HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES ON PIANO PRACTICE

The Etude Magazine, 1899 - 1957

A report given to the National Pedagogy Conference, Chicago, IL, October 1996


Dr. Virginia Houser, Kansas State University

The Etude magazine was the primary publication for piano teachers during its years of existence from the late 1800's through the early 1960's. The publication's description of itself in the early 1900's reveals its wide influence-- "Our best readers are those at the top of the profession, and, on the other hand, there are teachers in the remote districts that owe almost everything they know to The Etude".

The Etude reflects prevailing attitudes toward music during the early decades of this century. Music study was highly valued and performance oriented. The best teachers were sought out, especially those who had developed some kind of performing career and/or had studied abroad, preferably with a famous pedagogue (connections to Liszt were particularly prized and touted). As such, the teacher was the unquestionable authority whose primary task was to present the information to the student in the lesson. Responsibility for successful practice was placed primarily on the shoulders of the student and home environment was supported by the parents (mainly Mother). "Many and many a fine moment of ...fruitful practice has been rendered useless by the stinging touch of interruption...Parents, put the piano in a quiet room for your children to practice , and see to it that the thermometer is not one notch below 70 degrees Fahrenheit..." (Feb, 1899, p. 35).

In those early days, practice was closely tied to character development in the young student -- "Musical practice has the power to form and to perfect the character of a faithful student" (April 1899, p. 113). This was especially important to the middle class families eager to enhance their social standing; transformation of an indolent pupil to a hardworking one through piano study was a bright portent for future success in the world.

Virtuosi disseminated their views of practicing through The Etude. Anton Rubenstein said in an interview that "practice is not practice unless done in slow tempo" (March 1899, p. 81). There was, however, occasional disagreement between teachers and artist performers. A Miss Benedict in 1902 wrote that she disagreed with Josef Hofman's ideas that setting certain hours for practice goes against creativity and that a player should be ready to play at any hour. Her suggestions for the aspiring student were to set aside regular time (preferably four hours daily) for systematic work.

Practice was considered so important in the early 1900's that various gadgets and devices were advertised with endorsements from artists enabling would-be performers to practice away from the piano. Silent practice claviers were touted as "the most perfect scientific aid ever devised" for practice (Virgil Practice Clavier advertisement, Feb 1903, p. 78). The Bidwell Pocket Hand Exerciser was a set of straps designed to strengthen the hands and fingers using the feet as an anchor --"save time, money, nerves, temper... twenty minutes daily before regular practice is better than two hours extra keyboard work... prepare for concerts in fifteen minutes beforehand" (March 1899, p. 169).

Around 1903, teachers began to assume more responsibility for the success of their student's practice. "Use the lesson time, if necessary, to practice with the pupil" (Jervis, March 1903, p. 99), one teacher advised. Another teacher noted, "The well-worn exclamation of 'you do not practice enough', is gradually becoming obsolete and the more sensible and rational expression, 'you do not practice correctly', is taking its place" (Murray, Oct 1903, p. 408). Elsewhere in that issue, a teacher admonishes others to make the work interesting for the student, again indicating a growing shift toward more teacher responsibility for effective practice.

By 1914 the publication is filled with suggestions for more effective practice. Emil Sauer, the famous performer and pedagogue, wrote that his practice method for students included presenting interesting musical problems to the student in the lesson; giving the student a detailed work plan; and had them analyze their pieces beforehand. An independent teacher advocated slow practice; (hands separately at first), and then careful practice for fifteen minutes several times a day. She also advised parents that practice time should not be used as punishment.

Of course, traditional notions continued to persist alongside the new progressive ones. For example, repetition was still viewed by many to be a key to successful practice. One writer suggested, "Place two boxes on the piano, one empty and one with 500 beans. For every repetition, place a bean in the [initially empty] box. After finished and rested, start again"(Unger, Aug 1914, p. 576). Almost twenty years later, this view of repetitive practice persisted. The pedagogue George Liebling wrote, "Musicians were known in former times as light-hearted people of 'nonsense or no sense at all'. But today, they must think... and accomplish... times are gone forever when they are considered vagabonds. Therefore, practicing must be developed as an art.... Practicing is hard labor... many repetitions... use the morning hours"(Leibling, July 1931, p. 471).

By the late 1950's, the general philosophy on practice had evolved into a more balanced approach -- a collaborative effort between student, parent, and teacher. Interestingly, technology was embraced as a motivator for practice, as evidenced by the advent of electronic small radio-tube keyboards that could be installed on an acoustic piano. An advertisement in the January, 1950 issue of The Etude reads: "How to ease the punishment of practice" -- with a picture showing the installation of a 'Lowrey organo' on a piano (advertisement, p. 66). Throughout its existance, The Etude remained a source of current and progressive ideas on piano practice and performance.

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This page was last updated November 4, 1996