A Plea for More Rational Teaching (1914)

By Perlee V Jervis

An address delivered in the Piano Conference at the Convention of the New York State Music Teachers’ Association, Saratoga, N.Y., June 18th, 1914

[Mr. Perlee V. Jervis, one of the most gifted of our American teachers, received his training entirely in this country. For many years he was associated with Dr. William Mason,-EDITOR OF THE ETUDE.]
Out of the thousands who study the piano it would be illuminating to know how many take any lively interest in their music. Probably a very small percentage, if the testimony of parents is to be accepted.

I still retain very vivid recollections of my early music study. I will never forget those horrible exercises; that thick book, which I was supposed to go through before being allowed to study a piece of real music; that irritable teacher sitting by my side, ready to pounce down upon me at the slightest mistake.

My knuckles still tingle at the remembrance of sundry raps from her pencil. She has passed to her reward-peace to her ashes-but her genus is not entirely extinct.

Just why a musical child should not be allowed to derive pleasure from his music study is an inscrutable mystery. Why he is not strongly interested will perhaps be apparent when we consider some of the methods by which he is taught.
The usual procedure is somewhat after this fashion. After being taught the notes in the treble clef, the young student is introduced to an instruction book, from which he plays exercises or other technical forms, the notation for both hands being in the treble clef. After a more or less extended period of such study he attempts to learn the notes in the bass clef. Now he finds he must reconstruct all his thinking. He has learned that the first line in the treble clef is E, he cannot understand why the same line in the bass clef is G. He is at once plunged into confusion, from which it takes some time to extricate him. But his troubles have only begun-he has still to learn the notes and rests, and their relative value, time and key signatures.

A dozen other things go to make up a complicated task for a young mind-and an older one, too, for that matter-and still no music.
Now, perhaps, follows a course in table exercises, and if he escape that, he cannot get away from those at the keyboard-and still no music.

But better times are ahead. After he has “done time” on this technical drill the teacher brings him a piece-perhaps such a master work as a Kuhlau sonatina! His waning interest is rekindled, and he sets to work with more or less enthusiasm. Alas! The golden fruit turns to ashes in his mouth. The coveted piece turns out to have no tune to it, or nothing that a child considers a tune. As a young friend of mine expressed it, “It’s punk!”

Perhaps the process described has taken six months or more, usually more, and real music seems farther off than ever. Our young pupil, his interest all gone, then either settles down as a patient beast of burden, or openly or covertly rebels, and refuses to practice. If this picture appear overdrawn, take a poll of your young friends. You will get some illuminating answers.


The average child is a living interrogation point. He delights in asking questions, particularly if the teacher cannot answer them. He also delights in finding out things himself. Bearing these things in mind, why not teach both clefs at the same time? In doing this the eleven line staff can be used, the added C line between the bass and treble staves serving as a bridge to connect them. After explaining the alphabetical succession of the notes, it is only necessary to tell any ordinarily intelligent child the location of G on the lowest line of the bass staff; let him find all the other notes himself.

As there will be no mental confusion he will do this easily in one lesson. Now to familiarize him with the notes lie may be given a tuneful little piece there are many such in which both clefs are used and asked to learn, without help, each hand separately; later, hands together. Under the impulse of a strong interest it is surprising how quickly this will be done. “But,” says some one, “the pupil knows nothing of time or note values.” He can learn all that is necessary to the piece in hand as he goes along. We do not insist that a child should be familiar with the rules of grammar before allowing him to read; he learns to read quickly in puzzling out an interesting story. Let us use as much common sense in music study. Again, some one exclaims, “A pupil cannot learn to play without exercises.” To which it may be replied that thousands never learn to play with them. Exercises have their place, but not here-we are studying notation and getting the pupil interested. Once get him strongly interested and keep him so, and you can do what you will with him. When the first piece has been learned give the pupil another and a tuneful one. This process may be continued through life, the pupil learning what is necessary as he needs it, instead of being crammed with a multitude of details before he is allowed to make real music. The point to be strongly emphasized is, that the child should teach himself; if he is led to do this it will be easy to interest him. Madam Montessori has proved this to us. The reason music study is distasteful to so many pupils is because it is made so. Many teachers are so bound hand and foot by tradition that they are afraid to run counter to it. “What will Mrs. Grundy say?” Tradition and Mrs. Grundy are excellent things, but common sense and psychological insight are much better. One can learn to swim more quickly and pleasurably in the water than by going through the technical movements on the floor. So the best way to interest a child in music study is to do it at first by giving him music, not technic. We study with enthusiasm what intensely interests us how can we expect our pupils to do otherwise? Once excite the pupil’s interest by a beautiful piece, and he will, in most cases, put upon it an amount of hard work impossible to secure in any other way, and this will be interested work a vital point.


