The Necessity for Pre-Keyboard Musical Training

by Henry T. Finck

The Usual Way

The prevalent practice is thus described by a well known musician: “I was taken to the piano by a well meaning old lady, who taught the fingering of the scales and then set me to work to play them industriously for the next six months. I heard no music of any kind except the rumble of the technical cogs as I went running over them. She did not even teach me notation; simply scales, miles of black and while signposts which were supposed to mark the progress of my youthful musical career. If I had only had some music to cheer me along the way it would not have been so terrible, but I had none.”

At The Very Beginning

A well known German teacher, Professor Rudolph Palme, has written a pamphlet which suggests what should be done with pupils during the first month. In announcing this brochure the publishers say: “Nowhere are greater mistakes made than in the first piano lessons. Usually, at the very beginning, a method is placed on the piano, and after a few notes have been taught and keys pointed out, the pupil has to play according to the notes. Three difficulties confront the child at once; he is expected to play after notes of which he as yet knows little; to touch keys the position of which is unfamiliar, and, worst of all, he is asked to play with a correct position of the hand and correct touch, two things which can only be acquired gradually, and with the aid of good instruction. No wonder that there are so many poor players and that many pupils become more and more displeased and finally give up altogether. Many teachers are at a loss how to begin, as none of the piano methods gives special directions.”

Professor Palme’s book, which is full of useful hints, endeavors to supply this want, telling just what to do during the first month. It begins, however, at the piano, and, therefore, does not directly concern our thesis, which is: “What should we teach the child before he is permitted to play?”

A New Field For Teachers

There is a great deal of preliminary work to be done; so much, indeed, that when once this matter is fully understood, an entirely new field of activity will be opened up to teachers, both of playing and of singing.

Why is it that most singers are not such good all-round musicians as the average players? It is because regular training of a boy’s or girl’s voice cannot safely begin before the age of puberty; in the meantime the young folks, unless they happen to be choir boys, learn little, except what they pick up at random or in the scant school exercises, the result being a loss of time which can never be made up.

Lessons on the instruments may begin sooner, yet even for these the age of six is considered the earliest, and, in most cases, it is better to wait until the child is seven or eight years old before it is allowed to “claw the ivory”, as John Fiske used to say, or has a violin but in its hands.

The Significance of Early Control

In other words, the music teacher usually has no control whatever of his future pupils during the first seven or eight years of their life. What a huge blunder this is, is vividly illustrated by the old maxim; “Give me a child during its first seven years and I care not who has it afterwards.”

During these early years a child’s mind is like a photographer’s plates, ready to receive an y impressions for good or evil; and if properly fixed, these impressions are indelible.

During these same years a child learns to speak English, often French and German, too, or some other language spoken by its parents or governess; and all this without effort or taking lessons in grammar.

Why should the child not have a musical “governess”, too, and thus learn the tone language as easily and unconsciously as it learns the word language?

Some children do thus learn it; they are so fortunate as to belong to families in which a musical atmosphere is created by daily singing and playing. the music which children hear in church also has its influence; doubtless one of the main reasons why the Germans are so generally musical is that from childhood they hear the melodius and richly harmonized chorals sung by the congregations.

Value of Singing Machines

to make a child really musical before it begins its regular lessons, more, however, is needed. The boys and girls should hear music, and plenty of it, correctly performed every day, from the very beginning of their life. Families that are able to create their own musical atmosphere are in a minority in this country. Fortunately, a simple remedy is now at hand, the sound reproducing machines.

America is the birthplace of these machines, which do for the ears what photography does for the eyes; and it is not too much to say that, more than any other agency, they will help to make us a musical nation, because they bring good music into every home and make it possible to repeat it over and over and over again, which is the condition of learning to appreciate the best and reject the vulgar.

“But where does the music teacher come in?” the reader may ask. He comes in on the ground floor. His guidance is needed in the selection of good music. As a matter of course many of the “records” prepared for the sound reproducing machines are devoted to the reproduction of popular music.

Teachers cannot remedy this evil at once. There always has been, and probably will be for a long time to come, more demand for trivial and vulgar music than for the best. But the teacher can do much to improve matters. He can go to the parents of the young children and show them this article; or, if he has ti not with him, he can say to them: “You would not, I am sure, deliberately send your little boys and girls to a public or private school where they use cheaply compiled textbooks with vulgar pictures, in preference to textbooks made by leading educators with refined and elevating pictures? Why then run the risk of having their taste spoiled by hearing vulgar music, instead of what is acknowledged to be the best? Let me make phonographic selections for you now, and I will guarantee that when, subsequently, you send your children to me or some other teacher for regular lessons, their progress will be twice as rapid; and instead of dreading their lessons as drudgery, as most children now do, they will look forward to them with eager anticipation.”

