A Celebration of Women Writers

"Piano Playing without Piano Practicing." by Miss Mary Venette Hayes.
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 474-476.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 474] 



In this age of advanced ideas, when the entire system of educating children is being so happily re-constructed, I have noticed with surprise that one evil has apparently escaped the attention of the broad-minded men and women to whose efforts the change of sentiment is largely due, and that is, the injury done to little children by long continued hours of piano practicing.

From my own observation and experience I conclude that our common system of musical training, employed in many music schools and colleges, robs children of more mental and physical strength than can be restored in a lifetime.

A child is placed in a room by itself to master insurmountable difficulties, to play scales and exercises in endless repetition, and to lift its little hands up and down hundreds of times, like an automatic machine, to "strengthen the wrist," as it is called in professional parlance. What wonder, then, that both body and mind suffer under the inaction, the nerves are overstrained by the tiresome and wearying task, and more than all, the wonderful music spirit flies away unnoticed and unsought. The essence of music is not a part of notes, books or instruments; but this is seldom appreciated by the pupil or mentioned by the teacher until in later years, when the struggle to cultivate the musical intelligence becomes exceedingly difficult because of its having been dulled by the repetition of tones without any idea of their power of expression or their value in relation to each other.

The blending of color is most essential to the artistic beauty of a picture. A pink tree in a landscape would immediately excite comment, as also the omission of a feature of the face in a portrait, yet such monstrosities in the interpretation of music scarcely attract attention.

Can not young children be taught to be tone painters? It should be as interesting to a child to study a melody which wholly absorbs its mind as to read a fairy tale. Not only would the musical imagination be stimulated, but because of the melody being all-absorbing, the child would unconsciously learn notes, rhythms and phrasing, just as it should learn to read a book without giving the reading a thought, being so absorbed in the story.

But nowadays children are overwhelmed with difficulties which cramp their mental powers and crush their enthusiasm.

It is not meant that all children should study music–the rose and the wildflower each have their climate and their soil.

If every child who studies music were destined to become an artist, possibly there might be more merit in modern methods, but since only a very small proportion ever [Page 475]  reach this consummation, the sacrifice required to secure a technical training which is afterward entirely lost, must be considered comparatively useless.

If instead of the long hours of practicing the child's attention was directed to the importance of listening to music and studying its history, as well as the various works of the great masters, and the interpretation of their ideas, its musical intelligence would develop as a flower unfolds, and the child though unable to execute on any instrument, would nevertheless be an artist and a musician.

It is a mistaken idea to believe classical music may not be appreciated by a child. I was convinced of this when taking a little girl seven years of age to a rehearsal of the Apollo Club, it being the first chorus or music of the kind she had ever heard. She was greatly interested throughout the entire performance, and that same evening at home sung several measures of the chorus perfectly. She, of course, had an exceptional memory, but as we all know, it is "the exception that proves the rule."

Even in the hope of becoming a virtuoso more rapid and intelligent progress would undoubtedly be made by devoting more time during the first years of study to musical analysis.

Having been greatly interested in the latent musical ability of children, believing the inadequacy of present methods responsible for its slow development, I determined to prove the truth of my theories by putting them into practical execution, and so chose a class where my ideas would not be restricted to methods which I did not approve. As many others in emergency, I turned to Miss Jane Addams, of the Hull House, who found the class for me at once, and has since been its chief friend, providing a room in which to meet and doing all in her power to contribute to its success.

When hearing the children had no pianos in their homes, I greatly doubted the success of the experiment, but the thirty eager faces that appeared in response to Miss Addams' call reassured me, as I realized that this was the opportunity for discovering what could be accomplished without practicing. Their ignorance was perfect for my purpose, the majority never having touched a piano, and not having the least idea how to move the fingers from one key to another. Having but one piano at our disposal, we were obliged to substitute something else with which to accomplish our work, and began by playing simple technical exercises on a table, or anything that would support the hand, sometimes singing the tones and sometimes accompanied with the piano, in order to learn rhythm and melody simultaneously. In this way an excellent idea of pitch was soon acquired, which will be illustrated later.