The average teacher can divide his pupils into two groups those who take lessons because they are fond of music, and those who study because their parents oblige them to. The majority of these pupils, owing to pressure of school studies, can practice only an hour a day. Now, as far as these two classes are concerned, what should be the object of music teaching? As I conceive it, it should be to inspire pupils with a love for and an appreciation of the beautiful in music, and to enable theirs, by their own performance of an art work, to enjoy one of the highest and most elevating pleasures given to man. This deep love for music can only be developed through the study of music seldom or never through the study of technic. Technic is not to be sneered at. Without it an artistic performance is impossible. The player needs all he can possibly get, and then some. The question is, how to get it without, at the same time, killing the love for music.

What does the average teacher do to develop a love for music? The pupil longs for music-he is given soul-deadening exercises; he asks for bread and is given a stone. Is it any wonder that he becomes disgusted and refuses to practice? The average methods of teaching are opposed to nearly all sound principles of psychology. While the teachers in our schools, through the obligatory study of psychology, have progressed and are using up-to-date methods, the average music teacher is still wedded to the methods of his forefathers, many of which violate every psychological law. The old teaching viewed a child’s mind as something passive an empty receptacle, into which ideas could be somehow crammed. A more rational teaching recognizes the fact that in educating a child’s mind we have to call forth, by the presentation of suitable stimuli, certain appropriate reactions; in other words, we must excite the child’s self activity.


The teacher must understand and adapt his methods to unalterable facts and laws. He must know the laws of mental growth, and harmonize his course of procedure with these. He can only act upon the child’s mind with real educational effect when he understands his proper modes of activity and the natural order of the unfolding of its powers, and when he adjusts the several parts of his method of training to these. The basic law of mental development is that rapidity and thoroughness in the acquisition of knowledge are in direct ratio to the intensity of interest in the subject of study. The first aim of the educator, therefore, should be to secure what the psychologists term “interested attention.”
Sully says: “When it is said that we give our fixed attention only to what interests us strongly, it will be seen that interested attention is under the sway of feeling. Therefore the production of pleasure in connection with any mode of activity, tends to intensify this activity. A pleasurable feeling, excited by the object itself, is a state of mind most favorable to a mastery of what is presented. It is the state of mind which the wise teacher seeks to produce in his pupils.”
Shakespeare, “the myriad-minded,” with his usual wonderful prescience, seems to have anticipated this psychological law when he makes Tranio say:
“No profit grows where is no pleasure ta’en, In brief, sir, study what you most affect.”

Here, then, is the teacher’s problem. How shall he awaken intensity of interest on the part of the pupil? How shall he enable the pupil to derive such pleasure from the study of music, that the practice hour ceases to be a thorn in the flesh.
Now the average teacher must choose between making his pupils good exercise players or good piece players. He can seldom do both. What the world wants is good piece players. Probably no one will dispute the statement that without technic there can be no artistic playing. I believe in the highest possible development of technic, but it must be a technic that enables the pupil to play a composition with a musical touch, exquisite shading, beautiful tone coloring, artistic pedaling, and warmth of feeling. Will the daily exercise grind that many pupils are forced to go through develop such a technic? Possibly, though the rarity of musical playing would seem to negative the answer.

The question as to how far exercise practice per se is necessary to the acquisition of an artistic technic has interested me for many years. After long experience I have reached certain conclusions which have been proved true for me, although they may run counter to tradition, and to popularly accepted beliefs. A few of these conclusions follow:


FIRST-That the most musical players are those made through the study of music, not mechanics; that the effort to realize a musical concept often results in the acquisition of technic without the aid of many of the mechanical exercises generally supposed to be indispensable.

SECOND—That no two pupils can be developed in exactly the same way. Each pupil must be studied anal treated individually. Yet how many piano students, victims of a “method,” are being put through the same technical routine, whether they need it or not, with the result that all love for music is killed, and disgust substituted therefore!

THIRD-That the musical and technical should go hand-in-hand, and never be separated in the practice. Why is so much piano playing often lacking in musical value? Is it not because, in the struggle to acquire technic, pupils have divorced it from music, forgetting that technic is not the ability to play the greatest number of notes in the shortest possible time?

