To a great extent it must be admitted that there is no royal road to success in the learning of any business or recreation. At the same time, however, there are various methods which, if carefully borne in mind and practised, cannot fail to prove of value to those who will study them.
In particular, this rather trite remark applies with great force to the art of playing the piano, for, so far as pianoforte-playing is concerned, the acquisition of a good, not to say perfect, mechanism is of great importance, as, without it, it is impossible to give anything like adequate expression to real talent and culture.
Musical talent is a gift -let every student bear that fact in mind; while, on the other hand, mechanism is an acquirement, the successful study Of which calls for that "infinite capacity for taking pains," in which words that indescribable quality "genius" has been so aptly described.
I am strongly of the; opinion that the chief reason which makes the piano the most difficult of all instruments to play well lies in the fact that, unlike the violin, which becomes almost a living creature even in the Lands of an amateur, the piano is a material instrument, made of wood and steel and by the scientific calculation of man. But, alas ! it lacks altogether that living individuality which is such a striking characteristic in-well, a Stradivarius violin, for example.
After all, there is no attribute of man, other than speech, to which music is quite so much akin. On that account, even to the greatest piano-players, it must always be a continual struggle as to how best to overcome the drawbacks of the material element in the piano-in other words, to make this instrument "speak," for sound that conveys no real meaning to the brain must inevitably resemble an inconsequent flow of empty words, which fall heedlessly on the ear, leaving little or no impression behind them.
Happily, however, as some slight compensation for this great drawback, the piano possesses a certain adjunct which, if handled properly, goes far to bridge over the gap that divides the inanimate from the living. That adjunct is the pedal. And 1 would earnestly counsel young pianists desirous of producing lasting and satisfying impressions when playing to devote
Mr. Mark Hambourg, the famous pianist. who gives herewith special hints on piano playing to readers of
The Arts their most strenuous energies to a careful study of " the possibilities " of the pedal, by whose help alone can hard outlines be rounded off and soft tones be blended the one into another. No less a master than Rubenstein was wont to call the pedal the soul of the piano-a definition which cannot fail to appeal to every advanced student.
With regard to "touch," I am well aware that many people will tell you that it is entirely a natural gift. This, however, is not quite so. Touch is certainly an asset which can be acquired, although, obviously, some people are blessed with hands physically disposed to be more flexible and responsive to training than those of others, and on that account the gift Nature has bestowed upon them enables them to arrive more easily at that beauty of tone which their less bountifully endowed brothers and sisters can acquire only after long and protracted labour.
The Acquirement of a "Touch"
Still, I am none the less convinced that all intelligent students of the piano can obtain a fine touch if only they possess sufficient continuity of purpose to devote that amount of time and thought which its acquirement calls for. Experience has taught me that thus far, and thus far only, does Nature come into the matter-that some people possess "natural" hands, and others hands which by arduous training can be made "natural."
What is the secret of a fine touch? It lies a great deal from a practical point of view in the preserving of an absolutely flexible wrist when striking the notes, and, in a lesser degree, in effects of rhythm. By this I mean careful observance of the exact time one note should be held on before relapsing it for the next one. So far as the ear of the listener is concerned, these lengthenings cannot be consciously detected, for they are, of course, measured only in the merest fraction of seconds, and on that account the effects the pianist strenuously endeavours to produce may be said to be brought about entirely by subconscious means.
It has frequently occurred to me that many players, if their methods of playing can be taken as a true guide, cherish the belief that, in playing, the fingers should assume the shape of a hammer. Many teachers believe that the fingers should be lifted high when striking the keys, but I do not agree with this.
