MUSIC TEACHING: TASTE, TRIAL, AND TRUTH
By Sidney Harth
IT HAS always seemed to me that a music teacher must be the most cautious of human beings. Warily he gropes his way through approximately a score or more of divergent personalities, each with intricate subdivisions, every week, always attempting to lead, to push, to forge ahead, yet knowing he must be ready to apply the brakes at any second lest he have disaster on his hands; he has to know when to smile, the time for pleading, how to demand, the psychological moment for threatening-he must not want too much, yet ask for the universe, constantly advise, yet never give that indication-he makes the student lave him and the music-at times when they are inclined to violently despise both! What greater challenge exists in any comparable profession?
To play or not to play? -the eternal question discriminative teachers ponder over, is the most puzzling and persistent problem that presents itself during a lesson. Should the pupil be given a visual and auditory demonstration to prove a point? Must or should the teacher be a player? While I do not think any musician is a capable teacher unless he has had experience as a player-performer, I personally shy away from too much playing for my students, and actually prefer an oral explanation in trying to get an idea across. In this way, the student will think the problem through and actually conquer it through his own mind, rather than through a muscular imitation.
Of course, there are times when no spoken word is enough, and the instrument must in desperation be taken up in an endeavor to achieve lucidity via a played illustration. But in general, I feel that a sincere teacher's function is to provide guidance rather than concerts, and it is his job to struggle for the pupil's personality in music, not to have him become a carbon copy of his mentor. The paramount reason for our prevalent blight (especially in young American string players) is too many teacher "performances" during lessons. Very seldom is "my" way the best way for the particular student. My personal credo has always been to develop the best potential in the student, to guide him, and to help those who study to learn to teach themselves. A successful teacher is one whose pupil can, after a reasonable length of time, leave him and work on his own.
Routine can be dull and commonplace, but it can also be a joy and a boon to a busy professional or student, and so one of my first aims with a student is the establishment of a practicing procedure which I endeavor to make variable and enjoyable; the attainment of this end can only be done with considerable research of contemporary publications, and mental searching of the teacher's own student experiences, so that a prospective pupil will be provided with stimulating and important literature. Although I profess to no cardinal rules in my methods of teaching, since every student is the "exception that proves the rule," I enjoy having them work on several items at once, just as though they were composing different works at one time, to retain interest, and cover a multiple of desires.
These three or four projects divide themselves in the following manner: One, an etude-and in the case of the violin, the so-called "outdated" exercises I still find very useful and as good and as in1.portant as when I worked on them. There's a great deal of value in such technical bibles as Kreutzer, Mazas, Wolfhart. My only criticism of these volumes is that they are too often printed dully, squeezed onto cramped pages, and rely heavily on printed signs that have no meaning unless explained by the teacher. Also, there are far too many misleading fingerings, indications, misprints, and actual impossibilities for even a seasoned virtuoso in these otherwise indisputably necessary volumes. Perhaps demands for further printings will cause them to be set up in new type so that these general defects will be eliminated, the deficiencies erased, and the classic texts thus made a lot more appealing to the young student.
While the student is working on one or two etudes weekly (and it is ceI1tainly ridiculous to go in numbered order, or to attempt to play every caprice in a volume before going on to another book), he will be working on scales at the same time. I don't believe in scales as the be-all and end-all technical practice, but I am old-fashioned enough to realize that there are an infinite number of practical applications of scales (and of course, arpeggios, double stops, and all that goes with them) to be found in any given concerto or sonata. I do hope, however, that someone will eventually take the trouble to include in future manuals scales in fourths, fifths, sevenths and ninths, intervals that are the trademark of contemporary music. I do encourage the more advanced pupils to work on scales starting with notes foreign to the key, to start scales with any finger on any string, and to invent their own variations in scale practice. With the imminent destruction of key sense, one can readily see the practicality of, for instance, including a G sharp in a C major scale, or starting the E minor with an E flat!
The third project that the student will be attempting to master is concerned with a particular problem that it is time for him to think about, or some thorny puzzles such as trills, vibratos, bowing variations, etc. (And all of these can be taught!) And lastly, he will be connected with some major solo works, or parts of chamber pieces. And in this instance, I try diligently to use the best material possible. I firmly believe in a twelve-year old struggling through a Haydn or Mozart sonata- (even though he is not ready for it musically-and, in many cases, technically!) -the underlying thought being that the association with the masters is an unforgettable experience and will come in handy for stylistic concentration in later years. Besides, they know what's good! Instilling good tastes in students regarding choice of material, and giving, them an idea of style conception, I can then feel that some include realization of and respect for the great composers (and performers), and the rescue of a good number of students from the pitfalls and quicksand of snobbism so readily acquired in passive music classes.
Musically, the teacher must give his all, bare the heart, and work as hard as he would for himself. But how dose should student and teacher be? The great pedagogues of the past are gone; the warm Russians who practically adopted their Wunderkind, nurtured and caressed them until they were far past the age of being tied to their professor's apron strings -these men are practically extinct, and in their place have arisen the cool detached practitioners of the art, the icy professionals. Should teachers be "untouchables"?
I do not advocate the parent-relationship with pupil; I have seen -and felt personally - the near tragedies caused by dictatorial "father-teachers" who could not or would not let their offspring think for themselves, teachers who hold on for dear life, and I have also seen great mishaps caused by an insistence on interfering in the personal life of a student. And yet I cannot but feel that there is a great deal of genuine warmth lacking in so many of today's teachers. I believe firmly in this warmth-it inspires confidence in the music, and love through encouragement. If the contact between teacher and student is to be worthy and gratifying, we must give to those who come to learn our best.
___Perspectives In Music Education, Source Book III. Published by MUSIC EDUCATORS NATIONAL CONFERENCE, 1966.
Violinist.com is made possible by...
Discover the best of Violinist.com in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews.