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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Music Teaching

by Mrs. Spencer Curwen
Volume 9, no. 7, 1898, pgs. 439?


Condensed report of Mrs. Spencer Curwen's paper on Music Teaching

As generally used, the word "music teaching" would promise a discourse on the teaching of the pianoforte. Why, of all the musical media, the pianoforte alone should be labeled music, we can hardly tell; but are we not all accustomed to this use of the term? "My daughter is learning singing from Signor A., the violin from Herr B., and music--meaning the piano--from Miss Jones." Or again, "Mary has dropped her music lessons and is learning singing instead"--poor singing, if there is no music in it. I would that we could drop this silly custom and realize that music is something beyond and above the instrument; that the instrument, whether it be a piano or a violin or a voice, is only a medium for that strange and impalpable something which to the majority of mankind seems as necessary as the breath of Heaven.

Music teaching begins in the nursery, in the cradle. For from the time that the baby's "five gateways of knowledge" begin to open and admit sense impressions, the little ears should be often greeted by sweet musical sounds. And we do sing to our babies. It is one of the wonderful results of motherhood that the woman who never sang before will find herself singing to her little baby, or longing to do so if she cannot. We all do it, but we do not think of it as music teaching; if we did we should not leave it off just when it is most needed.

The child's musical education has two stages--one which we think about, and one which we don't think about. There is the stage of formal teaching, which must begin some day, and which we think about seriously because we have to pay for it. And there is the long stage of informal learning, the first six years of a child's life, which is not represented in the quarterly account, and is likely to be overlooked altogether. There is the teacher's special time, but there is also the parent's special time, and this comes first in order. There is a little bit of modern psychology which, if fully realized, would materially alter, not only the teacher's attitude towards the pupil, but the parent's attitude toward the teacher. I mean the doctrine of apperception. We are only beginning to understand that the success of the formal teaching depends on the existing content of the mind at the time when the formal teaching begins. If my child takes three terms to understand and do what another child under the same teacher has grasped in one, may I not reasonable ask myself if I have left undone a something that would have made all the difference? In nine cases out of ten this is the case. Either the teacher is scattering seed at random on hard, dry ground, with only a crack here and there in which a grain may chance to take root, or else she is doing the ploughing and preparing which might have been done before. The parent's part of the child's musical education is (if we may express it in Herbartian phrase) "to create a large apperception mass in the direction of music," so that there may be a crowd of ideas ready to seize upon whatever new material the teacher may present, and to assimilate it.

How is this to be done? By paying at least as much attention to ear training as to eye training during the early years. We are told that baby is to be taught to observe, and so we are always saying, "Look, Baby, look." Might we not a little oftener say, "Listen, Baby, listen"? We sing to the little ones to achieve a present purpose--to send them to sleep, and when they can got to sleep without the song we leave off singing. But if we realized that by going on we are laying in a stock of material for future use, we would attend to nursery music as religiously as to nursery diet and hygiene. "But," one mother say, "I cannot sing or play, what am I to do?" Well, in these days, when the Board School child sings more artistically than the High School girl, it surely ought not to be impossible to find a musical nursery-maid who would know it as a part of her duty to sing to the children and with them some of the charming school songs that she knows so well.

The simpler kinds of musical instruments are always a pleasure to little children. First, the little musical box, from which they extract really pretty music by turning a handle, and which will generally do quite half-a-crown's worth of education before it is broken. Later, the dulcimer--if you can find one fairly in tune--will do good work in its way, and a child who is learning sol-fa will readily transfer to one of these simple instruments the equally simple diatonic tunes that he uses in the singing class. Marching to music is very important in sharpening the sense of time, and rhythm may be developed by the use of toy percussion instruments, triangle, tambourine, or little drum, accompanying the piano.

There is not time to say much about the choice of nursery songs, but there is an essential difference between the songs we may sing to children and songs to be sung by children--a difference often overlooked in our anxiety to give them what we call "the best music." When we do give them "the best music," we should take care that the singer is equal to the song.