No. On the contrary, I have found that the higher the finger falls, the less power has the pianist to control the force with which the key is touched. Of a great pianist, now long dead, a critic once wrote: "The notes seemed to just ripple off his finger-ends with scarcely any perceptible motion." Why was this so? Simply because this pianist, instead of striking the keys with an uncontrollable force from a height, poised them from a short distance, and so could regulate the force of his touch. It has always seemed to me that the principal reason why the results of years of study are small with many students of talent lies in the manner of teaching, and subsequent practice. Much too early in this study the pupil often is occupied in learning pianoforte compositions of all sorts and kinds without obtaining any material improvement in that all-important quality-his technique. No; if really ambitious and intelligent pianoforte students would be content to learn fewer pieces, and to devote more of their time to technical study, they would acquire a command and mastery over the keyboard which later on could not fail to prove a gift of priceless value.
The cultivation of a good memory is an invaluable asset in the making of the efficient pianist. Personally, I have found the following a wonderfully useful method of getting music indelibly printed on the brain-to choose the evening for the study of some particular piece; then, having committed it roughiy to memory, to retire to bed, and there mentally go over the whole work once more, not slurring over a single passage, but thinking it carefully over note by note, chord by chord, as if actually playing it. The next morning, after a little practice, those who follow this method will find that the music which was new to them the night before has become almost as familiar as an old friend. Another essential point to remember is-never learn more than eight bars at a time.
"What composer's music is best adapted for developing the memory?" is a question the careful student is sure to be called upon to answer. Well, in my opinion, there is no composer whose works are so admirably fitted for developing the memory and, at the same time, encouraging a perfect independence of thought and execution as those of Bach. In these are to be found the most complicated forms of polyphonic writing, where the mind must ever be on the alert to decipher the many different voices, each of which possesses its own individual working.
And now let me warn the beginner not to be discouraged by the lighter contretemps which beset an artist. These are, after all, inseparable from every career. In my own case, I well remember a certain occasion when the wrong music arrived at the last minute at the concert. I was right on the platform, preparing to strike the first chord, when, at the last minute, the leader of the orchestra, inspired by a merciful Providence, leaned forward and whispered to the conductor that the band had got the wrong music on their desks.
Some untoward happenings, however, fall to the lot of every performer some time or other, and the young one must learn not to be disconcerted, but be ready for every emergency and face the situation with coolness and self-possession.
The Arts inspiring career; to the less fortunate many, a struggle full of miseries and disappointments; at all times a life of arduous labour, both physical and mental.
Therefore, to parents who turn to the piano to make a future for their child, and to people who rush with enthusiasm into the profession under the delusion that there is much fame and glory to be obtained with little hard work, to such one must say: "Do not be deceived into thinking of it as an easy life." For one cannot help feeling really sad when one hears of the very large batches of young students who, their first training finished with honours at the numerous conservatoires of Europe, are thrown upon life every year, all certain of success, thinking, each one, that, at any rate, he or she is going to set the world on fire; and then one observes that, of all these thousands, few ever arrive at more than just making two ends meet during the rest of their careers. I think in the artistic callings, more even than in other professions, it is imperative that there should exist in him who wishes to follow such paths a real inborn disposition and natural talent. No cleverness can make up for their absence, no power of brain or capacity for hard work. They are the spring, without which the artist's work dries up and comes to nothing in the end.
It seems that a really clever man with a fine brain can distinguish himself in most other vocations according as circumstances may lead him. For instance, a great lawyer can be a successful Minister of State in whatever department he may be called upon to work; but it is rare that any artist arrives at a great eminence by superior intellect alone. On the contrary, some of the greatest of them have not, I think, been exactly what one would term extremely clever people in the ordinary sense of the word. The mind of the artist must be endowed with imagination more than intellect, instinctive understanding of human emotions before logic, personal magnetism rather than clear reason.
Therefore, I would earnestly insist on the advisability of the aspiring candidate making quite certain that he or she possesses decided talent before venturing on the steep path of a pianist's career, for I have no doubt that, had this question of disposition been considered more seriously, in many cases much misery, bitterness, and disappointment might have been avoided to musicians. Optimists say that there is room in the world for everybody, and perhaps it is so; but even the strongest must receive a great many hard knocks, bruises, and blows before he can even find a standing place. When once he is there, moreover, he has to keep there, and this is not easy in these days of keen competition. Mark Hambourg.