FOURTH-That the only exercises indispensable to the daily practice are those that, uniting the musical and mechanical, embody the vital principles upon which a musical technic depends.

FIFTH-That much time is often wasted in the doing of unnecessary things, for instance, in the whole range of piano literature, how rarely, in proportion to the vast number of compositions, do scale passages occur? In Schumann and some of the later composers, not at all. One can study hundreds of the most beautiful pieces, ranging from the easiest to the most difficult, without ever encountering a scale passage. What is the sense, then, of forcing the pupil to practice scales for so many hours? Undoubtedly scale practice, when properly done, imparts to the playing certain qualities of fluency, neatness and consistency. But how many teachers get the average pupil to practice scales properly, that is, with the mind concentrated and the ear ever on the alert in the effort to realize beautiful tone and perfect equality? Very few. What the pupil does realize, in many cases, is ennui, disgust and aversion to practice. Five minutes daily of properly done scale practice will add more to the technic than hours of what passes for practice. From time immemorial students have followed the traditional prescription, “Play scales so many minutes, arpeggios so many, exercises so many,” etc. The wise student will do no such thing, but will find out what is absolutely necessary, and cut out the rest. Josef Hofmann, in his book, Piano Playing, says: “A half hour daily, kept up for a year, is enough for anyone to learn to play one’s exercises. And if one can play them, why should one keep everlastingly on playing them? Can anybody explain without reflecting on one’s sanity, why one should persist in playing them? Play good compositions and construe out of them your own technical exercises.”

Now the teacher’s business should be to develop the pupil’s love for music, and make him play as musically as possible. One or two hours daily of exercise work certainly does not tend to accomplish this result. I know of many pupils who have been obliged to practice technical work for months before being allowed to study a piece. One girl was given a piece only after two years of exercise study. Is it any wonder that she hated music? Many years ago I resolved to reduce the exercise practice to a minimum, and get the technical development from the study of pieces carefully chosen for that purpose. The results were surprising. Pupils manifested such an interest in their work that the practice problem solved itself. More gratifying still was the gain in musical playing which resulted. In thus making use of pieces the teacher must thoroughly understand the few vital principles which underlie all technic, and apply them in the making of technical studies out of passages from the piece itself.


At least fifty per cent. of piano study is brain power, twenty-five per cent, is knowing how, the other twenty five per cent is actual practice.

Three vital principles of technic are muscular looseness, space measurement and tone grouping. By looseness is meant that in playing only the muscles actually in use should be in action-all others should be in a state of absolute repose. In the forearm are two sets of large muscles, the extensors, lying on the upper side of the arm, and the flexors, lying on the under side. The extensors open the hand, raise the fingers, and also elevate the hand on the wrist joint. The flexors pull down the fingers and close the hand. In raising a finger, muscular contraction should be confined to the extensor of that one finger-the extensors of the other fingers, as well as the flexors of all the fingers, should he completely at rest. With the average player, when one extensor contracts to raise a finger, all the other extensors, and the flexors as well, also contract,  through muscular sympathy. Thus one set of muscles pulls against the other, -much like boys in a “tug-of-war,” with the result that independence and freedom of finger action are almost impossible. This contraction extends, under different conditions, to the muscles of the upper arm, shoulders, back and waist, and beauty of tone, as well as ease in playing, are impossible. Loosening up the muscles and keeping those that are not in action in a state of repose often magically removes technical difficulties-particularly those due to contraction. A large percentage of faults and difficulties can be traced to wrong muscular conditions.

I have had a number of blind pupils, all of whom have impressed me by the accuracy of their playing, as well as by the comparative ease and rapidity with which they brought a piece up to the required tempo. In interrogating them as to their method of study in all cases it was found that they possessed apparently a sixth sense. This sense may be called that of space measurement, or the gauging of keyboard distances by a certain indefinable but clearly marked muscular feeling. That this sense was not necessarily peculiar to the blind was evident from the fact that every good organist finds his pedals by this sense of feeling. Another fact that impressed me at the time was that two of my pupils, who were rapid typewriters, had learned to manipulate the machine with the keys covered by a screen. If the organist, the typist, and the blind could train this sense, why could not the pianist? Experiments covering a period of several years yielded such gratifying results that all pupils are now required to practice part of the time with the keys covered. These experiments have proved conclusively to me that this sense of space measurement is a factor in the solution of technical difficulties, the immense importance of which has not been realized by the majority of players and teachers.


