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Simplicity of Piano Teachig

Simplicity of Piano Teachig


One of the busiest of New York piano teachers, whose list of students taking private lessons in a season, almost touches the hundred mark, is Mrs. Agnes Morgan. Mrs. Morgan has been laboring in this field for more than two decades, with ever increasing success. And yet so quietly and unobtrusively is all this accomplished, that the world only knows of the teacher through the work done by her pupils. The teacher has now risen to the point where she can pick and choose her own pupils, which is a great comfort to her, for it dispels much of the drudgery of piano teaching, and is one of the reasons why she loves her work.

When one teaches from nine in the morning till after six every day of the season, it is not easy to find a leisure hour in which to discuss means and methods. By a fortunate chance, however, such an interview was recently possible.

The questions had been borne in upon me: By what art or influence has this teacher attracted so large a following? What is it which brings to her side not only the society girl but the serious art-student and young teacher? What is the magnet which draws so many pupils to her that five assistants are needed to prepare those who are not yet ready to profit by her instruction? When I came in touch with this modest, unassuming woman, who greeted me with simple cordiality, and spoke with quiet dignity of her work, I felt that the only magnet was the ability to impart definite ideas in the simplest possible way.

“Dr. William Mason, with whom I studied,” began Mrs. Morgan, “used to say that a musical touch was born, not made; but I have found it possible to so instruct a pupil that she can make as beautiful a tone as can be made; even a child can do this. The whole secret lies in arm and wrist relaxation, with arched hand, and firm nail joint.


“I feel that Dr. Mason himself was the one who made me see the reason of things. I had always played more or less brilliantly, for technic came rather easy to me. I had studied in Leipsic, where I may say I learned little or nothing about the principles of piano playing, but only ‘crammed’ a great number of difficult compositions. I had been with Moszkowski also; but it was really Dr. Mason, an American teacher, who first set me thinking. I began to think so earnestly about the reason for doing things that I often argued the points out with him, until he would laugh and say, ‘You go one way and I go another, but we both reach the same point in the end.’ And from that time I have gone on and on until I have evolved my own system of doing things. A teacher cannot stand still. I would be a fool not to profit by the experience gained through each pupil, for each one is a separate study. This has been a growth of perhaps twenty-five years—as the result of my effort to present the subject of piano technic in the most concise form. I have been constantly learning what is not essential, and what can be omitted.


“Simplicity Is the keynote of my work. I try to teach only the essentials. There are so many études and studies that are good, Czerny, for instance, is splendid. I believe in it all, but there is not time for much of it. So with Bach. I approve of studying everything we have of his for piano, from the ‘Little Pieces’ up to the big Preludes and Fugues. Whenever I can I use Bach. But here again we have not time to use as much of Bach as we should like. Still I do the best I can. Even with those who have not a great deal of time to practise, I get in a Bach Invention whenever possible.

“When a new pupil comes who is just starting, or has been badly taught, she must of course begin with hand formation. She learns to form the arch of the hand and secure firm finger joints, especially the nail joint. I form the hand away from the piano, at a table. Nothing can be done toward playing till these things are accomplished. I often have pupils who have been playing difficult music for years, and who consider themselves far advanced. When I show them some of these simple things, they consider them far too easy until they find they cannot do them. Sometimes nothing can be done with such pupils until they are willing to get right down to rock bottom, and learn how to form the hand. As to the length of time required, it depends on the mentality of the pupil and the kind of hand. Some hands are naturally very soft and flabby, and of course it is more difficult to render them strong.


“When the arch of the hand is formed, we cultivate intelligent movement in the finger tips, and for this we must have a strong, dependable nail joint. Of course young students must have knuckle action of the fingers, but I disapprove of fingers being raised too high. As we advance, and the nail joint becomes firmer and more controlled, there is not so great need for much finger action. Velocity is acquired by less and less action of the fingers; force is gained by allowing arm weight to rest on the fingers; lightness and delicacy by taking the arm weight off the fingers—holding it back.

“I use no instruction books for technical drill, but give my own exercises, or select them from various sources. Certain principles must govern the daily practise, from the first. When they are mastered in simple forms later work is only development. Loose wrist exercises, in octaves, sixths, or other forms, should form a part of the daily routine. So should scale playing, for I am a firm believer in scales of all kinds. Chords are an important item of practise. How few students, uninstructed in their principles, ever play good chords? They either flap the hand down from the wrist, with a weak, thin tone, or else they play with stiff, high wrists and arms, making a hard, harsh tone. In neither case do they use any arm weight. It often takes some time to make them see the principles of arm weight and finger grasp.


“Another point which does not receive the attention it deserves is pedaling. Few students have a true idea of the technic of the foot on the pedal. They seem to know only one way to use the damper pedal, and that is to come down hard on it, perhaps giving it a thump at the same time. I give special preparatory exercises for pedal use. Placing the heel on the floor, and the forepart of the foot on the pedal, they learn to make one depression with every stroke of the metronome; when this can be done with ease, then two depressions to the beat, and so on. In this exercise the pedal is not pressed fully down; on the contrary there is but a slight depression; this vibration on the pedal has the effect of a constant shimmering of light upon the tones, which is very beautiful.” Here the artist illustrated most convincingly with a portion of a Chopin Prelude. “One needs a flexible ankle to use the pedal properly; indeed the ankle should be as pliant as the wrist. I know of no one else who uses the pedal in just this fashion; so I feel as though I had discovered it.

“Yes, I have numbers of pupils among society people; girls who go out a good deal and yet find time to practise a couple hours a day. The present tendency of the wealthy is to take a far more serious view of music study than was formerly the case. They feel its uplifting and ennobling influence, respect its teachers, and endeavor to do carefully and well whatever they attempt.

“While necessary and important, the technical foundation is after all but a small part compared to the training for rhythmic sense, and for the knowledge of how to produce good and beautiful results in musical interpretation.”


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