Musical Education: For Music Is A Language

Piano teachers, violin teachers, organ teachers, voice teachers, harmony teachers — these are common enough if we accept their own dictum that they are teachers, but although most of them may answer to the name of music teachers, there is a slight irregularity discovered, due to the fact that they do not teach music. At certain stages of their pupils’ progress such teachers make use of music as the medium for perfecting the art they are teaching, and in that way the pupil is brought in contact with music—if particularly talented, it may be with a large amount of music—and from this contact the pupil in some cases absorbs a certain knowledge of the tone art. In the large cities the teachers are very much in the habit of recommending concert attendance to the pupils for the purpose usually of having them see how things are done by prominent artists ; but in this way advanced students are brought under the spell of musical art and doubtless absorb something, just as a resident in a foreign land inevitably comes to speak the language of the country after a fashion without any special instruction in it.

For music is a language. It is spoken and understood, although its articulation is by fingers and vocal organs instead of the organs of speech employed in other languages. It has its commercial and commonplace expressions — bugle calls, piano-salesman’s drumming’s, dances, and marches — to which nobody pays any attention except so far as it concerns him personally. It has its newspaper trivialities – barrel organs, theater and resort orchestras, and strumming’s here and there that at the best are of ephemeral value. It has its magazine stories — compositions of transient interest — and it has its great and enduring literature. There are those who speak the language as natives — those who almost in infancy can play or sing in a way to bring despair to ordinary hard-working plodders — those who speak fluently but ignore the literature, and those who know well what has been said by the great authors in tones, but who have learned by translations (hearing others play or through the mechanical players) and cannot themselves so much as order a musical dinner or crack a musical joke for lack of practice in articulation. And there are those who know music as Demosthenes knew Greek or Gladstone knew English.

The teaching of the piano (let us say) is unquestionably a most important essential in the teaching of music. It has an even more important relationship to music than has elocution to French, yet it is not teaching music and is often continued for years, leaving the pupil at last with a very meager knowledge of music. Any one would consider himself very inadequately re-warded for years of work in French who at the end could only with difficulty enjoy a modern French play, or purchase an outfit at a French bazar. Those who encourage and support literature are those who know and love literature ; not necessarily as themselves producers of it, but as what we style people of culture. And the best evidence that music as a language and a literature has been neglected, is to be found in the fact that among the thousands who think they have been students of the art, so few are to be found who love and support it. The great symphony orchestras of the country are very, very few in number and are sustained by endowments or guarantee funds ; choral societies and church choirs languish, and trash is everywhere in evidence. It is, of course, true that we have trash in literature and trash in other arts ; but the point is that musical trash flourishes among those who suppose them-selves to have been educated in music and who have spent time, labor, and money enough to warrant them in that supposition. Where is the trouble? In Europe music has developed through the centuries in association with the other arts of civilization. The nobles have fostered it, the state has endowed it, the church has patronized it. The people have been privileged to hear the masterworks well and frequently performed. They have been so organized under the monarchial and aristocratic systems as to be predisposed to treat with respect the opinions of the cultured, and therefore have been apt to acquire good taste; and thus there has grown up in Old World countries what is called the ” musical atmosphere.” Upon this sure substratum has been erected a musical profession. The state has established institutions to foster musical life ; not primarily to. teach music, but to “conserve” the art — to discover and cultivate great and promising talent, to train teachers and public performers and to advance the interests of the art. These conservatories have abundantly justified their existence . and their methods.

America would not be behind Europe in matters of education. She too would study music and acquire culture. Who so well qualified to teach as the products of the German conservatories ? So they were installed; and it is safe to say that far more than ninety-nine- per cent of the music students of America have been the pupils of German or German-trained teachers. We have looked up to Germany as the home and fountain-head of all that was good in music and in music teaching. We have imported German music, German music teachers, and German musical ideas, even to the extent of neglecting our own highly endowed musicians in spite of their German training ; but the one thing we have not imported, that we could not import, is the German musical atmosphere, and without that all the rest was out of adjustment. The result is that we have set our young pupils to groping in the gloom of five-finger exercises, scales, and arpeggios ; we have given them sonatas because they were good- for finger technic, and pieces because they were excellent to secure loose wrists — husks of mechanism, husks of studies, husks of dry, classical forms, but all in imitation of approved German methods of grinding out music teachers till the said young pupils have come to look upon a coon-song as confectionery, rag-time as a relief, and trash as a triumph.

It is but a few years ago that the routine of learning Latin consisted of spending at first some months in Latin grammar, committing to memory rules, declensions, and conjugations, then proceeding to a reading book and engaging in the parsing of sentences. After one or two years of such work the reading of a great classic would be begun, but still in the same general way — a literal translation of a few lines, and then parsing of them with reference to the grammatical rules and exceptions illustrated. Presently Latin composition. The idea that a Roman writer ever had a great thought, or if he had, that it could be expressed in such a dry, stiff, pedantic tongue as Latin, never occurred to the vast majority of the students. When somebody discovered that even children can appreciate sense, and that sense is worth far more than grammatical forms, light broke in, and now we have the ” Natural method.” Grammar is as important as ever, but introduced in its proper position, it becomes intelligible and therefore comparatively easy.

Our so-called music teachers rarely have any idea of the application of modern psychological pedagogy to the needs of their pupils, and if they had, the parents with whom they have to deal, it is to be feared, in too many cases would disapprove of a newfangled notions.” The child is sent to the teacher to be taught how to play ; and the usual routine is doubtless the one to be adopted. Treat him from the start as if he was to be made a professional pianist ; have him practice technical forms and play them in the class, the pupil’s recital or the school concert as early and as often as possible. Send him to Germany if he lives through years enough of practice, and lead him to think that on his return managers and public will vie with each other in efforts to secure one of his unparalleled performances. Then when he finally learns that nobody outside his own family cares whether he can play one or two degrees faster than anyone else or not, let him join the vast army of music teachers, so called, and commence the de-scribing of a new circle.

The fact that something is wrong with such ideas of musical education has not failed to attract the attention of many observers ; and with some the suggested remedy is higher musical education. Let us have government-endowed music schools ; let us have university departments of music; let us raise the standard; let us teach more technical exercises and harder ones ; let us give more attention to contrapuntal puzzle-solving; let us examine our teachers by state authority; let us see that only the talented are permitted to be taught; and let us teach them without cost. If we cannot tempt people to attend the symphony concerts, let us build a temple for the orchestra : if the income of the church musician and the teacher of piano is shrinking, let us prate more about the traditions and the purity of art; if we can find nobody to join the church choir or the choral society (because their ” music ” teachers have told them that the practice would injure their voices) let us have a club and read a paper about the journeys and family trials of Sebastian Bach.

What we need is education in music. Not more professors, but more amateurs ; not more concerts, but more intelligent interest in those we have; not more compositions, but more comprehension ; not more vocal culture, but more and larger choral societies ; not more technic, but more interpretation. The new cult of Synthetic and Kindergarten music teachers are on the right track. The mechanical piano-players have given a strong impulse in the right direction. The piano student who can play three hundred notes in a minute should not be set to increasing the velocity to seven hundred, but be given application for his three hundred in portraying the beauties of thousands of compositions requiring no higher attainments. When he learns to appreciate and reveal all there is of meaning in such works, it will be time enough to enlarge his mechanical powers. And with appreciation and understanding of musical values, the training of technical means for expressing them will be easy and pleasant work.

Schools and colleges should consider it as much their duty to ground the pupils in appreciative love for good music as for good pictures, good architecture, and good literature. It is a small matter whether the students learn to play, sing, or compose. It is a great matter whether they learn sympathetically to understand. Social music, church music, military music, theatrical music, concert music, choral music, commercial music, and the progress of musical art in general, all depend upon popular education in music as a language and literature. Such education does not absolutely require any technical training in either singing or playing. Many a man knows Goethe and the New Testament who can speak neither German nor Greek — perhaps he knows those things better than some who can speak the languages. Many a man appreciates in a critical way the Sistine Madonna who never had a painter’s brush in his fingers. Music can be systematically, interestingly, thoroughly, and usefully, taught without teaching the art of performance, and such teaching of it should precede or accompany all teaching of performance as its basis. The maintenance of the art in its proper relations to the culture of the country depends largely upon systematic instruction of the people in the appreciative understanding of the literature and interpretation of music. And the place for such education is in school and college, although much can be done by endowed and municipal concerts, particularly if they can be associated with popular lectures and annotated programs that enlighten and interest.

The crying need of the country musically today is not higher but broader culture, not more musicians but more music lovers, not more technic but more understanding.