Two little girls in the class said they committed their first piece of music while they were putting the house in order, Anna singing the treble and Regina the alto until they knew it, and afterward were able to play it quite intelligently, thus proving the value of technical work in memorizing is greatly overestimated. Some of the pupils have committed an entire piece of music to memory before playing it upon the piano, showing that even hearing the tone is unnecessary to an intelligent understanding of a composition.

When we first began the class was so large and the time so limited in which to teach it, that on each lesson day not more than half of the children were able to reach the piano; consequently it became necessary to have them all come together in order that each might have the opportunity of receiving at least some benefit by hearing the instruction given to the others. This subsequently developed into one of the most valuable features of the class. The strict attention given by the children was all that could be desired, and each unconsciously became capable of criticising intelligently. Sometimes when the younger children were playing, the older girls would read the life of a composer in an adjoining room, telling it to the class in their own language on their return. They are now drawing the likenesses of various composers and also making busts of them in clay.

Wishing to avoid the usual relations of teacher and pupil, I encouraged the children to form a club. They made their own rules (which, by the way, had nothing whatever to do with music–prohibiting whispering, the chewing of gum, etc.) and chose their own name, the Paderewski Club. [Page 476] 

During the week the children collect from the newspapers any clippings in regard to music that interest them and these are pasted by the secretary in a scrap-book.

The spirit shown by the children toward each other has always been most generous and friendly, and I have often trembled for fear that their simple unconsciousness might be disturbed. For this reason we continue with our work, whatever it may be, no matter how many visitors enter the room. In pursuance of this idea, I did not tell the children of my plan to bring them to the Woman's Building, but in their search for clippings they discovered the announcement and brought it with mingled surprise and delight to the scrap-book when they met, as they supposed, for a lesson. I have discovered accidentally that several of them are teaching pupils in their own neighborhood, an excellent illustration that their studies are not irksome; a proof of the point they care but little for light music is the fact that they have exhausted the entire stock of classical music of a music dealer near the Hull House; thirty-three pieces of six-cent music being the first music the club has been able to buy itself. It has heretofore had no choice of music whatever, having been obliged to use any that could be secured for merely a song, because of its being soiled or otherwise unsalable. However, in spite of every obstacle, at the end of six months they were playing as well as many children supposedly practicing two hours a day.

As one of our musical papers said not long ago: "Many of the mistakes of the pupil are directly attributable to the teacher's inability to see things from the pupil's standpoint." This is one reason so many of the world's distinguished men were considered failures at school. The eminent teacher, Albrechtberg, said of Beethoven: "He will never come to anything," simply because Beethoven could not study music from his standpoint.

Rubinstein expressed a belief not long ago that music is passing through a crisis of deterioration in composition, though he admitted at the same time that technic has taken gigantic strides; and that technical training is in the ascendency is to be deplored, as many composers and otherwise talented musicians are driven from their field of labor through failure to appreciate that virtuosity is not the most essential element in the development of musicianship. Miss Caruthers illustrated this point in a most interesting manner at the Woman's Musical Congress of the World's Congress Auxiliary, which convened recently at the Art Palace.

It is the musical intelligence that makes expression and guides technical ability, and music is not found through weary hours of struggling with technic. As one of our greatest American poets has said:

"The infinite always is silent,
It is only the finite speaks;
Our words are the idle wave caps
On a deep that never breaks,
We question with wand of Science,
Explain, decide and discuss;
But only in meditation,
Doth music speak to us."

[Page 474] 

Miss Mary Venette Hayes was born in Chicago, Ill. Her parents were Americans. She was educated in Chicago. Miss Hayes is engaged in the development of the musical intelligence of children. Her work in this line is meeting with great success and attracting wide attention. Her postoffice address is No. 189 Cass Street, Chicago. Ill.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Kelly McDonald.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom