The age at which it is expedient to begin the elementary musical instruction is essentially variable, and cannot be fixed precisely. It cannot be the same for everybody, and remains subordinate to various considerations, the principal only of which I can think of enumerating here.
In the first place, come the general physical condition and health of the young subject: one should never exact from a sickly child a brain-work, in reality very enervating and exciting, that might result in some irremediable harm to his normal development ; examples of cases of over-taxation are, unhappily, not rare. The child should be gay, well and alert ; if he is not, then it would be better to wait. More-over, it is very important to take into account his character, the aptitude that he may have shown already for some other study, such as reading, the recitation of fables, or for games that demand a certain effort of intelligence or memory. Finally, although wishing for their appearance, it is necessary to wait patiently for the manifestation of some one of the precursory signs, by which, as we have shown, those who are gifted by nature with a temperament qualified to receive the benefits of a musical education may be almost certainly recognized. The great philosopher Kant has told us : ” To develop each individual in the full perfection of which he is capable, that is the aim of education.” Before attempting to inculcate the principles of any art whatsoever into a child, it is imperative therefore to assure yourself that he is in the desired condition to profit by them. I repeat this here for the last time, so as not to return to it again.
When the proper moment seems to have arrived for giving him his first musical notions, it is necessary to choose a method, a plan of procedure, and to put him in the hands of a teacher, being thoroughly saturated with this truth, that it is not more difficult to direct an education well than to direct it badly ; the whole thing is to take trouble enough to enlighten oneself instead of walking blindly.
Just here, it is well to remember that music is above all a language, and that the system of teaching that is best adapted to it is the one also that accords best with the teaching of languages, the one by which we all have learned our mother tongue, and which is naturally pointed out to us by simple common sense : practice before theory.
To teach music to a very young child by means of principles, no matter how simple they may be, is about as judicious as trying to teach him to talk by grammar. Certainly, one may and one does accomplish this, but at the cost of how much lost time, of how much irritation to the parents and the teacher, and of what useless fatigue to the poor little brain of the pupil !
It is so easy, on the contrary, to present the thing as an amusement, a game that is a relief from his others, and to let Nature work. Nature has endowed the child with the spirit of imitation ; it is because he hears people talking around him that he tries to do the same, and of his own accord attempts first to pronounce the simplest syllables, ba or ma, which he repeats to satiety for several months, before passing to others that are more complicated, such as Za or ra, and then unites them to form words. If, as a cruel experiment, one should impose absolute silence around a child from his birth to his coming of age, it would never occur to him to try to talk. This is, moreover, exactly what happens in the case of those who are deaf from their birth ; never having heard any talking, it never occurs to them to talk, although their vocal organs may be perfectly formed for it ; and they become deaf-mutes. It is then by the simple spirit of imitation, and by amusing himself, that the child learns to form all the sounds of the spoken language, and not because some one explains to him the difference between the vowels and consonants, the labials and the gutturals. Later, when he knows how to form words, it is in precisely the same manner that he learns how to construct phrases, first of two words, and then longer ones, always without any advice whatever, but only by listening to what is said around him and striving to imitate it as closely as possible; (it is then that he acquires the accent of the place where he is brought up, as well as the expressions and turns of phrases of the persons who are with him) ; it is not until very much later, when he already speaks in such a way as to make himself thoroughly understood that you should make such observations as these to him : Do not say : ” I am been,” but ” I am gone ” ; or again you must not say ” I have conversed to Mama,” but ” I have conversed with Mama.” But before that, he will speak, if not correctly and elegantly, at least in such a way as to make himself understood perfectly.
When afterwards, the child is able to read, if he has the taste for reading and some little spirit of observation, he perfects his speech in the most natural manner, and, what is still more curious, he often teaches himself orthography thus by pure instinct, by the memory of the eyes, without any one ever having given him the slightest knowledge of the most elementary rules of grammar. I know several in-stances of young persons who have never opened a grammar and who write French in an absolutely correct manner ; when a chain of words puzzles them, they write it in several ways, look at it attentively and invariably choose,the best. I do not maintain that, carried to such a degree, this method would suit every subject ; no ! first of all, it is necessary that they should love to read, and read much ; then it is also necessary that they should read attentively and by bringing their attention to bear upon the aspect and physiognomy of the words and phrases, that they finally should possess the spirit of observation, imitation and the memory of the eyes.
It may seem as if I am wandering from my subject; on the contrary, we are in the very heart of it. Of all languages, music is the one that best accommodates . itself at the start, particularly when one is dealing with very young children, to this means of teaching, by practice only at first, reserving all theoretical notions until the time when the learner shall have reached the age of reason. Then theory will be indispensable and should take the chief place. Here is an experiment which I have made several times, and which has always succeeded : introduce a child whom you have reason to believe is well-organized into an elementary course of solfeggio, where the pupils are a little older than he is ; at first he is greatly flattered. The teacher makes him sit near him, and then says nothing to him, absolutely nothing, he only watches and listens ; we conduct the class without taking any notice of him, except to have him taken away on the pretext that the lesson is over, if he shows signs of fatigue, or if he yawns. At the end of a dozen sittings, we shall be surprised to see him try to beat time, in order to do like the others, or even try to sing; when he is with little friends who are dancing in a ring, we let him dance with them; since the game is a singing-game, he has a perfect right to sing with the others. Every now and then we may ask him to show us on the music-books where we are ; taken unawares, he makes mistakes at first ; then he will try to follow by the glance of his big comrades, but in a short time he will be able to follow the music alone, by means of the figure, particularly if we trust him with the duty of turning the pages, which will force him to fix his attention. If at this time we begin to teach him the notes, we shall find that he knows them already. A great and troublesome halting-place will have been passed without his ever having suspected it.
From this time forward we can treat him like the other pupils, and make him take an actual part in the lesson.
One cannot always have at hand a good course of elementary solfeggio, intelligently directed. We indicate elsewhere another manner of undertaking this study,* which could not be pushed too far, nor pro-longed too greatly, for this is the one that makes the true musician.