of punctuating ; but even for this, long studies in technique are indispensable, and we must have the courage to submit to them.

6.—Each instrument should jealously preserve its characteristic timbre (quality of tone) : a flutist, whose tone makes us think of a clarinet, a trumpet-player whose timbre approaches that cf the horn, are both equally in the wrong.

7.-From the very beginning of study, faults and good qualities will be revealed. The wise teacher, while correcting the faults and endeavouring to get rid of them, pays even more attention to developing the good qualities and making the most of them. Progress is quicker by this means.

8.—No matter how far advanced in study, never try to excite astonishment by tours de force and difficulties vanquished ; that must be left for clowns. We should always consider mechanism as a means; the end is to interest and charm. It is far better to play pieces below our present ability, and play them in time, correctly, intelligently and with the expression that belongs to them, than to attack compositions that are too difficult and interpret them in a mediocre manner.

9.-In addition to solfeggio, indispensable to everyone, a few ideas of harmony will never do any harm. For the pianist and the harpist, this is even insufficient ; a complete knowledge is necessary.

10.-All serious teachers agree in recognizing that a practical knowledge of the piano, without any at-tempt at virtuosity, is a great advantage to every singer and instrumentalist, and facilitates his special studies.

11.. We should always devote a few moments every day to reading, as soon as it becomes possible, requiring ourselves to read more slowly than the movement indicated, to play strictly in time, and never to stop nor to go back over the ground, even when we have made a mistake.

12.-Ensemble music is a very useful and profitable exercise, perhaps the best of all for forming the taste and developing the style, but not until we have become a perfect master of our instrument and are capable of comprehending the enormous artistic interest belonging to this study.

This also applies to orchestral music ; it is the veritable school of application. We should therefore eagerly seek every opportunity of taking part in an orchestral symphony, just as soon as we feel qualified to do so intelligently.

Such are the general principles : let us now study their application.

The choice of a teacher, particularly at the beginning, is a very difficult and delicate matter, the importance of which can escape nobody, and in which we cannot be too circumspect. If too severe, he repels the pupil; if too indulgent, he encourages laziness. If too old, he appears as a dotard; if too young, he lacks experience, that is certain. Really, it is very difficult.

It is necessary to strike a happy medium : a man still young, rather gay than morose, which does not in the least prevent him from being serious, and practical, knowing how to present things, even if they are a little tiresome, under their happiest aspect, should, the amount of talent being equal, attract the preference of the parents. If to these qualities he adds that of being fond of children, if he does not disdain to descend from his pedestal every now and then to relate, as a reward, some little curious and edifying story (such as Lully, the scullion and his little violinists, Mozart and Marie Antoinette, Orpheus charming the wild beasts, etc., etc.), that would be perfect.

” What ! ” some one will ask, ” the History of Music already? ” And, why not, forsooth, if one can thus teach something without its being suspected, that is so much gain; and awakens taste?

The characteristic sign of a very good teacher is knowing how to make himself loved by his pupils, be, cause while they love him, he makes them love everything relating to his teaching. The lesson hour should be an hour of pleasure, and when we see the child awaiting its return with joyous impatience, it is a proof that we have given him a good master.

Whenever there is a chance of getting a woman for the elementary instruction of young children, I am for the woman ; she unquestionably possesses more than we do, by intuition, gentleness, persuasion, and above all, patience, which are the principal qualities to be sought in a teacher, always granting equal artistic value, in all that concerns primary instruction, Now, for solfeggio, the piano and the harp, that i to say for most of the studies that are within the ca pacity of the child, there are just as many women teachers as men; we also find them for the violin and violoncello. In any case of hesitation, I should ad vise giving the preference to a woman-teacher, but always with the same reservations, that is to say that she must not be too strict, nor too lax, nor too old, nor too young, and this naturally for the same reasons, which here assume even greater importance, for these defects are exaggerated in the female sex. It seems to me useless to dwell here upon this subject to which I shall have occasion to return when it becomes a question of higher education, whether of singing or of instruments.