Most parents will see the point, and the teacher, having thus gained entrance to the family, can, in scores of other ways, make himself useful in preparing young children of from two to six years of age for the later “keyboard stage” of musical training. What are these other ways?

Making Children Musical

The best teacher for pupils of any grade is the one who can make the work so entertaining that it is not looked on as work at all, but as play. This is particularly important in the earliest stages.

Children are always amused when they have an opportunity in a menagerie to see how the monkeys imitate various gestures made by the spectators; they are too young to realize that they are just as great imitators as these monkeys.

Laura L Plaisted relates in her book, “The Early Education of Children” (Oxford Press), which every teacher who intends to enter this new field ought to read, that she knew a baby of a year old, who hummed an imitation of two street calls in perfect tune “and the impulse to imitate the call of the milkman, the paper man, or other vocal street vendors, seems to be irresistible to the average small child. Thus any familiar sound, such as the bugle call, the horn of the huntsman or of the coach, the chimes of the clock or of the bells, the street cries, or the voices of animals, may be the point of departure for the first lessons in the rudiments of music.”

The earliest lessons much be very short. Mendelssohn’s mother began with five minute lessons when Felix and his sister were very young; and Miss Plaisted says, on this point: “The child cannot concentrate on any one subject for a lengthy period; hence, no lessons for children under seven years of age are, as a rule, more than twenty minutes in duration, and for the young child of four or five years it is seldom advisable to let even a story or a talk continue more than ten or fifteen minutes.”

Very young children are, moreover, long sighted: their eyes are not adapted for seeing things at close range, and they should, therefore, not be asked to use books before the age of six years. Nor should young children be allowed to sing much. There are only about six musical tones in the voice of a child or four, and it is risky to strain it beyond that compass.

A further reason for not beginning systematic music lessons at too early an age is given in a book, entitled “Musical Kindergarten Method for the Nursery and the Classroom”, by Daniel Batchellor and Chas. W. Landon, a book which also contains many other useful hints: “The finger muscles of the fingers are comparatively late in maturing, and we must not expect much control of them in the average child before seven or eight years of age.”

But if they eyes, the vocal cords and the fingers must thus be spared in infancy, the ears are ready for service from the earliest age, and this points the way to the correct method of pre-keyboarding training.

Because of the child’s disposition to imitate the sounds it hears, the best way to begin the education of its ears is to produce for it, with the voice or with toy instruments, the sounds made by various animals it knows, and let it try to imitate them, which it will do gleefully. the next step is to make sounds by tapping on objects made of various materials, iron, wood, tin, porcelain, glass, etc., and, after a few repetitions, let the tiny pupil guess which is which. If there are different instruments in the house, such as piano, organ, guitar, violin, flute, the child can be blindfolded or taken to another room to guess which of them is being played.

There is nothing children like better than guessing games, and in this way they have a good time, while having their attention trained to distinguish, and consciously attend to difference in tone quality. the teacher can bring along needed instruments and thus the child may learn all about the ingredients of orchestral tone colors before it is old enough to take a music lesson in the present sense of the term. Surely a great advantage later on.

In the same playful way rhythm, melody and harmony can by taught.

Definitions are valueless in elementary instruction. You can bully small boys and girls into learning by heart that rhythm is “the systematic grouping of notes with regard to duration”, but they will have no more idea of what it means than would a parrot.

Yet, if the teacher bears in mind that rhythm is what remains of music if you take away melody and harmony, the youngest child can be taught its meaning in a minute. Play for it on the piano, or sing, or let the sound reproducing machine do it, several simple tunes repeatedly till the child knows them by hears. Then eliminate the melody and harmony by tapping the tunes on the table and let him guess which tune it is. “That is what is called the rhythm of the song,” is all that need then be said; and this simple demonstration is worth more than a hundred definitions.

Toy drums can be used for the tapping. Negro tribes living along a river tell those dwelling on the other side all sorts of things by beating the rhythms of different tunes on their drums. A teacher with an imagination can easily devise diverse drum games which will amuse the young ones and develop their rhythmic sense.

The Value of Toys

For getting an infant interested in melody, various toys are of use. Unfortunately, penny whistles, toy trumpets and the like are a nuisance to adults; but there is one toy which has tones so soft that they can hardly annoy anyone, the harmonicas known as the xylophones and metalophones. For educational purposes I regard these as the most useful of all instruments, because they can be played at so early an age.