We must pass on to the teacher's work. The first formal teaching should be done in the singing class, and the singing class must do something more than only teach songs, or the child might as well be in the nursery. Here, if the teaching is of the right sort, the child will begin to do some systematic musical thinking. The ideas he has been storing up through all the early years can be, as it were, brought out and examined and compared, and judgments formed about them. The concrete wholes, which the child call tunes, can be broken up into their elements of pitch and rhythm and you will readily see that the larger the child's experience, the more material he has with which to experiment, the more likely he is to discover those simple natural laws which, when classified and labeled, we call musical theory. All this, if it is done at all, must be done by ear training. It is to the ear that every new effect of pitch or rhythm must be presented, and the ear should be satisfied that a thing is so before that thing is symbolized by a note or labeled with a name. It is the ear that must examine, compare, and judge, and recollect. Next comes the instrumental stage, which we associate with the piano as the best instrument for beginning with. As a special preparation for the technical side of the work there are many exercises for arms, wrists and fingers, that may be used as a part of nursery or Kindergarten drill for a considerable time before a child begins the piano. Exercises, not so much for strengthening the limbs as for giving control over them. Strength is always an advantage, for the weak hand acquires bad habits; but control is far more important than strength. Young children have very little motor control (a few simple experiments will prove this); but teachers are not always acquainted with this physical fact, and little fingers have often had hard raps for not doing that which it was impossible for them to do. Therefore, if a certain amount of finger control can be acquired before the pianoforte lessons begin, it may save tears, it will certainly save time. The advent of the pianoforte teacher is a critical time in the child's musical education. It is, I think, so important that the child himself should clearly understand that in this new departure he is not "beginning to learn music," but only entering on a new stage in his music lessons, and if the teacher does not take the same view of it the child may be puzzled and discouraged. The first step of the pianoforte teacher, as of any other teacher, should be to take stock of the child's existing store of ideas about music generally and about the instrument in particular; to correct whatever ideas may be wrong; to clear up those that are hazy and to fill up gaps; and then to make that existing store of knowledge the starting-point for her own instruction. But the average pianoforte teacher does nothing of this kind--she likes to think of her pupil as a "beginner" who knows nothing at all, and she makes a false start. A beginner in music! There is hardly such a thing to be found. Watch the gutter children dancing to the barrel-organ, and you will say that these at least are not beginners in music. Much less can the term be applied to the children whose ears have been trained in ways such as I have mentioned, still less to children who are having systematic teaching in tonic sol-fa. In these days when so many children are getting their first actual music lessons through sol- fa, it seems a woeful pity that pianoforte teachers are so ignorant of it. Here is a child with quite a little stock of musical truth in his mind which his pianoforte teacher does not know how to utilize. She does not suspect its existence, for how can she find that which she does not know how to look for? Again, it is absolutely necessary to successful teaching to be able to see the matter under consideration in the lesson from the pupil's point of view, and the teacher who cannot review the whole of the child's musical experience is at a serious disadvantage, while the pupil is losing time and power by not being allowed to use his own thinking material. If pianoforte playing were the sole object in view, this would not matter so much. This could be taught, as much of it is taught, merely by imitation. But we want the pianoforte playing to be a means of musical education, and to make sure that it shall be so.

How is the mother, who herself has little knowledge of music, to know whether her child is being musically educated, or only being taught to play? By testing, or seeing that the teacher tests from time to time, the child's growth in independent power. Let me illustrate from another subject. In arithmetic we use a very limited set of symbols--the figures, and the signs which stand for "plus," "minus," "multiplied by," "divided by," "equal to,"-- fourteen little signs in all, yet enough for working most complicated problems. Now if we want to find out whether a child is really learning arithmetic or only "doing sums," we do not enquire what sum he did last, and ask him to reproduce it from memory. We enquire into the lines on which he has been working, we find the sort of problems he has been doing. Then we give him an entirely new question, and we expect him--we expect him, mind you--to find the answer by the application of his previous knowledge; we expect him to be able to use the few arithmetical symbols intelligently, in fresh combination, and as the expression of his mental process. Now in music the number of symbols we us is not large--about 18. But with them, when we have made them our servants, we can express, or we can receive into our minds, the most complicated music. Should we not expect the pupil to use these symbols intelligently, to read them in new and various combinations, to express in notes a rhythm that he hears, or a very simple melody? Surely we ought. Yet a big school- girl will tell you calmly that she has "quite forgotten that piece," and "couldn't get it up again alone." Or if you suggest learning a new one, she "couldn't be sure about the time." As for writing down either time or tune, she has never attempted it. That girl has learnt to play pieces, but she has not been educated musically. The test of musical education is the pupil's growth in independent power. In the case of the arithmetical test, we may not insist on rapid working (which is largely a question of the pupil's personal equation), but we do look for straight thinking and the intelligent use of symbols. So in music, we may not look for rapid reading--sight playing as we call it--(which means musical knowledge plus a naturally quick eye), but we do expect that the pupil shall deal intelligently with new matter, and show a mastery of the symbols employed, in whatever new combinations he may find them. Now a mother who cannot give this test herself can, if she is present at the lesson, judge whether this power of independent working is growing or not. She will see how the pupil tackles a new piece, what preparation is made for it, whether it is analysed before it is read, whether an unexpected combination is explained by the application of previous knowledge or only learnt parrot-wise. She will not above all whether the ear is appealed to in the presentation of new matter, and constantly exercised and made more acute and discriminating. For the longer I live the more convinced I am that in music teaching the key to the whole situation is ear- training, ear-training, ear-training.

Mrs. Steinthal said she would like most heartily to recommend Mrs. Curwen's Child Pianist, and said that her system had been found most successful in practice.

In answer to a question from Mrs. Willis, Mrs. Curwen said that technique requires the living teacher, and cannot be learnt out of a book. She said, in answer to a remark from Lady Jane Taylor, that many people who do not use the vocal organ can yet discriminate between different sounds. Many also play the piano well, but never listen at all, because music is taught through the eye and not through the ear, which was almost as foolish as trying to teach drawing by smell.

Mrs. Howard Glover asked whether Mrs. Curwen realized the amount of time spent on trying to teach music to children who were so "tone- deaf" as to make it impossible to do so? With regard to cultivating an appreciation of music, Mrs. Glover thought that too much was expected from merely taking children to concerts, and that far more good might be done by familiarizing them at home with good music. Mrs. Glover deprecated the modern fashion of teaching children the piano, violin and singing together, or in fact more than one instrument at a time.

Mrs. Curwen said that the piano is the best medium for teaching a child the theory of music easily, and that no time spent in learning the theory on the piano is really wasted, even if another instrument is later taken up. The number of tone deaf children was exceedingly small, but children of little musical ability, who had perhaps talent in other directions, should certainly not be force to waste time in practicing an instrument.