Now, I- have something that is very hard to say ; for, to my great regret, I am going to hurt some profoundly respectable persons of the best intentions ; I arm myself with all my courage to write it : parents are always the very worst teachers, and should refrain as much as possible from giving lessons to their own children.

There, it is said ; and cruel as it may be, I will not retract a single word ; I will even add to it : even if they are excellent musicians, even if they make teaching their profession, parents are the most detestable teachers when it comes to their own children, but the latter only, because, inversely, for the very reason that they have children of their own, that they love and understand them, they can be perfect teachers for those of others.

Here I feel the need of taking refuge behind the unimpeachable authority of an unquestioned master in the art of education, that of Legouvé : ” A father,” he says, ” has two irremediable defects for a master; he is an intermittent master and an amateur master. . . . Fathers, even when lettered or learned, are not good masters.” A mother is still less so, which goes without saying.

This is what happens about six times a week in a household where the father has undertaken the musical education of his daughter :

“Papa, I cannot take my lesson just now, be-cause Mamma is going to take me to the dressmaker’s to see her dress tried on.”

” But, my child, I have stayed at home on purpose ; later, I shall have no time.”

” See, dear,” interposes the mother, ” it is such a lovely day, you would not want to deprive the child of a walk. You have nothing to do this evening, you can give her her little lesson after dinner.”

” Very well, if you think that will be better. Go along.”

In the evening, after dinner, an old friend comes to see you, or the child is sleepy . . . in short, the lesson is put off till tomorrow ; and tomorrow, the same thing happens again.

It is not the same when the appointment is made with a teacher, whether he comes to your house, or you go to his. Here, a mutual obligation has been contracted for, and on both sides punctuality and regularity in the lessons is maintained.

Then people are always inclined to treat their own children differently from the children of others; they always find the rules too complicated, the methods too long, and the elementary exercises too developed ; they always want to simplify or abridge the work, to judge them more from their hearts than from their reason ; or, again, if they are on their guard, they mistrust their tenderness, and become unduly exacting and irritating towards the pupil; and in any case they always have the fault of expecting a too rapid progress from those who are not really profiting; for, as that deep and witty observer Legouvé has said, agreeing in this with J. J. Rousseau and many other great moralists : ” The greatest fault in the matter of education is the desire to go fast. . . Education should not be a fever. An ordinary mas-ter is the best of guides, precisely because he is neither too hurried, nor to anxious to attain his end.”

There are still other reasons : a salaried master comes to give a lesson ; the pupil has worked badly or insufficiently ; the master is dissatisfied, he bestows a reprimand and demands that such a thing shall not happen again ; then it is over, the reproof has been given. If, on the other hand, it is the mother who has given the lesson, she talks about it all day, even when out walking, and she complains about it at table to the father so that he may scold in his turn, until the child, set on edge, begins to cry if he is nervous, to reply impertinently if he is badly brought up; then they send him to bed without kissing him good-night, and he cherishes a deep hatred for music lessons, and for music itself, the original cause of his unhappiness.

Therefore, there is great danger when parents venture to be teachers of their own children ; and up to a certain point, one must admit that this danger extends to intimate friends, those who come to the house often, who play with the child and take him on their knees; they are subject, in a less degree, to the same weaknesses as the parents, and the child does not regard them as seriously as he does a stranger whom he only knows as his teacher.

Parents have another rôle of equal importance, two other rôles, if you prefer; they should place themselves above and below the professor. Above, because it is they who select him and give him authority over the pupil, and also by the watchfulness that they should always exert over the lesson. Below, by holding themselves always ready to serve him as kindly helpers and tutors, if he expresses the desire, for he may perfectly well prefer not to be aided at all. In any case, they should be present at the lessons, at least frequently, so as to assure themselves of the exact fulfilment of the material part of the master’s prescriptions,—the time for study, the division of the work, etc. If the latter should request them to act as tutors, they should take minute notes and preside over the studies conscientiously, reminding the pupil of all that has been ordered and exacting its execution with-out any curtailment or omission, and above all without modifying or adding anything of their own invention, the indispensable condition upon which a teacher can assume and maintain his responsibility. I consider it unnecessary to dwell upon this point.

