Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Thoughts by the Way - Processes Unmusical

We hope the holidays were benevolent to all and we return from the holiday hiatus with an insight on processes unmusical tolerated as a means of arriving at a method of musical expression.

By Wilson G. Smith

The erstwhile prevalent idea that technique has only to do with mechanics, — a purely automatic means toward an end, — is fast falling into disuse among the intelligentsia, a fact that augurs well for the artistic standing of future musical representatives. The intelligent mind readily perceives the value and necessity of cultivating the brain as the instigator of muscular action. First comes the mental concept of technique, and then necessarily
follows its demonstration by the hands and fingers. The idea that pupils must go through a long and tedious drudgery in mechanical action without a mental conception is now buried with the Plaidy system which gave it birth. Nowadays pupils are not expected to practice technique, reading the while a book placed before them on the music rack of the piano. Nor does the intelligent teacher presume to require the student to obliterate the fact that emotional, not sentimental playing — in its best sense, — can be cultivated as to matter of tone and touch in a technical study as well as in a Chopin nocturne. Along this line of teaching is exploited the fact that the same study can be used in a great variety of ways in the matter of phrasing and touch, thereby gaining for the student a psychological as well as mechanical aspect of the technical problem under consideration. Neither do teachers of modern tendencies require pupils to practice technique in a manner not used as a method of interpretation. The old system of requiring pupils to assault technical exercises with a blacksmith style of touch under the supposition that it develops strength is fast becoming obsolete. With as much pretense a vocal teacher require students to spend hours of practice in shouting at the full extent of their lungs to attain vocal facility. A voice teacher advocating such methods would speedily find his occupation gone, and his citadel of learning unfrequented by applicants for wisdom as dispensed by him and his system.

In singing, as also in violin playing, tone production is always the preeminent desideratum, and why indeed should it not be the same in the study of the piano? It is the wise teacher who makes the same exercise serve many purposes. It saves time in learning for the pupil, and also awakens in the mind of the pupil an intelligent appreciation of tone values and dynamic coloring. Finished artists do not use in their interpreting of the masters such equivocal adjuncts as the hammer stroke, nor do they raise their fingers from the keyboard 
greater distance than is necessary to produce a vibrant, singing tone by the use of the pressure touch. An analysis of tone production will readily prove that the fullest and most artistic tone is produced by a downward pressure of the fingers and wrist, one that can never be evolved by a strident finger stroke. Clothe technique in the garb of temperament, and it is a dull pupil indeed who will not find pleasure in his practice. It becomes a mental process by which the imagination and musical intuition are awakened and developed. Is a scale or figurated passage any less the vehicle of thought and emotion because it is found in a Cramer étude rather than in a Mozart or Beethoven sonata? Can a student gain anything, from a psychological standpoint, by practicing the passage in a more mechanical style in the étude than he plays a similar technical passage in one of the accepted master works? I think not; and consistent with my belief, I am a strong advocate of rendering unto technique the same homage we give to things artistic. To acquire a fine grammatical and imaginative literary style, one would hardly be expected to converse or write in an opposite style. Why, then, are processes unmusical tolerated as a means of arriving at a method of musical expression?

Modern intelligence does not believe in any such hallucination. It rather teaches that when once the mind grasps the musical significance of a technical problem the fingers readily respond to its adequate expression. It is merely the old law of the domination of mind over matter. Technical materialism in the study of art is the implacable foe of idealism and poesy. Mechanics and art are far distant from each other, unless the latter dominates at all times and , under all conditions the utilization of the former. I have had (and am still having) pupils who, when they first came to me, had a wholesome dislike for technical work, as it had been associated by them with pure mechanical finger action and mental torpor; but when once I explained to them the superiority of a mental concept to the mechanical aspects of the problem, they soon enjoyed their technical work as much as what we commonly designate as “pieces.” There is as much opportunity for expressive playing and fine tone production in a Czerny étude as in any “piece” one may elect to study. There may be a difference in temperamental values but not in the artistic development of mental grasp and conception. It is folly to expect a pupil to play for a lesson a Czerny étude in the usual “hammer and tongs” style, and then closing the book interpret," with any degree of intelligence, a classic or modern composition. Yet in how many studios do we see such
methods prevail?

Personally I admire more the young mind that demands the whys and wherefores of any musical proposition than that which swallows — even without salt — my musical salads. This study of individuality and adapting one’s teaching to meet its requirements is the open sesame to success in teaching. And it is indeed a poor teacher who cannot learn much of value from his pupils. How often it is that a simple question leads to much serious thought and study upon the part of the teacher. How often the structural content of a composition or study explained in detail to the pupil gives to both mind and fingers a grasp that
the fingers alone could never encompass? It only proves again the necessity of training the mind and hands simultaneously. But the mind first. When, fresh from my Berlin studies, I began my professional work, I had but one method, and all pupils had to conform to it. Now I have as many methods as I have pupils; that is, in the manner of approaching their mental and temperamental equipment.  I can get as many results from one study, in its technical and temperamental possibilities, as I used to realize from whole books. So much have I learned in the adjustment of musical necessities to requirements. But to make intelligent and resourceful pupils one must also be intelligent and resourceful. Study the minds of your pupils more than you do their hands. Get the minds well equipped and the hands will take care of themselves. And the results you realize will be both logical and free from any taint of one-sidedness. Breadth of thinking and study begets breadth of capacity for imparting and receiving. It is the broad mind that inspires a similar trait in younger minds. Moreover do not restrict yourself to mere professional investigation and study. Look beyond your professional horizon and your pupils will look out upon great and noble vistas with you.

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