Place one on the table before the child and show him how to make it sound by hitting it gently with the little stick. He will soon be playing the scale up and down, and this will develop his sense of pitch. Tell him his playing what is called a scale, and the, with a colored pencil, write the letters C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C, on the wooden metallic or glass strips. The child will soon learn to place the tones correctly, and if asked to strike C, E, G, C, or C, F, A, C, he will get an elementary lesson in self made harmony.

Then dictate simple melodies to him, there are plenty that come within the compass of the diatonic scale, letting him first strike the notes as if they were all alike; then show him how much the tune is improved by being played with the correct rhythm. Weeks and months can be devoted to this kind of play, play in both senses of the word; and when the possibilities of these simple instruments are exhausted the teacher can order one of those harmonicas which have a keyboard, the strips being either steel or glass. this will familiarize the pupil with the details of a keyboard years before it is advisable to let him practice on a real piano.

There are many varieties fo those toys. The word harmonica is also used for the drinking glasses, or finger bowls, tuned ad libitum by putting in more or less water an drubbing the moistened fingers across the edge. Under the teacher’s guidance, the continuous tones thus sounded can be used for producing all sorts of chords, thus educating the harmonic sense of the several children helping to make them.

The possibilities afforded by this kind of music may be inferred from the fact that the great composer, Gluck, the Wanger of the Eighteenth century, played in London, in 1746, what was described as “a concerto on twenty six drinking glasses tuned with spring water, accompanied with the whole band, being a new instrument of his own invention, upon which he performs whatever may be done on a violin or harpsichord.”

The celesta is a sort of piano in which the sounds are produced by hammers striking narrow plates of steel. It has a compass of four octaves and has been used effectively by Tschaikowski, Mahler, Strauss and other modern masters. A simplified form of it might easily be made for young children to play on with one or two fingers, so as to make them familiar with the keyboard and the various scales.

In connection with this, a few minutes of each lesson should be devoted to teaching notation. The Germans call the scale a tone ladder, an expression delightfully useful for elementary instruction. Draw a ladder with rungs and half rungs, write on them the names of the notes of the scale and show their correspondence with the keys of the piano. Next, show how these rungs are represented by the lines and spaces of the staff, and there you are! Your pupil, when he is finally advanced to the piano keyboard will no longer be discouraged, as he is by present methods, by being asked to learn and do half a dozen new things at once. He will know the names and sounds of the keys and be able to read at sight, so that he can give his attention chiefly to the problems of hand position and fingering.

Touch, Pedal and Expression

I was going to add “and touch” to the last sentence, but touch also can be profitably taught before the actual keyboard practice begins. Rubinstein, as a child, used to touch a key over and over again till he got the beautiful tone he wanted. Show the child the vast difference between a rude and a soft touch, like the difference between a blow on the back and a soft pat on the cheek. He can learn all about dynamics, from the softest to the loudest, long before he is old enough for five finger exercises.

Most teacher act as if expression were a thing which does not concern young pupils at all, but must be left for the “finishing touches”. It is, on the contrary, a thing which should be taught even in the pre-keyboard stage of education. This can be done with the aid of the sound reproducing machine, which reproduces songs as using by Caruso, Nordica, or other great artists, not only with all the changes in loudness and softness or in pace, but the correct phrasing and individual tone colors; or the teacher herself can do it at the piano, calling the child’s attention to the great difference it makes whether this or that song is played softly or loudly, slowly or fast. Gross exaggeration may at first be needed to convince the child, but it will soon learn. Bulow used this method, caricaturing, with adult pupils, with excellent results.

Another element of musical expression , tone coloring, can be taught in these preliminary years. It is obtained on the piano by a combination of touch and pedaling; and the foot is for this purpose even more important than the hand, because, by pressing down the right pedal, the dampers are lifted and each string struck sets into sympathetic vibration others which enrich the resulting tone. A child cannot reach the pedal if it sits on the piano stool, but it can stand up, put its foot on the pedal, and after a while it cannot fail to notice and be pleased with the greater richness of the one when the damper is raised by pressing the pedal.

Then open the piano and show what happens. The child will also be amused by seeing how the hammers dart up and fall back; and in such ways he can be made to look on the piano as an object of interest instead of an instrument of torture.

It must not be supposed that all this pre-keyboard training is only for future students of the piano. All girls and boys who intend to take up singing at the proper age, or playing the violin or any other instrument will be helped wonderfully by it; not only because every musician should play the piano more or less well, but because all pupils alike need this preliminary instruction, in all its details.

In this brief sketch I have been able, as a matter of course, to indicate only a few of the details. The teachers entering this new field will soon devise many more.