Several times I have seen mothers, with essentially praiseworthy intentions, remembering that they had received a good musical education when they were young girls, set themselves to work again when the eldest of their children have reached the age of seven or eight, so as to be able to start their musical education themselves. Every time that they have set themselves up as teachers, the result has been deplorable. When, on the other hand, they have had the good sense to act only as tutors, even when occasionally the professor’s ability was inferior to their own, everything went along smoothly. This experience, which I have often been able to repeat, seems to me absolutely conclusive.

Parents should also make a rule never to discuss together, or with the master, anything with regard to his ideas, methods, or requirements, or any question touching the course of study in the presence of the pupil. The latter (do not forget that we are only concerning ourselves here with the studies of very small children), should consider his master as infallible and impeccable, and blindly accept all that he says, as if it were Gospel truth. If we lessen this confidence, if we throw confusion into the child’s mind, we compromise the result fatally. Therefore, if we have some remark to communicate or some observation to make to the teacher, or some wish to express to him, it must be done privately, before or after the lesson, and without the knowledge of the child. This should also be observed, with even more reason, upon the exchange of ideas that the parents have and should have between themselves on the question of the teacher’s value, of his talent, and of his manner of teaching, for everything that tends to weaken the blind confidence that the child ought to have in him, everything that may make him suspect that any one could differ with him and not approve of him in every respect and not consider him as an oracle (and children have an unheard-of finesse, in such matters, whenever it is a question of criticising their preceptors), will result in depriving the teacher of all or a part of the prestige to which, with regard to his young pupil, he owes his greatest strength and his greatest means of action.

If we have any serious reason to complain, or to be dissatisfied, we must know how to set ourselves resolutely to change things, however much it is to be regretted, for with every change we must first expect a period of suspension in the progress : it requires at least several days for the pupil to familiarize himself with a new face, with a new manner of expression, often with very different terms for saying the same thing ; moreover. there are not two professors, even of equal ability, who hold identical ideas and have the same methods. All this has a tendency to bring about a temporary disturbance in the work, at the very least a hesitation, uneasiness and embarrassment. It would be better to be able to avoid all that.

The most desirable thing of all, at this initial period of musical instruction, is to know where we can put our hand at once upon a teacher capable of carrying the child along quickly, through these primary and secondary studies, so that we shall not have to run after a new master until the time comes for the higher studies, if indeed one should be needed then. It would be ideal to have only one from the beginning to the end; but, for certain instruments, notably the wind instruments, this ideal cannot be realized ; but this is not the case with all.

It is therefore very right and proper that parents who are intelligent and solicitous of the future should concern themselves before everything else with this matter of capital importance : the selection at the very beginning of a teacher who, being sufficiently devoted to his work to accept the ungrateful task of teaching the first elements, should have enough ability to take the child as far as possible in the study of the chosen instrument.

When once this question is settled, things must naturally be allowed to go on for a certain time, for several months or several years, without however letting these lessons be an exclusive occupation, but supplying them, according to the principles already laid down, with diversions, by means of studies unconnected with music, as well as reserving some moments for the complete repose of the mind.

But we should eagerly seize all occasions to let the pupil hear, and if possible to let him see at close range, the great virtuosi, or merely able artists of the instrument that forms the object of his studies. This should serve to widen his horizon, excite his ambition, and en-courage him to work. At the same time, if he is sufficiently advanced for this, we can induce him to learn or read in advance some of the pieces he will hear executed ; by taking note of their degree of difficulty, he will better appreciate the worth of the artists. But that which must be sought after above everything else, is that under these circumstances his attention shall be directed far more to the qualities of style, phrasing and good rendering, than to those of pure technique, notwithstanding the real importance of the latter ; and that he shall thoroughly comprehend that if it is precious to possess a fine mechanism it is only for the sake of being able to place it at the service of an elevated style and a beautiful interpretation of the works of the masters ; on the contrary, he must turn his attention from tours de force and acrobatic feats that have no other merit than vanquished difficulties, which constitute the most paltry side of art.