Every muscular movement that we make carries with it a tendency to repetition. With each successive repetition this tendency becomes stronger, till, after a sufficient number of performances, the movement takes on the character of automatic or reflex action. Every movement tends by repeated performance thus to grow easier, involving less of close attention and conscious effort. It is in the case of a series of movements that this automatic or reflex action is most commonly seen. For instance, in writing, we give no conscious thought to the different movements involved in forming the letters and joining them together in words. Each member of the series, when executed, induces its successor, and the whole chain of movements becomes automatic. This is equally true in regard to walking, swimming, bicycling and similar physical action, and it will be found that all things that we do most easily and perfectly are done automatically or subconsciously.

The best piano playing is largely, if not entirely, a matter of subconscious action. The more closely it approaches the automatic stage, the more perfect it becomes, other things being equal. The mind, being freed from the consideration of mechanical details, can be concentrated upon the musical expression; in fact, expressive playing is possible in no other way. Again, in reading a book we do not spell the words letter by letter: the mind takes no cognizance of letters at all. A word is the unit of thought, and in reading rapidly we often are unconscious even of words as the mind grasps a phrase in its entirety. The up-to-date teacher, applying this psychological principle, teaches the child to read in a fraction of the time required by the old method.

By the old method of piano study, still current, a piece is played through slowly. From day to clay an effort is made to increase the speed, till eventually the proper tempo is reached. This happens, if at all, only after weeks, months, or years of practice. Inability to play at the required speed is laid to deficient technic, and the pupil is given some more exercises. A knowledge of the psychological basis of piano playing will show that in a majority of cases failure to attain speed is due, not to lack of technic, but to wrong mental and muscular conditions. In increasing the speed gradually the player usually commits the fatal mistake of spelling his musical words letter by letter, instead of thinking them in groups. It will be evident that in reading a book by spelling every word a letter at a time we can never attain a speed greater than that at which we can pronounce each letter. Group the letters into words and pronounce only the latter, and without extra effort there is an instantaneous gain in speed. The only limit to this speed is the rapidity with which the words can be pronounced. Just so in playing a rapid passage to a piece, it is only possible to reach a high rate of speed when the mind grasps the entire series of tones as a unit, and loses consciousness of the single constituent tones.

Building on this psychological principle we may develop subconscious playing from the very start. Taking the piece passage by passage we may teach the pupil to group tones into larger and larger unities, till in response to the initial impulse these are played through automatically and without conscious thought. Thus a speed is at once attained which, by the old methods, is arrived at only after weeks or months of practice. At the same time, the player, without any effort to do so, finds that he has memorized the piece, for playing from memory is, in the last analysis, largely a matter of automatic or reflex action. As an illustration of how technical study may be obtained from a piece, take the well-known Paderewski Menuet. In this composition are such technical forms as finger work, trills, scales, arpeggios, octaves and chords. As an example of technical treatment take the run on the second page, which, it will be seen, is the scale of G major. This scale can be practiced with accents in such a way as to necessitate thirteen repetitions. Practice with different degrees of power, such as forte, piano, crescendo, etc., necessitates nine repetitions; velocity study, twenty repetitions more. Here are forty-two repetitions, each one totally different from all the others. A performance of these requires concentrated thought, which is of vital importance in all correct practice. How many pupils can be induced to make forty-two repetitions of a scale every day?
Yet pupils rarely object to the former method. Often they do not realize how many repetitions they are making, and again, they feel that they have something to show for their work, something that can be played for their friends. This is not the case with exercises or scales. All the other technical forms in the menuet can be given the same treatment. The resulting technic is a live and musical one, in contradistinction to the technic, often dead and unmusical, which is gained from exercises.
Now we may answer the question asked earlier, How shall we interest our pupils? Certainly not by making their study a bugbear to them, but by leading them to feel that music is a “living thing of beauty and a joy forever.” To do this, the dry tones of technic will have to be kept well in the background at first. We do not give one an idea of a living, beautiful human form by making him study a skeleton, however necessary the skeleton may be to the form. Begin with the musical end first ; let the technical end follow. This may violate orthodox traditions, but it is singularly successful in producing interested pupils, musical players, and lovers of music. The whole story may be summed up in this: when we take lessons, music is the real thing, and method merely a servant to bring us to music. Therefore, let us avoid labyrinthine and perplexing routines.